By Jonathan Lawrence
CALGARY – The opening credits of Blazing Saddles suggest that this is standard Western fare: a folksy song plays with lyrics extolling the hero of the story alongside images of a lonesome, rugged countryside. It’s quite apparent, however, that this is no Sergio Leone film when a group of African-American railroad workers, led by Bart (Cleavon Little), begin singing a Cole Porter tune rather than the slave song their white oppressors demanded (it hadn’t even been written at the time the story takes place). Make no mistake – this is pure Mel Brooks. Expect plenty of absurdist humour with a bevy of wordplay, visual gags and anachronisms. Blazing Saddles was a groundbreaking comedy for its time and it was nominated for several Academy Awards.
When Bart, the wide-eyed and charismatic worker, is appointed sheriff of a small town as part of a conspiracy by the villainous Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) to pillage and steal more land (There is one thing that stands between me and that property,” Lamarr proclaims: “the rightful owners.”), he is met with some resistance, given that Bart is black and the town is all white. Of course, that is simply part of Lamarr’s grand scheme.
Fortunately there’s at least one guy in the hostile frontier on Bart’s side, a drunkard with a quick hand named Jim (played magnificently by Gene Wilder), otherwise known as the Waco Kid. (“The fastest hands in the West,” says Bart. “In the world,” Jim retorts). The two quickly form a bond over liquor and chess, and their interactions are both entertaining and insightful. Bart is an optimist, but Jim knows better. “What did you expect, ‘welcome sonny’?” he says after an unassuming elderly woman viciously cusses out Bart.
For both younger audiences and new viewers of the film, perhaps what’s most striking about Blazing Saddles is its use of language. Characters are blatantly racist and sexist. While the character depictions are an obvious satire of barbaric beliefs held during the late nineteenth-century, it also feels like this script could have only been pulled off in the 1970s. It’s safe to say that Blazing Saddles’ themes of racism, while sadly still as relevant now as they were in the ‘70s, would be much more toned down and subtle if it were produced today. While many comedies today do try to poke fun at those issues, it’s certainly more obvious as a joke now than it was 40 years ago. Whether or not that’s a good thing, the message comes across as more hard-hitting in Brooks’ vision.
There’s no doubt Brooks was inspired by the absurdness of Monty Python, which is no more evident than during the film’s conclusion. Not to give anything away (has anyone not seen it by now?), the ending fully embraces the film’s surreal and farcical nature, which, by default, makes it by far the most enjoyable part. The significance of the plot thus far is essentially thrown out the window; likely a commentary regarding the virtue of parody plotlines.
Blazing Saddles will be shown at the Plaza Theatre on July 2, so come celebrate Canada Day weekend, Rock Ridge-style. You can choose between tickets for a dinner at the Container Bar followed by a screening of the film, or you can simply purchase tickets for the film. Bowen Island Beer and Lone Tree Cider will be served during the film for that extra viewing pleasure. If you haven’t seen this comedy classic, or simply want to view it on the big screen with friends and other fans, make sure to buy tickets now, as they’re selling out quicker than you can snap your whip.
One Night Only presents Blazing Saddles at the Plaza Theatre (Calgary) on July 2.Blazing Saddles, Plaza Theatre