This year is the 40th anniversary of the release of Blazing Saddles, a film full of cheap gags, puns, drug jokes, and sophomoric humor, including the famous farting campfire scene. It also is a smart satire of racism and prejudice. A reflexive film, one that breaks out of its own sound stage and spills across the studio, its meta-technique isn’t a gimmick or stylistic trick, but an incisive critique of the film industry itself. Mel Brooks isn't satirizing the West, but Westerns and the way they have constructed “the West.” In doing so, he emphasizes the racism that has been a persistent component of that mythic construction. As he puts it, “the engine that runs Blazing Saddles is hatred and race prejudice.” Serious stuff for a movie with an on-going joke confusing Hedley Lamarr and Hedy.
From the beginning, Brooks’ intentions are clear. The whites in power are idiotic. They demand, using racial slurs, that the blacks working on the railroad sing good old work songs. They not only want the workers to work, but to act out stereotypes. They want to control their labor and their identity. When Bart sings Cole Porter’s “I Get No Kick from Champagne,” Lyle, the white boss, is bewildered and suggests “The Camptown Races” instead. The black workers feign ignorance, so he gets down and sings it himself, complete with a ridiculous dance which the other whites mimic.
Those in authority – the law makers – are either corrupt or child-like. Either way, they are intolerant, narrow-minded, and depraved while the “common people” are racist and in-bred (all of the citizens of Rockridge are Johnsons). They spout and admire “authentic frontier gibberish.”
The slapstick of some of the humor can make it easy to overlook the film’s skillful artifice. When Bart, who has become the sheriff of Rockridge, meets the Waco Kid, the Kid is hanging upside from his bunk. He literally has the opposite viewpoint and vision of those around him. He doesn’t see the world or Bart as the people of Rockridge do. Bart asks, “Are we awake?” and the Kid replies, “We’re not sure. Are we black?” He then says, “We’re awake, but we’re very puzzled.” The use of the first person plural – we – unifies them, and whereas everyone else, including the old ladies, address Bart using racial slurs, the Kid doesn’t.
When Bart asks the Kid if he needs any help, he says, “Oh, all I can get.” The townspeople too need help. They’ve begged the governor for a sheriff, then they’re scandalized and appalled by the person he sends. As the Kid tells Bart, “What did you expect? Welcome, sonny? Make yourself at home? Marry my daughter? You've got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know... morons.”
The friendship of Bart and the Kid, the respect and admiration they have for one another, is the core of the film, and it argues for the possibility of breaking out of the damaging, imprisoning, stories, and telling new ones. I want to believe this, and, most days, I do. Just as most of the time, I believe satire can be a weapon for change. But, as the daily headlines show, some stories keep repeating themselves.
Genres are easy to parody, but as Stephen Colbert has said “satire is parody with a point.” Forty years later the point of Blazing Saddles – the pervasive prejudice of our story-telling and American mythologies – still stings.