Nearly 4 years ago I revisited Blazing Saddles (1974) that was before I really understood it beyond the surface level reading of the film which is perfectly valid. However the more I have read about the Western genre, the more I can understand this comedy Western, which I’m sure is still the most profitable of the genre, reaching beyond the male dominated audience to reach one far broader who would never usually seek out a Cowboy film.
So lets remember what I discovered originally (briefly) before moving on to a darker and in-depth
- The fart joke – “Of course Saddles was the first film to feature a fart joke, which again i found hilarious, yet for different reasons, as many films depicted cowboys camping, sitting around a fire eating beans, which must if you think about it create a lot of wind if that is all you eat for a while. Acting as not just a joke but a great comment on the genre, something that you wouldn’t first think about.”
- Black Sheriff – “The major flipping of convention is the casting of an African American in the lead role and as the sheriff (Cleavon Little) placing him in a world that is still coming to terms the emancipation of slaves, especially in the South, which as we see took it hard, not with a second agenda that is never revealed to the people of Rock Ridge when Bart is made sheriff by rail-road baron Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) (not to be confused with Hedy Lamarr) makes him sheriff of a town ear-marked for demolition by the workers for the laying of more track. A clever way’s needed to scare of the people, without buying the land which would be a long drawn out process.”
- Flat-pack town – “Everything about the genre is more rigorously challenging the conventions of the genre more than the earlier Cat Ballou (1965) which was more introvert in it’s exploration. A very big gag that’s played out to fool the enemy before they finally enter the town is to build a replica of fronts to recreate the town, down to the smallest detail. The very aesthetic of the genre’s mocked. The fourth walls broken many times, something that very few films do, and something Brooks has done time again to great success.”
Now moving to a more political angle of the film which Westerns have been used time and again to reflect the thinking of modern American politics both at home and abroad. The Vietnam War may have been over for a few years and troops now home, however the nation was still reeling from the images and the trauma that’s brought home with the veterans of what was a national shame. So take the politics of the war and spread it across the Wild West.
The war on Communism becomes the spreading the railway from East to West, the latest stretch reaching just outside Rock Ridge a small town in the way of progress, or the progress in the form that modern America wants. That’s not before we meet our soon to be Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) who along with other railroad workers do not play-up to the stereotypes that the genre and cinema have reinforced, singing a modern American standard, in the face of an ol’ time tune by the white Americans who are the idiots. The perception of the others underestimated, much like the 5 stages communist occupation, that the Eisenhower administration started out with being used by the North Vietnamese were using, taking China’s lead, instead of considering that is could be adapted for their own culture.
Moving forward past the N***** jokes which still hit, playing up the ignorance of the white town, afraid of the until then (1874) freed slaves. There is a town meeting, the second that they have in the film. Where the leaders of the town stand there is a board, all Johnson’s, with different initials, it’s the same regime under a different member of the family that has gone unquestioned for seemingly decades or centuries, this is the norm of the town, a black Sheriff, a foreigner coming into, supposed to infiltrate in the guise of law enforcement from the enemy soon becomes an ally. It’s like the soldiers over in Vietnam who saw the madness joined in with the natives and fought back. It’s treason but acceptable in the Wild West where.
Bart and Jim (The Waco Kid) (Gene Wilder) see past the sides they are supposed to be upon, defined by politics, genre and history to take on the corrupt establishment. This time the power-mad Headly Lemar (Harvey Korman) and the puppet Governor William J. Lepetomane (Mel Brooks) who dreams of the higher office. It’s all about strategy, using power to overcome the other. The new sheriff and old gunslinger whose cleaned up his act come together and work on a plan that will fool the railroad men along with the hired guns that are sent into do the job they don’t want to do themselves. They can’t buy the land, it must be taken with force, reflecting the government not being able to talk or sway the Vietnamese of the South from not adopting communism.
So the plan, build a duplicate of the town of Rock Ridge that will fool the incoming army (a band of misfits, criminals, Nazi’s, bandito’s, rapists, all the scum of the earth coming together and do what the railroad won’t to, kill. The replica takes the language of the classic Hollywood back-lot literally, building town fronts (in one night) with the help of defective railroad workers – African-Americans and Chinese who put their differences aside for this act. The replica they build along with wooden people are accepted, fooling the mercenaries. This is the jungle the natural habitat of the Vietcong who know and understand their environment better than any foreign soldier who enters. They can fool them, allowing a few to die, the native has the upper hand throughout. It’s a genius piece of writing and satire, combining the genre that tears up and puts back together the country in a different with the conventions of warfare in the jungle.
- Moving onto my last point of this film, I find the ending in a new light, I previously found the breaking of the fourth wall to be too much “I did and still don’t like the ending that sees the cast of the film breaking away from their world of the west into that of the black-lot’s which then makes you aware that you are watching actors playing roles. Is this about how the fights in the films never got so out of hand they spilled over into other productions. The line between the reality of the film and our reality is never healed, the damage is done so why bother or try to return to what was. Something that still bothers me, becoming a comment on the reality of films that I have never liked, even in the Looney Tunes cartoons that had self-aware characters who spoke to the audience, yet that was far more apart of their appeal, to engage and entertain the audience by talking directly with them. I find that still disconcerting.”
Now I see it in a different light, as the world of the screen breaks into the real world, or that of the fabricated real world which we have been digesting for the course of the film. This could be taken further to the images of the then War in Vietnam which had been recently brought home. This is a film that wants to show up the illusions, reveal the truth of the mayhem of it all, that you can’t get away from what you have watched. Those who create the images have no idea what is really going on, as much as they stick to the plot it now unfolds closer to home, the fourth wall is not just broken its smashed into tiny pieces.
Looking back at this film for now the third time I finally get what this film is all about, on one level it’s all American, all about celebrating a genre which has shown overtime how flexible and durable it in when it comes to mocking it. It’s also one of the smartest films you can watch, if you get passed the gags which you could be found on the floor at times.