Will the arguments never end about Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles? For a film culture that supposedly ignores every movie made before 1980, Mel Brooks‘ 1974 comedy classic might be the most argued-about older movie of all-time.
Largely, it’s a long-running debate between those who interpret the classic Western parody one way and those who see other things in the film, or in the imagined reactions to it.
Blazing Saddles was trending on Twitter last week, as part, I believe, of a prompt someone did in order to encourage people to list their favorite classic comedy movies. As a result, someone said this, apparently in the belief that Blazing Saddles’ success lay in posturing as an equal-opportunity offender:
Now clearly, a certain irreverence is a key part of the film’s appeal, as is the case with much of Mel Brooks’ work. But the truth is, Blazing Saddles has a distinct point of view, which is that white racists are imbeciles worthy of mockery.
I made that point myself, in a tweet that went somewhat viral:
There are two arguments that are frequently made about Blazing Saddles, circa 2021. Argument one is that, due to political correctness and “wokeness,” the political left is on the verge of banning Blazing Saddles, and that this act of outrageous censorship is clearly right around the corner. And argument two is that Blazing Saddles “could never be made today.”
The first is blatantly false. There has been no concerted attempt that I’ve ever heard of to “ban” Blazing Saddles. Right-wing people are frequently arguing that such banishment is inevitable, but it hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t anticipate that it ever will (Breitbart.com wrote a piece listing “10 Reasons to Believe the Left Will Eventually Ban Blazing Saddles,” and that was in 2014). When it comes to getting outraged about that particular movie, there’s none of it coming from anyone who actually wants to ban it, but a lot coming from those imagining that they someday will.
If you subscribe to HBO Max, you can go watch Blazing Saddles right now. And if you don’t, you can rent it from Amazon or another streaming outlet for 4 bucks, or buy a DVD or Blu-ray. The combined, supposedly all-powerful forces of “wokeness” can’t stop you from seeing the film any of those ways.
Sure, when the movie went to HBO Max last year, a brief video introduction was placed at the beginning, in which TCM host Jacqueline Stewart describes the film as “an overt and audacious spoof on classic Westerns,” while noting that some racist attitudes are “espoused by characters who are explicitly portrayed here as narrow-minded, ignorant bigots.”
When it comes to getting outraged about that particular movie, there’s none of it coming from anyone who actually wants to ban it
But as TCM has also been doing with its “Reframed Classics” series, the intro explains some context of the film, before showing the entire film as is. You can call that a lot of things, but it’s absolutely not censorship, nor does it “ruin” the movies. If you don’t like the intro, you’re welcome to fast forward through it, and for what it’s worth, when I went back on HBO Max to watch the film this week the intro appeared to have been removed.
As for the “never could be made today” question? Mel Brooks agrees; he said so in a 2017 interview. But that’s sort of irrelevant. For one thing, Blazing Saddles doesn’t need to be made today. It was already made, in 1974. And like most other movies, it’s a movie of its time, and a product of the attitudes and cultural trends of exactly when it was made. And besides, it wouldn’t make any sense in 2021 to produce a comedy that satirizes the racial and attitudinal tropes of classic Westerns, because that genre hasn’t been relevant in decades.
Is there stuff in the movie that looks a little bit dicey, to modern eyes? Sure there is. But there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that, and to do so, contra the conventional wisdom of the anti-wokeness crowd, does not equal a call for censorship or banishment. And besides, there are movies made today that take incendiary, cutting-edge approaches to race and racism — like Get Out, Sorry to Bother You, and Judas and the Black Messiah — that could not have been made previously.
Arguing about movies is healthy. I’m all for it. But it’s important to approach such arguments with honesty, and not to caricature your political opponents as out to censor you when they’re doing no such thing.