Blazing Saddles (1974)
Written by Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, and Al Uger
Directed by Mel Brooks
There is a statement on Twitter from right-wing ideologies that due to the fabricated idea of “cancel culture,” a film like Blazing Saddles couldn’t be made today. I am confident that anyone saying that hasn’t ever watched the movie or their viewing was when they were a child, and they’ve forgotten most of it. Blazing Saddles may not be able to be made today, not because we are more sensitive to racism, but rather because the system responsible for making movies doesn’t want to produce anything that will elicit genuine emotion from their audiences anymore. Blazing Saddles is one of the strongest anti-racist films I’ve ever seen, one that centers on the experiences of its Black protagonist and doesn’t pull punches on showing the white establishment as complete assholes.
The town of Rock Ridge stands in the way of the railroad. The territorial attorney general Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) realizes this will make Rock Ridge worth millions and wants to force them out before they realize this. He sends in a gang of thugs to terrorize the town, and the citizens of Rock Ridge demand the governor (Mel Brooks) send them a new sheriff. Lamarr persuades the governor to send them Bart (Cleavon Little), a Black railroad worker about to be executed for assaulting a white man. Bart shows up and is obviously met with horror by the racist townsfolk, but he’s made a pledge to protect them, and by god, he will. Hope is found in a white ally named The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), an alcoholic gunslinger who has seen better days. Bart and The Waco Kid take on the power of the railroad and the state to save a bunch of ungrateful crackers and succeed through the classic Mel Brooks-style of comedy.
Blazing Saddles began life as Tex-x, a script written by Andrew Bergman doing a play on Malcolm X’s name. The film went so far as to cast characters. James Earl Jones would play the sheriff while Alan Arkin would direct. As things so often do in Hollywood, the production fell apart and was canceled. Mel Brooks came across the script shortly after and saw a lot of potential in Bergman’s foundation. Brooks decided that it should be 1874; by way of 1974, modern sensibilities and ideas about race overlayed onto the most American of film genres, the western. His main rule to the group of writers he hired to flesh out the script was, “Please do not write a polite script.” I think this sentiment could be used to argue why no Hollywood studio would make Blazing Saddles. In their feeding frenzy to vacuum up every possible dollar on the planet, corporations seek to make the blandest inoffensive media, not to cater to “liberals” but to tiptoe around the sensitive fee-fees of conservative snowflakes.
Blazing Saddles is, at its core, a story about how a Black man ultimately makes a fool out of every white asshole in his vicinity and still saves their lives. No one in the script has more character than Bart, a man who is true to his word, kind and ultimately stands up for himself if pushed back against. The story could easily have let The Waco Kid act as a co-star to Bart, and I think many people may remember it that way. However, it’s simply not the case; Cleavon Little is THE star of this film. Wilder is a highly talented supporting player in the story. Bart gets the girl, Lili von Shtupp (Madeline Khan), a white burlesque performer. The Waco Kid does not have a love interest. The villains in the film are white wealthy men. Funny enough, Brooks first went to John Wayne to star as The Waco Kid, but the actor rejected it for the film being “too blue.” Wayne was the king of reactionaries, so I don’t think he would have been a good fit anyway.
The entire premise of Blazing Saddles is how stupid white people are underestimating the intelligence and casting aspersions on the intentions of Black people. Because he is Black, Bart has become a malleable person, bending to the winds of change. First, he’s a railroad worker/arguably enslaved person, then he’s set to be executed, then he’s promoted to the sheriff. Not once does Bart break a sweat. He’s become used to a life without stability, so he rolls with the cards life deals him. Contrast that with the citizens of Rock Ridge who flail about, unable to deal with much of anything. Or look at Hedley Lamarr and his henchmen and the way they stumble about, unable to keep up with or understand the quick-wit of Bart.
So, back to that original statement, “They could make Blazing Saddles today.” They are right. In a world focused on pleasing all demographics, in a nation growing increasingly reactionary & right-wing as it becomes consumed by a hollow culture war, a movie like Blazing Saddles couldn’t be made without Tucker Carlson and his fellow ideologies losing their collective shit over it. Mel Brooks’ comedy endures because it strikes hard against the establishment. It’s a point of view with no problems skewering those in power and having a damn good laugh at their expense.