Blazing Saddles (1974)    3 Stars

“Never give a saga an even break!”

Billy Two Hats (1974)

Director: Mel Brooks

Cast: Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Slim Pickens

Synopsis: To ruin a western town, a corrupt political boss appoints a black sheriff, who promptly becomes his most formidable adversary.

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There’s no doubt that a movie like Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles could never be made today. In fact, the older it gets the more politically incorrect it becomes. TV stations, if they dare to screen Blazing Saddles at all, routinely bleep out the words that they consider offensive, and internet message boards for the movie are awash with impassioned debates about its content. In fact Blazing Saddles could easily find a second life as a barometer by which we can measure how our perception of just what is culturally acceptable has changed in the years since its release. Whether it’s Hedley Lamarr’s potential henchman enthusing over how he ‘likes rape’, the stereotypical depiction of limp-wristed gays, or the liberal use of the word ‘nigger’, Blazing Saddles really is the movie with something to offend everyone.

But is Blazing Saddles funny? Well yeah, actually, it is. It’s very funny, and its’ silly humour bridges generations. I remember seeing this when I was a teenager, and being astounded by the spectacle of my normally strait-laced gran almost wetting herself with laughter over the farting cowboys scene. Of course, it helps if you’re not completely immersed in the PC culture that diminishes its own credibility by insisting (quite rightly) that not only do we not discriminate against ethnic minorities but (quite wrongly) that we mustn’t even acknowledge that there is any difference in the colour of their skin or the nature of their perspective on the world. It’s a shame, really, that many of those who advocate a worthy cause dilute their effectiveness by believing their convictions allow no room for a sense of humour.

The film takes place in the old post-civil war West, in a town called Rock Ridge which has the misfortune of being situated in the way of a proposed railway line. State attorney Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) tries to drive out the good folk of Rock Ridge by sending in his sidekick Taggart (Slim Pickens — Dr Strangelove, The Howling) and a gang of roughnecks to terrorise them, but his actions only result in the townsfolk demanding the appointment of a new sheriff. Refusing to be outmanoeuvred, Hedley Lamarr persuades the Governor (Mel Brooks) to appoint Bart (Cleavon Little), a black railroad worker due to be hanged for assault, as sheriff. Lamarr is convinced the appointment of Bart will be the last straw, but with the help of The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), a recovering alcoholic gunslinger, Bart slowly brings the townsfolk around.

There’s definitely something of the manic humour of the Marx Brothers about Blazing Saddles, although it’s updated to incorporate the aforementioned humour which, although offensive to some, should be considered in its context. The rape connoisseur is a figure of evil, waiting in line with Nazi soldiers and Ku Klux Klan members, and those who use the unmentionable ‘N’ word are figures of ridicule. Paradoxically, the humour retains a freshness despite its familiarity, thanks perhaps to its shameless riffing on genre classics such as Rio Bravo, and the unbridled enthusiasm with which the cast members enter into the fun. Madeline Kahn (Paper Moon, City Heat), in particular, is superb as Lilli Von Shtupp, a saloon singer modelled on Marlene Dietriche in Destry Rides Again, while Harvey Korman provides a marvellously smarmy villain in the manipulative Hedley Lamarr. The madcap pace never lets up for a minute as it heads towards its wonderfully incongruous conclusion, and even if it should there’s always Gene Wilder’s strangely animated hairstyle to marvel upon.

(Reviewed 26th March 2014)