Widely considered to be one of the funniest movies of all-time, Mel Brooks’ BLAZING SADDLES (1974) is an over-the-top, fourth wall-shattering romp that fully owns its place in cinematic history. It has been called “groundbreaking” and “dangerous,” and many of its supporters proudly boast how there’s no way a movie so outrageous could be made in today’s politically-correct world.
And, yet, it is one of the dullest movies I have ever seen.
Before the unjustified anger intensifies, please consider my vantage point, first: I didn’t grow up loving BLAZING SADDLES (or most Mel Brooks movies, for that matter). My introduction to his work was via 1987’s SPACEBALLS, and my only two theatrical experiences were ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS (1993) and DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT (1995). While I genuinely enjoy SPACEBALLS (mostly due to my love for both Rick Moranis and the satire’s inspiration), the two remaining titles were quite insufferable to sit through. MEN IN TIGHTS was a shockingly lame attempt at mocking a movie that didn’t deserve any further attention, and DEAD AND LOVING IT left me bored and feeling embarrassed for Leslie Nielsen.
Even though I was fully aware of his past triumphs (most notably SADDLES), my limited firsthand knowledge of Mel Brooks wasn’t spectacular — and it left me with no desire to discover why his full body of work is so revered. Add in the near total lack of exposure during my developing years (Mel Brooks isn’t exactly a common name that pops up in black households), and you may understand a little more why I failed to watch BLAZING SADDLES until I was well into my twenties.
The first time I sat down to watch it was with the lofty expectation that AIRPLANE! had a new ‘Funniest Movie Ever’ competitor in town, and I remember laughing at a few moments (when not questioning why Madeline Kahn wasn’t a much bigger deal). Overall, though, SADDLES felt like a moderately funny story that put all of its eggs in a ‘shock value’ basket. I pretty much just wrote it off as ‘not for me’, and moved on from there.
My second viewing, maybe a little more than ten years later, was after learning more about the film’s production. I knew Richard Pryor helped write the initial script, but was unaware that he was originally set to star in BLAZING SADDLES. Cleavon Little was a fantastic stage actor, but his cheeky performance as Sheriff Bart falls even further for me when, unfairly, compared to the idea of what Pryor could have brought to the role. Maybe a little too young for the role of the Waco Kid, Gene Wilder, nonetheless, was the lone standout for me — as even Kahn’s turn as Lili Von Shtupp seemed less enthralling the second time around.
I watched BLAZING SADDLES for the third (and final) time last week. While hanging out with someone who was born well after the original release date, I was interested in seeing her reaction to it. About a month earlier, she watched AIRPLANE! for the first time ever, and absolutely loved it. More than a few dated jokes failed to land (there’s no way “I haven’t seen anything like this since the Anita Bryant concert” was going to work for her), but she laughed throughout and wanted to watch it, again. About twenty minutes into SADDLES, I looked at her expressionless face and realized she hadn’t laughed yet. Neither one of us had, to be honest, and we only made it as far as “Oh, it’s twue.”
After that final attempt to push through the film (I eventually finished it a few hours later), I felt very cold towards SADDLES; in a way that reminded me of Dave Chappelle’s explanation of what led to his departure from CHAPPELLE’S SHOW. For the comedian, there was a point where he couldn’t tell if a white guy on set was laughing with the joke, or laughing at the subject of the joke… and it made him feel uneasy — and question if he was doing more harm than good. That’s exactly how I now feel after watching SADDLES at the age of 41. I understand it was Mel Brooks’ intent to hold up a mirror to the ugliness of racism, but the way he went about it was rather shortsighted.
In a 2012 interview with Robert Weide of the Directors Guild of America, Brooks lamented that he could never get away with pushing the envelope today because “[i]f they did a remake of BLAZING SADDLES today, they would leave out the N-word. And, then, you’ve got no movie.” He is absolutely correct with that statement… and that is precisely the problem.
Sure enough, comedy is subjective and depends on the individual viewer. To that point, I can understand why this movie appeals to so many — and I wonder if my take would be vastly different if I grew up watching BLAZING SADDLES.
As it is now, I am perfectly okay with having this unpopular opinion.