Thursday, 16 February 2017

Blazing Saddles

There is no possible way to talk about this movie without it getting political.
What about "Racism is bad" is so hard to understand?
A bit of history may help.
In 1968 comedic creator Mel Brooks decided to make a movie mocking Adolf Hitler. His stated goal was to make Hitler and the Nazis into such a joke that nobody would ever be able to take their ideas seriously ever again.
In 1974, he decided to try and to the same thing to the concept of racism.
Strange thing is, this movie pretty much predicted current American politics.
And it did it to such a creepily accurate degree that I'm seriously beginning to think that Mel Brooks may be psychic.
The movie opens with the traditional-for-the-time credits, as well as what may be one of the greatest theme songs of all time. Seriously, look it up, it's amazing.
Just in case any idiots walked into the wrong theatre.
After the opening we start with a scene of people working on the railroad. A handcart full of men pulls up and stops so that they can get off and berate the workers for not singing.
I'm no expert, but that bit of railroad looks pretty much finished to me.
The man in the red shirt is named Lyle, and he's just as unlikable as the Lyle from last week's film.
His opening scene involves lots of racial slurs, docking someone pay for collapsing and general all-around horribleness.
Though he does have some great teeth.
Fun fact: Burton Gilliam, the actor who played Lyle, didn't want to use the racial slurs. But the main star, Cleavon Little, told him that it was ok.
His character, however, is thoroughly unlikable, trying to persuade everyone to sing "One'a them old nigger work songs", such as The Camptown Ladies.
If you don't recognise the song, it's because it was sung by The Black And White Minstrels, so it's not exactly in many productions these days.
However, the workers are led by a man named Bart, who's our main character.
This guy.
Bart is reminiscent of Bugs Bunny at his best. When Lyle tries to get them to sing, he deftly spins it back around and tricks Lyle into singing instead.
Although outwitting this guy isn't exactly something to brag about.
One of the main themes of this movie is that racism is inherently stupid, and so only the dumbest characters are racist. Of course, the main bad guy is competently dangerous, but he himself doesn't seem very racist, merely using the racism of others to get what he wants.
As Lyle and his men sing and dance they get interrupted by his boss, a man named Taggart.
Taggart is also not very nice.
Although he does earn some points by smacking Lyle upside the head.
Apparently the land up ahead might not be suitable for railroad tracks, so he orders Lyle to "Send a couple niggers" and find out.
So Lyle picks two men at random, who turn out to be Bart and his friend, Charlie.
They hop on the handcart and check the ground, only to find out that quicksand isn't exactly the best thing to build railroads on.
How they never noticed that the track vanished into the ground is a mystery for the ages.
Bart and Charlie call for help and are relieved to see Lyle and Taggart coming for them with a rope.
They are less relieved when Taggart throws are rope over the handcart and drags it out, leaving them stranded in the quicksand while they discuss where the railroad will go.
Luckily, Bart manages to get them both out, only to be dismayed when Taggart throws a shovel at them and orders them to get back to work.
Bart is just a little upset.
Sometime later, Taggart is explaining the railroad diversion to the Attorney General, a man named Hedley Lamarr.
Hedley is essentially Lex Luthor with hair and no Superman to be thwarted by.
He comes complete with his own idiot henchman.
The railroad has to be diverted through a place called Rock Ridge, which we become invaluable once it does. Naturally Hedley wants to own the land, but the people who live there aren't the kind who'd be willing to sell. So he instructs Taggart to drive them out by any means necessary.
As a reward for his continued loyalty, Hedley offers to have Bart executed. He asks the executioner when he can fit in an extra, but the poor guy's overworked and can't manage it until Monday at the earliest.
I'm not sure what to make a joke about. The horse or the executioner?
And so, Taggart's men raid Rock Ridge, even killing the Sheriff. The people of Rock Ridge hold a meeting to discuss what they're going to do, eventually settling on informing the local Governor and requesting aid.
It's important to note during this scene that every single member of Rock Ridge has the exact same surname, Johnson.
And they are all incredibly racist morons.
For reference, this is one of their leaders.
In their defence, the people of Rock Ridge are not shown to be particularly bad people, just exceptionally stupid.
So they send a message to their Governor, and this is where the movie really gets creepy.
Let's have a look at the Governor, shall we?
All credit to Mel Brooks, if he needs to someone to be mocked he'll happily stand up and be that man.
The Govenor's name is William J. Le Petomane.
Le Petomane was a famous French performer whose act can essentially be summed up with the phrase, musical farts.
In other words, his name is a fart joke.
Now, what do you think the word 'trump' means in the UK?
But surely that's just coincidence, it's not like Le Petomane is a brainless Neanderthal who's more interested in attractive women than doing his job, right?
At least he's doing work. That piece of paper he's signing allows them to snatch sacred land from Native Americans for their own profit, which is not something that would be done today.
Oh dear.
Well, ummm, at least there's no mention of casinos?
"This bill will convert a mental hospital into a casino with my name on it."
Just as everything's finished and the meeting is ready to be adjourned, the secretary reads out the message from Rock Ridge. Le Petomane is outraged that such a thing can be allowed to happen.
After all, he needs to protect his job.
So he orders Hedley to find a solution to the problem.
Because Le Petomane is in the habit of hiring the exact worst person to any jobs he can.
Let's distract ourselves.
Later on Hedley is trying to find a way out of his predicament. He needs to be seen sending someone to Rock Ridge, but his doesn't want to send someone who will actually resolve the problem.
Then he gets an idea. He decides that, since the residents of Rock Ridge are inbred racists, he can send the doomed black man as their new Sheriff. This will get them so enraged that they'll either leave in disgust or force him out of town, leaving them wide open for more attacks.
Now all he has to do is convince Le Petomane to sign off on it.
I'm sure that outwitting this guy will prove to be quite a challenge.
Le Petomane initially refuses, knowing that the people of Rock Ridge will shoot Bart on sight. Hedley was prepared for this though. He tells Le Petomane that it doesn't matter, since he can earn some reputation points merely by appointing a black man. Even if Bart dies, he can use this as leverage in Washington when he makes his attempt at getting elected President.
Back then the concept of a grossly incompetent clown becoming President was laughable.
And so, Bart gets dressed up in a fine suit (With Gucci saddlebags) and rides into town, ready to be their new Sheriff.
It goes about as well as you'd expect.
The Reverend does attempt to calm everybody down, but it fails spectacularly.
So, with everyone pointing their guns at him and waiting for any excuse to pull a trigger, how does Bart finagle his way to safety?
By taking himself prisoner.
It's just as dumb as it sounds.
Despite the sheer bizarreness of the action, the townsfolk are dumb enough to fall for it. Bart drags himself to the Sheriff's office and the people let him go, scared for his life.
I never said the movie was subtle when it made racists out to be morons.
Later, Bart is going about his duties when he notices that the drunk in cell two has woken up.
You may recognise him as one of the most talented actors who ever lived.
Gene Wilder.
He's playing a character named Jim, who's best described as pathetically pathetic.
Whilst he's at first puzzled by the existence of a black sheriff, he readily accepts Bart as a friend.
Bart is shocked by just how alcoholic Jim is, so he asks for some backstory whilst they play chess.
Turns out that Jim used to be a legendary gunslinger known as the Waco Kid, who could outshoot literally anybody alive. But his legend was his downfall as people continuously challenged him. It was when he was challenged by a six-year-old that he threw his guns down and walked away.
Only to get shot in the ass.
And this was his coping mechanism.
It says a lot about Gene that in a movie which is roughly 90% silly jokes, he can have a quiet, emotional scene and really sell it.
Jim asks for Bart's backstory, but it's honestly not nearly as interesting and exists pretty much just so that Mel Brooks could dress up as a Native American.
And people complained about Johnny Depp's casting in Lone Ranger.
The entire sequence could have been cut without hurting the movie, but if Mel Brooks wants to dress up and speak Yiddish for no reason then, well, it's his movie.
Next comes a fart joke.
The thugs are discussing what to do about the new sheriff. They all want a crack at him, but Lyle suggests that they send Mongo after him.
Mongo is such a beast that he barely classifies as human.
They even keep him chained up inside their own camp.
The next morning Bart is walking about the town, trying to make friends.
And all he gets is an "Up yours Nigger!" from the old woman.
What follows may be one of the best jokes of all time. It wasn't scripted, Gene apparently had an idea and told everybody to just run with it.
He comforts Bart by explaining just what kind of people he's dealing with in this here town.
You can practically see Cleavon's brain trying to prepare himself for whatever Gene's about to say.
"What did you expect? "Welcome, sonny"? "Make yourself at home"? "Marry my daughter"? You've got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know... morons."
It's the sheer delight on Gene's face that really sells it.
They get distracted by a loud racket from outside and the barber comes rushing in, practically begging Bart to help.
While he doesn't quite realise who or what a 'Mongo' is, he comes running to aid the townsfolk.
Although Jim helpfully warns him not to take his guns, since shooting Mongo will only make him angry.
Yep, Mongo rode into town on a bull and the first thing he does is punch a horse.
Mongo single-handedly defeats everybody in the bar. Bart defeats him by inventing the Candygram and using it to sneak a bomb into his face, which merely knocks him unconscious. It's such a cartoonish method that the soundtrack even plays the Looney Tunes theme when Bart leaves.
See? I told you Bart was like Bugs Bunny.
And yes, those are feet behind Mongo.
Later, Taggart and Hedley are discussing what to do now that Mongo's failed. Taggart says something incredibly stupid, but it does give Hedley an idea. Since the Beast failed, he'll try a Beauty instead.
A Beauty by the name of Lillie Von Shtupp.
This chick.
Lillie's song is a love song, with a bit of a twist. Turns out that she's bedded so many men that she's practically numb downstairs, and has never been satisfied, not even once.
You can tell where this is going.
Lillie's job was to seduce Bart and then leave him, but her plan goes awry when she realises just how 'gifted' he is.
Lillie changes her tune and pledges herself to Bart, which makes things even more awkward for Hedley.
Especially since Mongo has taken a shine to Bart as well. Not in any homosexual way, but simply because Bart treated Mongo like a person and not an animal.
"Mongo just pawn in game of life."
Mongo doesn't know much about Hedley's plans, but he does know that it has something to do with the train. So Bart and Jim travel to see the railroad workers and speak to his old friend Charlie.
He's happy to see him.
Charlie reveals that the railroad's going through Rock Ridge but before Bart can reflect on what this means, Taggart and his men come riding up. Taggart is rather disconcerted that Bart's not only alive but also a Sheriff, so Lyle helpfully offers to shoot him dead.
Luckily for Bart, he's got a recently-sobered Waco Kid on his side, who quite happily does the impossible and shoots the guns out of all of their hands.
And he did it with his arms crossed, just to confuse them even further.
It was just as rare to see a white policeman defending a black guy back then as it is now.
Taggart and his men run off with their metaphorical tails between their legs and Hedley comes up with yet another plan. This time he's going to use brute force and overwhelming numbers. He sends Taggart to recruit the most vile scum he could possibly find.
And Taggart does so, hiring Banditos, Rustlers, Rapits, Nazis and even the KKK to join his army.
But he doesn't do it subtly, with Bart discovering a recruitment poster.
In other words, Le Petomane is being advised by someone with known ties to the KKK.
And he even has ties to Arabian oil barons.
Bart and JIm sneak into the back of the recruitment line by knocking out the KKK members and using their hoods as a disguise.
"Errr, Trick or Treat?"
The crooks chase the heroes but they manage to evade capture.
That night, Bart visits Charlie again and asks for their help. He has a plan to save Rock Ridge, but he needs numbers and supplies to do it.
Later, he gathers the people of Rock Ridge and relays his plans to them. He wants them to build an exact replica of Rock Ridge and lace it with TNT. When the crooks arrive and start raiding the place they can detonate the bombs and be rid of their problems.
Of course, the people don't go for it since they have neither the people nor the supplies to do it.
What a coincidence.
The railroad workers ask for nothing more than some land near Rock Ridge to call their own. The townsfolk are still a bit racist and take a few moments to consider, before deciding to agree. Mostly. To quote Olson Johnson;
"We'll give some land to the Nigger and the Chinks, but we don't want the Irish."
You'd think they would have learnt something by now.
The railroad workers stand their ground though and the people of Rock Ridge relent, agreeing to accept everybody, no matter where they're from.
Which is an important lesson in how to deal with racism. Don't just demand respect for yourselves and your own people, demand respect for everybody.
And so, the people spend all night building the exact replica and it's perfect.
Except for one small problem.
No fake people.
Other than that though, it's perfect. This set looks identical to the Rock Ridge set.
Bart has an idea to buy them some extra time.
He sets up a toll booth.
And the bad guys are, naturally, stupid enough to fall for it.
"Somebody's gotta go back and get a shitload of dimes."
This buys the people enough time to finish their fakery. When the crooks get their they start smashing the fake Rock Ridge. Bart presses the plunger for the TNT but something's gone wrong and it doesn't work.
So Jim shoots the detonator, setting off the bombs with an impossible shot.
"Yes, that's a horse flying through the air."
Sentences that I never thought I'd say.
After the TNT finishes exploding, the people of Rock Ridge charge in to finish them off.
And this is where things get really weird.
All throughout this movie, they've been breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience.
But during the final fight?
They break the third wall and interrupt the show next to them.
Meaning that they also broke another show's third wall.
Taggart punches out the director, which causes the dancers to join in the fight.
The whole thing spills out further, engulfing the canteen in the violence.
Which is just where Hedley was having a quick break from filming in order to use the bathroom.
I'm just as confused as he is.
Hedley flees the set via taxi, but Bart spots him and gives chase.
Hedley decides that the best place to hide from Bart is at a nearby screening of Blazing Saddles, which doesn't so much break the fourth wall, but snap it and all of causality with it.
And then, from within the theatre, he spot Bart approaching the theatre.
Wait... What?
Bart and Hedley face off outside, with Bart winning the fight. He and Jim walk inside to see how the movie ends and they happily watch themselves riding off into the sunset.
Naturally, they ride off into the sunset in a limo. Because at this point, nothing makes sense.
This movie was brilliant and it's easy to see why it's ranked as the 6th greatest comedy of all time.
Personally I think it should be higher.
Yes, it does have its' problems. Some scenes went nowhere and existed just for a lame joke. The message, while very important, was kinda heavy-handed at times. And Taggart, Lyle and Le Petomane get off Scot-free.
The worst part though?
It's been over 42 years and racism is just as bad as ever.
Quite frankly, I think Mel Brooks needs to make a return. This kind of movie is needed now more than ever.

Ok, so this month has been nothing but comedy. We've had Flubber, George of the Jungle and now Blazing Saddles. What movie am I going to review next week?
Well, it's set a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away.

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