I walked in on my housemates watching Blazing Saddles some time ago, but being uninformed and probably half asleep, I failed to grasp that it wasn’t a traditional western film. I stood, utterly bemused by the famed tollbooth scene, with questions running through my mind faster than The Waco Kid’s bullets. This incident led to a mockery that lasted over a year, until I watched in from start to finish last week, and dispelled the theory of my lacking humour!
Blazing Saddles (1974) is a western satire directed by, and starring Mel Brooks, so it’s following in the wake of the western genre’s 1930s to 60s peak. Set in 1874, the film mirrors a traditional plot outline, wherein the sheriff and the townsfolk fight against the men who want to build a railroad through their town, but deals with this material in its own unique way.
For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, the tollbooth scene depicts the successful attempt of the sheriff of Rock Ridge to delay the approach of the corrupt Attorney General’s army of rogues and criminals. But his methods are peculiar. A tollbooth (garnered from somewhere) is installed in their path towards the town. Not only does the tollbooth stand out as a comical anachronism, but also it is dealt with so beautifully deadpan. Taggart, the leader of the group, requests someone to head back to ‘get a s**t load of dimes’ so that they can pass through one by one on horseback, which they do, apparently oblivious to the fact that they could easily go around it.
In a way, this scene epitomises the humour of the whole film – dry, self-mocking, and based on the sheer randomness of the situation and the characters’ idiosyncrasies. Meta-cinema plays a large part in the comedy; the film’s western tributes are self-consciously transformed to satire, as it parodies, twists, and pulls apart the generic features with little restraint.
In the most striking instance, the sheriff rides his horse in the country, beaming with success, with cheerful jazz music setting the mood. Viewers always buy into this convention, unaware, or at least not thinking about the fact that soundtracks are a convention… until the sheriff rides past the band performing, led anachronistically by none other than Count Basie. Suddenly I’m aware of the conscious effort behind all film soundtracks, and at this point of minor enlightenment, the film is simultaneously comical and astute.
In contrast, the character that appears purely to point out the obvious or to fully explain the plot developments does not emphasize any filmic trope. Rather, he undermines the convention of ‘implication’, by thoroughly explaining what the audience would otherwise be left to infer. I am specifically thinking of his long-winded explanation of why they are going to build a replica of the town – basically that the oncoming attackers will think it’s the town, but it’s not the town, but only they will know that it’s the fake town… to paraphrase.
Blazing Saddles is a brilliant film, and I have only touched on a few of its highlights. The racial commentary is acute, and delivered with taste, and there are so many meta-cinematic features scattered throughout the whole film. As baffling as it is, I cannot think of a better finale to the film than the mass destruction of the fourth wall that ensues. This film is finely crafted, and I implore you to watch it!