Perhaps more than any other film genre, comedy is the most subjective. We may all more easily agree on what moves us, what scares us, what makes us cry and what gets our pulses racing. But what makes us laugh? One man's inspired quip is another man's lame fart joke. So it was with great trepidation that I went into Mel Brooks' 'Blazing Saddles,' a film that I had never seen but have of course heard much about. It has come to be regarded as a genuine classic of the genre, but because I'm not much of a Brooks' fan, I just didn't know what to expect.
First, a quick story synopsis. Welcome to the Old West of 1874, Mel Brooks' style. The railroad is coming to California, and standing to gain the most from the transportation revolution is the unscrupulous Attorney General, Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman). Hedley will do anything to get this railroad built, even when its path encounters quicksand and has to be rerouted through the little town of Rock Ridge -- and Hedley must get rid of is entire population. But when the citizens of Rock Ridge demand a new Sheriff to prevent their relocation, Hedley decides to send in the West's first black law enforcer, Bart (Cleavon Little). Needless to say, hell -- and all manner of racial epithets -- soon breaks loose.
That little bit of "plot" description is more or less meaningless, just as trying to summarize a typical episode of 'All in the Family' could properly prepare you for the character of Archie Bunker. With 'Blazing Saddles,' Brooks set out not to skewer race relations but racism itself, and almost entirely at the expense of white stupidity. It is amazing over thirty years later how un-PC 'Blazing Saddles' seems, almost as incendiary as a Michael Moore film only masked as an innocuous parody of old Western movie cliches. Now, I don't want to give Brooks too much credit as some sort of cultural provocateur -- he was as much in love then as he still is now with a good fart joke, and remains above all else an entertainer -- but never has he so straddled the fine line between witty social commentary and naughty schoolboy antics as he did in 'Saddles.'
I was quite taken aback on this first viewing of the film by just how much Brooks got away with in 1974. The word "nigger" is used freely, so much so it is like all those bare breasts in a Paul Verhoeven movie -- after awhile you just become numb to it all. But just when I would think Brooks was taking the easy way out, resorting to racial caricatures for simple shock value or a cheap laugh, he would turn the tables on those in the audience who would most identify with such prejudicial humor. "You've got to remember," comments the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) at one point about the dim-witted racist townspeople, "that these are just simple farmers; these are people of the land, the common clay of the new West. You know, morons."
That could also be the battle cry for the film's cast as well -- and I mean that as a compliment. It would be far easier to dismiss 'Blazing Saddles' (as well as Brooks' other seminal '70s comedy, 'Young Frankenstein') if it was not for the inspired lunacy its terrific ensemble brings to his often one-note satire. In addition to Little, Korman and Wilder, how can you argue with the likes of Madeline Kahn, John Hillerman, Dom DeLuise, Alex Karras, Brooks himself and Slim Pickens trying to one-up each other for screen time? (Kahn is so good she even earned an Oscar nomination for her efforts.) No, none of this is literate, or even civil, but say one thing about this cast (and I'll probably get killed for this), but they don't so much act as overact. Which helps balance out Brooks' relentlessly juvenile spoofing with some good-natured comic whimsy and genuine humanity.
Unfortunately, for me it still wasn't quite enough to wash away the acidic aftertaste 'Blazing Saddles' leaves in my mouth. I'd like to say unequivocally that 'Saddles' is a slap in the face of racial intolerance, a work of comedic subversiveness that forces us to both confront and laugh at one of our culture's most insidious social ills. But 'Saddles,' like so much racial humor, wants to have it both ways -- to keep us laughing along with its low-brow cheap shots yet still mock the stupidity of it all. On that level it is no better than one of those sleazy early-'80s teen sex comedies, where we are asked to join in with the filmmakers as they oogle naked women for an hour, only to cheer at the end as the female heroes turn the tables and humiliate their pig-headed, horny oppressors. It's as if, because the good guys ultimately win, it doesn't matter what sort of indignities you heap upon them for the duration of the movie.
My moral doubts aside, 'Blazing Saddles' was undoubtedly a watershed for Brooks. Though he had made 'The Producers' back in 1968, that film was actually not a huge hit upon first release, instead only becoming a cult classic slowly over the years. It wasn't until the one-two punch of 'Saddles' and 'Young Frankenstein' (both released in 1974) that Brooks would tap into the cultural zeitgeist so directly that he was swiftly declared cinema's ribald brother to Woody Allen. But unlike Allen, Brooks never used sophisticated New York wit to get his point across, instead relying on spoof and juvenile vulgarity -- and love it or hate it, just about everyone remembers the infamous "baked beans campfire scene" from 'Saddles.' Which means Brooks will never receive the kind of critical and historical recognition his box office receipts might otherwise suggest. And it won't ever completely win over the skeptics like me. But for you fans of 'Saddles,' nothing I can say will ever make any difference anyway -- you know a good fart joke when you hear it.
For a 30-odd year-old film, 'Blazing Saddles' looks quite good on HD DVD. Minted from the same high-def master used for the standard DVD re-issue of the film produced back in 2003, it benefits from a nicely cleaned-up print of the film that is a vast improvement over all previous video versions, even if it does still suffer from some age-related defects.
Yes, this is a prototypical '70s film, so it has that slightly rustic yet film-like appearance that is just dripping with nostalgia. But colors are quite vivid, with surprisingly little grain even on traditionally problematic hues like reds and dark blues. It is also fairly sharp, if certainly lacking by today's standards. I could detect more subtle details on the HD DVD compared to the standard DVD transfer, especially long shots and tight close-ups, which more realistically reproduce fine textures like skin tone and fabrics. However, there is still some dirty shots throughout (usually anything involving special effects, such as matte shots and the opening credits), but it is still well above par for a film of this vintage.
To be honest, the selling point of this disc is hardly its soundtrack. 'Blazing Saddles' was also remixed in 2003 along with its image restoration, and it was certainly a huge improvement over the terrible mono soundtracks that had been floating around on home video for years. Though still, there is little the Dolby Digital-Plus soundtrack included here can offer above and beyond the Dolby Digital track on the previous standard DVD release.
The biggest improvement here is the soundtrack's increased dynamic range. Though still dated in sound, mid-range is surprisingly robust, and highs largely free of the tinniness you usually get with '70s-era soundtracks. Low-end remains flat, however, and the .1 LFE hardly offers much oomph. Surround use is also next to non-existent, with the rears hardly ever activated throughout the film's 93-minute runtime. On the plus side, stereo separation across the front channels is quite good, with some noticeable pan effects, especially on the many amusing songs Mel Brooks composed for the film.
Everything old is new again, and 'Blazing Saddles' on HD DVD features a fairly good selection of extras, all originally produced for the 30th Anniversary standard DVD released back in 2003.
Let's start with the screen-specific audio commentary from Mel Brooks. As much as his brand of humor sometimes grates on my nerves when I watch his films, he is completely charming and endearing when he talks. And he certainly doesn't pull any punches regarding the film's subject matter and use of "bad words." As Brooks says, "The engine that drove 'Blazing Saddles' was hatred of the black, it was racial prejudice -- without that, it would not have had nearly the significance, the force and the impact that it did." I'm not sure I'm entirely sold on his comedic approach, but he makes an impassioned argument for his artistic aims, so this is a must-listen whether you love the film or hate it.
Next up is the 28-minute retrospective featurette "Back in the Saddle," which I enjoyed as much as the commentary. Interviewed are Brooks, co-screenwriter Andrew Bergman and many of the film's stars, including Gene Wilder, Burton Gilliam and Harvey Korman. As Bergman says, the filmmakers were hoping to portray a "hip, 1974 sensibility in a 1874 setting," which included courting great controversy. They tackle some of the trouble they stirred up both behind and in front of the camera, from the incendiary subject matter to the hiring and subsequent firing of Richard Pryor as both co-screenwriter and star, who had to be let go due to studio fears over his stand-up persona (and well-publicized drug use). A nice, pretty comprehensive retrospective.
Unfortunately, the film's other "featurette" is a far, far too short 3-minute excerpt from the Lifetime cable special "Intimate Portrait: Madeline Kahn." Brooks, Dom DeLuise and Lily Tomlin all discuss working with the actress in 'Blazing Saddles,' and it is a nice tribute. The late Kahn was always hilarious, and her life story is fascinating -- I've seen the complete "Intimate Portrait" special, and it is shame it couldn't be presented here in its complete form.
More extras include the complete 1975 TV pilot for "Black Bart," which inspired the film (and was also its original working title). It runs 23 minutes and it is presented in fairly good-looking 480i full screen video. There are also eight minutes of alternate scenes, most of which have long appeared in broadcast airings of 'Blazing Saddles.' Some sorta-funny stuff here, but most of the scenes feel like padding nonetheless.
Last but not least, the film's theatrical trailer in 2.40:1 widescreen and 480p video.
I guess I'm one of the few that never warmed much to Mel Brooks' brand of scatological satire. I appreciate his zaniness, and certainly his willingness to venture into areas few other comedic filmmakers would ever dare, but then maybe there is a good reason so few haven't. 'Blazing Saddles' has its share of inspired moments of lunacy, a great cast and some classic sequences. But I still cringed as much as I chuckled. But no matter -- if you are a fan of the film, you'll likely appreciate this HD DVD. The transfer offers a fairly good upgrade, though the format still can't do much with the dated soundtrack. The extras are also exactly the same as the previous standard DVD release. So this is worth a purchase if you don't yet own 'Blazing Saddles' on disc, though all others may not find this upgrade worth the price of admission.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.