It’s so long since Mel Brooks made a film which was even vaguely worth watching that seeing Blazing Saddles again is a slightly weird experience. It’s just as funny as it ever was and maybe even funnier, because along with the big scenes you remember there are a host of incidental details and individual one-liners that you’d forgotten. But it’s also a little bit sad to reflect that Brooks has spent so much of the intervening thirty years dissipating his comic talent.
The plot is loosely constructed and very simple. In order to snatch land for a profitable railroad, corrupt state attorney Hedley Lamarr (Korman) sends a raiding party into the small town of Rock Ridge. When they complain about their treatment and call for him to send them a sheriff, he comes up with an ingenious plan – to send them a sheriff that they will so detest that he will be run out of town. The man chosen is Bart (Little), a black prisoner. Initially, he is hated by the townspeople but an unlikely alliance with washed-up gunfighter the Waco Kid (Wilder) leads him to become far more successful than he could have hoped.
Blazing Saddles was written by committee, in the same style as the 1950s TV show ‘Your Show of Shows’, and the end product reflects this. It’s a hugely inventive film but its also somewhat scattershot and can come over a just a little bit exhausting. Brooks and his team of writers – including an on the verge of fame Richard Pryor and the writer-director Andrew Bergman – aren’t satisfied to merely parody Westerns, although this gives them a good deal of mileage. They have their sights set on something higher, a full-scale expose of the idiocy of racial prejudice. Obviously, the deck is stacked in the Stanley Kramer manner of ensuring that the black hero is so nice and clearly unobjectionable that anyone who dislikes him automatically comes across as an idiot. But the comic framework does allow Brooks rather more latitude than he would have been permitted in a serious film and certainly more than would have been acceptable in a Krameresque ‘liberal’ drama. In particular, the use of the word ‘nigger’ is defused by the absurdity of the people who say it and is so patently depicted as ‘A BAD THING’ that it’s impossible to see anyone except ultra-PC types taking exception at it. I imagine that the inclusion of Richard Pryor on the writing team gave a certain licence to use frank language. There is an amusing comment on the word itself included in the film . Mel Brooks’ Governor is about to use the offending noun but breaks off at “ni” when he finds that he’s talking to Bart by mistake. When he repeats the sentence to Hedley, he still says “ni”. There’s also a kick included by Bart’s own self-parody. At one point he does a dead-on impression of Willie Best and when trying to entrap a couple of white-sheeted Klan members, he says “Where da white women at ?”
There are plenty of other comic targets of course. The prim respectability of ‘good citizens’ is constantly pierced with high intentioned talk suddenly ending in vulgarity – the best example being the hymn which ends by saying “There’s no avoiding this conclusion, our town is turning into shit.” The town preacher, played by the marvellous Liam Dunn, gets the best of this especially in his climactic plea to God – “Oh Lord, do we have the strength to carry on this mighty task in one night ? Or are we just jerking off ?” There’s also the archetypal sweet little old lady who is first seen being beaten by two desperados – “Have you ever seen such cruelty ?” – and then delights in saying to Bart, “Up yours nigger!” This goes hand in hand with the clear-eyed view of small town rectitude concealing institutionalised racism but it’s still very satisfying when, in the final hour, the townspeople all rally around their new Sheriff. This is just one famous Western cliche which makes its way into the film and the script is packed with references to famous genre actors – notably Richard Dix and Randolph Scott – and visual references which fans will adore. There’s are also explicit references to a range of other beloved icons, from Marlene Dietrich to The Treasure of The Sierra Madre. Particularly to be cherished is Frankie Laine's title song, full of mock-heroic overstatement and idiotic whip lashes - although if you listen to the lyrics, they do give a reasonably accurate summary of the film's plot.
Most interesting, and probably closest to the anarchic heart of Brooks, is the post-modernism which slowly infuses every scene. At first, it’s just Hedley Lamarr talking to the audience – “Where would I find such a man ? Why am I asking you ?” – but then it becomes clear that this is going to be one of the main comic thrusts of the film. When Hedley complains about being called Hedy Lamarr, the Governor says, “What you worried about ? This is 1874, you’ll be able to sue her !” and, in one of my favourite moments, Hedley (who seems to have stepped straight out of the Nixon White House) says to his mercenary army, “You are about to embark on a great crusade to stamp out runaway decency in the West. Now, you will only be risking your lives, whilst I will be risking an almost certain Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor”. It’s not unusual for a film to comment on the fact that it’s a film – where would Godard be without such a technique – but it was still relatively rare in 1973 for a mainstream comedy film to go quite so far over the edge into self-reference. This postmodernism also allows Brooks to digress into some of his favourite areas. Nazis appear, albeit briefly, and even Hitler makes an appearance – “They lose me after the bunker scene”. The chaotic climax as the film explodes its boundaries and invades the entire Warner Brothers lot, which I love but is generally considered a failure, allows him to include a full-scale musical number choreographed by Dom De Luise’s Buddy Bizarre and, as a sideline, to engage in the kind of ‘sissy’ humour that used to make vaudeville audiences scream with laughter. Slim Pickens’ response to being told that Buddy’s is a closed set is to deck Buddy, saying “Piss on you. I’m working for Mel Brooks!” At the end, the characters go to see themselves in the film – a concept which must have had French post-structuralists green with envy – and Wilder comments, “I hope it’s a happy ending”.
None of this would work without a strong cast however and its the casting which makes Blazing Saddles as ageless a comedy as any I can recall. Cleavon Little is maybe not as edgy as Richard Pryor, the original choice, would have been but he’s charming and delivers his lines with verve and he has enough star presence to hold the film together in the scrappy middle section. He’s well matched with Gene Wilder as the Waco Kid. The part was written for an aged alcoholic (a Gig Young type) but Wilder’s almost supernaturally relaxed performance is an ideal contrast to the noisiness of the rest of the movie. His first lines are wonderfully dry – “My name is Jim but my friends call me.... Jim” – and his worn-out decency adds an edge of dramatic conviction to a film which is otherwise pure sketch comedy. However, if you’re going to do sketch comedy then you need great comic presences and Harvey Korman and a very sexy Madeleine Kahn supply these to perfection. Mel Brooks himself is slightly disappointing in the very broadly written role of the Governor but I very much like his Jewish Indian Chief. The rest of the cast is made up of familiar faces, many of whom appeared in straight Westerns around this time – David Huddlestone is familiar from Bad Company - while TV fans will enjoy the presence of John Hillerman, better known as Higgins in “Magnum P.I.” I particularly like seeing Slim Pickens, one of the great Western stock players, here demonstrating an unsuspected skill with absurd comedy.
I’m willing to agree with critics that Blazing Saddles is a very messy and vulgar film but its vulgarity has a cathartic joy which I find genuinely life-enhancing. If Mel Brooks isn’t vulgar and slightly shocking to middle-class sensibilities then he doesn’t have a focus and there are moments here which really are revolutionary – the famous ‘campfire scene’, which you’re bound to recall, really did break down a small barrier and probably led the way to Animal House. The film looks nice enough thanks to Joseph Biroc’s excellent widescreen cinematography and it’s great to see the film in its proper ratio. However, some of the scenes are badly staged and static, relying on the energy of the performers and the invention of the script to keep audience interest. Brooks would improve as a filmmaker and his next movie Young Frankenstein is a lot more confident. But Blazing Saddles, for all its messiness and loose ends, is hilariously funny and in blissful bad taste and, for that, I salute it.
Blazing Saddles was originally released in the UK back in 1999 and offered a good interview with Mel Brooks but only a mediocre transfer. This new Special Edition improves matters on the transfer front and includes some good extras, although one of them a “scene specific commentary with Mel Brooks”, is suspiciously familiar...
The film is transferred in its original Panavision ratio of 2.35:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s an exceptionally good transfer which I would be hard pressed to seriously fault. There is some very slight print damage evident in places but otherwise this is a very solid effort with strong colours, plenty of detail and no obvious defects.
The soundtrack is not quite so pleasing. You’ll notice that I haven’t given it a mark out of 10 and this is because of my policy of not giving marks where the original soundtrack of the film is not included. Blazing Saddles was made in mono but that original track is not on the disc. As I’ve said before, I regard the remixing of mono films as bad a trend as colourisation and as such I won’t bother to rate the track. However, for those of you who aren’t as concerned about this as I am, you’ll be pleased to learn that this is a reasonable track. Not much use is made of the .1 LFE and the surrounds aren’t exactly overworked either. The music spreads over the channels in a manner which I find distracting and artificial and the dialogue is largely confined to the centre channel. So what we have is the usual compromise between mono and surround and it ends up being unsatisfactory. A similar problem is evident in the recent R2 release of Meet Me In St Louis. If Warners provided the restored original mono track as an option then I’d be quite happy.
The extras are a mixed bag. Firstly, the supposed scene specific commentary doesn’t exist. This is the same 55 minute piece from Mel Brooks, talking about the production of the film without reference to on-screen events, which was on the 1999 disc. It’s good fun and a lot better than most of Brooks’ other commentary tracks which are far too incoherent to sit through. However, Warners really shouldn’t be advertising this as scene-specific because it patently isn’t. Nor are the featurettes the ‘blazingly boffo’ experiences promised by the sleeve. “Back In The Saddle” is a 25 minute making-of which spends too much time on extracts from the film and not enough examining how it was made. Nice interviews don’t entirely atone for this, although its very nice to see Gene Wilder again. The four minute extract from “Intimate Portrait: Madeleine Kahn” barely rates as a documentary and a far better tribute to the much-missed star would have been the inclusion of the whole hour long piece. The additional scenes consist of outtakes and alternative scenes which were added for the censored TV showings and are nothing special, nor is the theatrical trailer anything to get excited about. Most interesting for fans of the film is the inclusion of the pilot for the TV spin-off show “Black Bart” which never made it to a series. It’s easy to see why – it’s hopeless. Lou Gossett Jr adds a certain dignity to the central role but the support players are horribly miscast and the script contains no funny lines or inventive situations.
The film is divided into 26 chapters and there are a range of subtitles for the film but none for the extra features.
I first saw Blazing Saddles in a mega-value cinema double bill with Monty Python and the Holy Grail and I’m pleased to say that watching it still fills me with pleasure. It’s not the greatest comedy film ever made but I think it’s one of the funniest. Warner’s new DVD offers a good transfer but the extras are pretty mediocre by current SE standards and the misleading package statement about the commentary is a cheap shot.
The 30th Anniversary Edition of Blazing Saddles is released to buy from Warner DVD on the 19th July 2004
Mike Sutton has reviewed the upcoming Warner R2 release of Blazing Saddles: The 30th Anniversary Edition. A very funny film of course but the disc leaves something to be desired as far as the extras as concerned.