"Blazing Saddles"

Mel Brooks remembers working with Richard Pryor, and a time when farting jokes were as offensive as it gets.

Published May 8, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

"Blazing Saddles"
Directed by Mel Brooks
Starring Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn
Warner Home Video; anamorphic widescreen pan and scan (2.35:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Interview with Mel Brooks, cast and crew biographies

Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles" skewers race in the West, Hollywood westerns, manifest destiny and everything else under John Ford's sun. The antic picture is a leaner and meaner version of Brooks' "History of the World -- Part 1." Here, he pulls out every trick in his bag: Jewish humor, racial satires, furious verbal gaffes and wicked visual gags. The DVD release doesn't offer more than a few additional yuks, but it does include a delightful interview where Brooks recounts how he made the film.

All is not well in the Old West at the start of the picture. The railroad, laying track across the country, has hit a patch of quicksand. The only way around it is through the small hamlet of Rock Ridge, populated by a group of inbreds all seemingly with the surname Johnson. The state attorney general (Harvey Korman) figures that the railroad's dilemma makes Rock Ridge ripe for a land grab. He dispatches his deputy Taggart (Slim Pickens) to scare the townspeople away. When that doesn't work, he figures that a black sheriff would terrify the local racists. He summarily dispatches an unwitting Black Bart (Cleavon Little) to do his dirty work.

Black Bart is something of a dandy. He rides with a Gucci saddlebag and encounters Count Basie's orchestra as he rides across the plains. "What's a dazzling urbanite like you doing in a rustic rural setting like this?" asks his pal, the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder). The townspeople almost faint upon his arrival. Then they try to kill him. Still, he manages to hold on as well as fend off the attorney general.

After you're done with the film, you can delve into the interview with Brooks. He brings a wry earnestness to the world of DVD commentaries. Instead of the standard full-length job that almost always runs too long, Brooks' monologue delivers a succinct and fascinating 40-minute narrative about making the film. He starts with the evolution of the title, originally "Tex Ex," which reminded Brooks of Malcolm X. The studio rejected that, as well as other ideas, like "Black Bart" and "Purple Sage," until Brooks came up with "Blazing Saddles" in the shower.

Brooks' memories of writing the film are particularly interesting. He put together a collegial group of five writers that included a then up-and-coming young black comic named Richard Pryor. According to Brooks, his group "needed a good black writer" who could help them do "black comedy." Once Pryor was on board, however, he took to the oafish, white Mongo character (ex-NFL player Alex Karras) and Brooks himself ended up writing most of Black Bart's dialogue. Brooks also remembers going "on bended knee to every studio executive" to get Pryor in the role for Black Bart, but no one would have him because he was rumored to be both crazy and on drugs.

At the time, Brooks thought "Blazing Saddles" would be particularly offensive. Thirty years later, he sounds almost shockingly naive. He says that he asked a studio executive about the farting scene ("We knew that had never been done in a movie") and the one where Mongo appears to punch out a horse and was told, "Mel, if you're going to go up to the bell, ring it." When the movie premiered, Brooks says that the head of Warner Brothers told him to take out the word "nigger," the farting scene and the horse punch. "Can you imagine if I didn't have final cut?" Brooks asks.

By Max Garrone

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

MORE FROM Max Garrone

Related Topics ------------------------------------------