Mel Brooks' 'Blazing Saddles' Defied Hollywood's Version Of The Old West And Its Own Genre; Film To Be Restored And Rereleased In August

Hollywood has occasionally revolutionized its own conventions within its confines. In 1974, Mel Brooks did just that when he released Blazing Saddles, a comedy that upended the romanticized version of the Old West that had been popularized and perpetuated by Hollywood for decades. With the help of co-screenwriter Richard Pryor, Brooks crafted a satire that, to this day, remains shockingly relevant.

Set in the 1870s, the film follows the newfound partnership between a Black sheriff, Bart, and a drunken gunslinger, Waco Kid, who together fight to protect the small town of Rock Ridge from the schemes of a corrupt politician and a seductive dancer after their own money comes through.

Rather than simply critique the racism of the era, Brooks opted to target ''whitey'' and ''honky'' wherever they appeared across the racial and social spectrum. The racist underside of frontierism and the wilds of the West are duly mocked, but so too is the entitlement and presumption of innocence of the white characters. The result is a genre-spoofing extravaganza that delivers laughs with a surprisingly thoughtful examination of societal mores.

And it's coming back to theaters, for its 50th anniversary.

Initially, the film was not a hit. Upon its release in February 1974, the studio tested it in just three cities (New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago). Critics hated it, but audiences were laughing. In 2006, NPR's Linda Wertheimer reported that Blazing Saddles was being added to the National Film Registry, commenting with feigned incredulity on the film's comedic relevance: "Who could have imagined a film featuring a bunch of cowboys sitting around the campfire, eating beans and breaking wind, to be enshrined in the Library of Congress?"

Perhaps Brooks' prowess is best summarized by the film's famous campfire scene, where the cowboys eat beans, resulting in a series of toots that derail a plot point. It's absurd, satirical, and shockingly gut-punch funny, with memorable quotables stemming from the scene (for better or worse, a few selected examples include "No guns, no guns, only beans, only beans").

But therein lies the power of Brooks' masterpiece. Amid the hilarious abdominal explosions, the bloody violence, and the zany performances (Madeline Kahn's portrayal of the provocative dancer Lili von Shaft being a particular standout), lies a pertinent commentary on the stereotypes of the Old West and the comedy of racial fears.

It's a film that, despite its release five decades ago, has not lost any of its comedic bite or relevance. In that regard, it's no surprise that it's gaining a new audience through a restored and remastered version set to be rereleased in August. Given the current political climate, it's a reminder that Brooks' brand of satire remains a potent tool.

In the words of the filmmaker himself: "I guess I’m gonna have to draw on my own personal reservoir of anger and hostility and disappointment and sadness and vent it through comedy."

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