This year marks the release of the 40th anniversary DVD of the classic comedy Blazing Saddles, directed by the incomparable Mel Brooks. If you were too young to have seen it in 1974, it is difficult to grasp just how outrageous and daring it was at that time; and if you were old enough to see it then, it is sobering to realize that Blazing Saddles couldn’t get made today.
Starring Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, and Young Frankenstein’s Madeline Kahn, who actually earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for the film, Blazing Saddles is set in 1874 in the American West. A proposed railroad is coming through the little town of Rock Ridge, and a conniving politician played by the hilarious Harvey Korman wants to drive out the citizens so he can buy up the land cheaply. As part of his plan, Korman sends them a new “sheriff,” black convict Bart (Cleavon Little), expecting the bigoted citizens to be so repulsed that they’ll move out or kill him – either way, Korman wins.
But Bart bonds with an alcoholic gunslinger, the Waco Kid (Wilder), and they win the hearts of the townspeople and turn the tables on Korman and his henchmen. Along the way, it is – as the late Roger Ebert praised it in his 4-star review – “a crazed grabbag of a movie that does everything to keep us laughing except hit us over the head with a rubber chicken.” In its pre-PC era, it was bursting at the seams with jokes about rape and flatulence, stereotypes of all races, and more N-words than one would ever hear onscreen today outside of a Tarantino film.
In a recent interview, Brooks said that he had given his writers (including comedy legend Richard Pryor) free rein:
I said to all the writers, “Look, fellas, don’t worry, this movie will never get released. Never. [Warner Bros.] will see it and they’ll say, ‘Let’s bury it.’ So let’s go nuts. Let’s write things that we never would dare write.” And we did.
Crudity is nothing new to today’s movie audiences (or TV viewers, for that matter), but in 1974 the film’s bold assault on racism stampeded past the limits of good taste on its way to box office success, and audiences everywhere loved it, surprising Brooks as much as anyone:
I envisioned a race riot. I thought everybody would come after me and kill me for what I said about the Chinese, and the blacks, and the Jews. I thought if this was shown in Waco, Texas, the whites would storm the screen and cut it to ribbons. Because we were kind of hoisting the black sheriff up on our shoulders and made him a hero. But Texas liked it as much as New York.
The American Film Institute liked it too, ranking it sixth among their 100 funniest American movies of all time (ahead of two other Brooks-directed comedies, The Producers and Young Frankenstein). Blazing Saddles accomplished a sort of deft balance of satirical social commentary and outrageous abandon, not unlike the creators of South Park today.
Flash forward 40 years. Instead of Blazing Saddles blazing a trail toward racial harmony, race relations in America are more problematic now than at any point since the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, and PC intolerance has such a stranglehold on the current Hollywood scene (as well as our culture at large), that it’s impossible to imagine Mel Brooks’ movie getting that green light today. “Isn’t it strange?” he asked his interviewer rhetorically,
It could hardly be made then. Certainly not 10 years before then. And now it’s suddenly, it’s 40 years later, it cannot be made today. That’s weird. The prejudices or whatever, the restrictions, should have thoroughly diluted by now, and here we are — it’s amazing. We’re playing it safe.
Comedy can break down barriers and unite people over sensitive issues that otherwise can’t be discussed comfortably or even rationally – all while seducing people to laugh at themselves and others. It is the enemy of political correctness, which is the humorless enforcement of speech codes to control the language and advance a political agenda.
Forty years ago, Blazing Saddles had audiences everywhere laughing at the N-Word, defusing its ugly power; today that word is cause for media lynchings. Our culture has succumbed to a PC intolerance that only divides, never heals or unites. Mel Brooks couldn’t get that movie made now, and that’s the tragedy of one of the funniest American movies of all time.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 5/22)