The western to smite all westerns, racism

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Blazing-Saddles-KKK

Did the “Baghead” scene in Django Unchained (2012) feel at all familiar?

It was total Mel Brooks.

We’ve seen bumbling baddies arguing with one another in the desert before. Blazing Saddles (1974), one of the cinematic funnyman’s best, shot a hole in westerns and racism with one bullet.

While the majority of Quentin Tarantino films homage or stylize specific genres, Blazing Saddles was first and foremost a parody. Brooks gives viewers plenty of sight gags, tongue-in-cheek comedy and loads of fourth-wall penetration. In actuality, Brooks takes a sledgehammer to the fourth wall at the end of the film.

But first, the plot: In an effort to sweep the town of Rock Ridge clean to make way for railroads, Headley Lemarr (Harvey Korman) sends in railroad worker Bart (Cleavon Little) as the newly appointed black sheriff. Lemarr’s scheme to capitalize on the town’s racism appears successful at first, but when Bart receives a bit of encouragement from washed-up gunslinger Jim (Gene Wilder), he gains clout with the townsfolk and catches onto Lamarr’s plans. With a little elbow grease, Bart and co. execute a scheme of their own to save Rock Ridge.

It’s utterly cartoonish at times. Brooks even included a Bugs Bunny gag. That’s all part of the parody, as Blazing Saddles tries to demystify the genre’s penchant for turning every guy who gets on a horse as an instant, noble hero. Sheriff Bart becomes so unwillingly, then has to figure out how to stay alive.

And Little was cast as the perfect wise guy. The comedic jujitsu Sheriff Bart performs is quite a clever way to ridicule racism in a part slapstick, part goofball comedy.

My personal favorite scene takes place when Lamarr’s call for more henchmen produces a long line of scallywags. Jim and Bart bait two Klu Klux Klansmen, sack them, then don their outfits in order to infiltrate the gang. But Bart accidentally shows his hands when signing up, and has to make a quick getaway, but not before quipping, “And now, for my next impression, Jesse Owens!”

It’s the idea of besting someone who’s trying to make a fool out of you that sticks out the most.

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The theme resonates in Django. It’s also present in the blaxploitation genre Tarantino loves to ape — which was in full gear when Blazing Saddles was made. You have The Man and The Game, and protagonists must make a choice whether to play or fight against it.

The set-up-to-fail view of racism has some merit, but discounts the momentum each individual can add to the equation. In Blazing Saddles, Sheriff Bart already knows he’s capable, he just has to be patient and wait for everyone else to catch up.

That subtle force, patience, really makes comedy all that better. And it makes Brooks’ message all that more affective. It doesn’t feel preachy, and the lampooning of western cliches won’t upset genre lovers.

But an effeminate Dom DeLuise might.

– Michael Janney

1 Comment
  1. Curtis says

    “Sounds like steam escaping.”

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