Bad Takes: 50-year old movie classic Blazing Saddles skewers contemporary targets

As in the movie, corrupt politicians and their corporate backers employ the tried-and-true tactic of sowing racial discord to divide and conquer.

click to enlarge Mel Brooks as Blazing Saddles' Gov. William J. Le Petomane and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott: the resemblance is uncanny. - Left: © 1974 - Warner Bros.; Right: Wikimedia Commons / Gage Skidmore
Left: © 1974 - Warner Bros.; Right: Wikimedia Commons / Gage Skidmore
Mel Brooks as Blazing Saddles' Gov. William J. Le Petomane and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott: the resemblance is uncanny.
A half century ago, a low-budget spoof on Hollywood Westerns became a box office smash and left an unexpectedly indelible mark on American cinema and culture.

Originally titled Tex X, an homage to human rights leader Malcolm X, the film Blazing Saddles told the tale of a daring sheriff who saved a fictional frontier town named Rock Ridge from greedy railroad profiteers. A well-worn plot, to be sure, except with one twist: the lawman, played by Cleavon Little, was Black.

Director Mel Brooks stuffed that otherwise canned storyline with dynamite, ruthlessly parodying every trope of once massively popular cowboy films — perhaps even hastening the genre’s decline, according to some critics.

And people loved it. Even though it cost less than $3 million to produce, ticket sales exceeded $100 million in fistfuls of 1974 dollars. Not bad for a movie Warner Brothers execs nearly shelved after test screening. To avoid confusion with X-rated fare, Brooks changed the title to the more appropriately melodramatic Blazing Saddles.

The film’s satire serves as an only slightly more absurd reflection of modern Southern politics. Because if you believe that extra-judicial killings and attempted land snatchings have been safely relegated to the 19th century, the joke’s on you. As with District Attorney Hedley Lamarr, played by Harvey Korman, and Gov. William J. Le Petomane, played by Brooks himself, corrupt politicians and their corporate backers continue to employ the tried-and-true tactic of sowing racial discord to divide and conquer.

Take Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent pardoning of a man convicted of murdering a Black Lives Matter protester named Garrett Foster.

“Despite all the claims this is about an old-school version of justice, being able to protect yourself, this is about empowering thugs to terrorize everyday people,” David Griscom, co-host of Austin’s Left Reckoning podcast, explained last week.

Griscom went on to describe “a very clear attempt by the Republican Party to intimidate and to instill fear in protesters: be it by the police, like we have seen at Palestinian human rights marches, where police immediately used brutal violence against folks, including the media, to an example like this, where the governor of this state could say, ‘Hey, it doesn’t matter how clear-cut the trial is, that somebody engaged in murder; you kill the right person in the state of Texas, you’re free to go.’”

In Blazing Saddles, the railroad foreman named Taggart (Slim Pickens) laments the appointment of Little’s Sheriff Bart.

“Here we take the good time and trouble to slaughter every last Indian in the West, and for what? So they can appoint a sheriff that’s blacker than any Indian. I am depressed,” he tells a henchman.

After Sheriff Bart’s attempted murder is foiled by the quick draw of his sidekick, the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), DA Lamarr musters “an army of the worst dregs ever to soil the face of the West” in a bid to “reduce Rock Ridge to ashes.”

He instructs Taggart to round up baddies ranging from rustlers and cutthroats to train robbers and Methodists.

If the movie were made today, Brooks might have added Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, January 6ers, Constitutional Sheriffs, the Boogaloos, the NRA and MAGA communists. One of the defining traits of reactionaries is to stoke — and ultimately to deputize “with stinkin’ badges” — vigilantes who can operate with sadistic impunity and, as needed, plausible deniability.

Consider whether the following news item sounds like something out of the Wild West.

“In McCurtain County, Oklahoma, Sheriff Kevin Clardy was caught on audiotape in March 2023 talking with other county leaders about how they might kill and discreetly bury the bodies of two local journalists who had written stories about alleged corruption inside his office,” CBS reported this month.

Turns out, residents had been raising allegations of misconduct about the sheriff’s office for years, “ranging from financial improprieties to excessive force and neglect of duty.”

Indeed, “three-quarters of reported crimes went unsolved in McCurtain County last year and some apparently suspicious deaths were never investigated or reported by the sheriff’s office to independent officials,” according to CBS. “But even after a viral news scandal, and a paper trail of alleged violations with audio and video evidence, Sheriff Clardy remains in power today.”

In the end of Blazing Saddles, Sheriff Bart unites the folks oppressed by Le Petomane, Lamarr and their crew and saves the day.

Despite the ugliness of our current reality, real-life endings sometimes are as happy as the one Brooks envisioned on the silver screen.

A few years back, San Antonio-baed Valero Energy and Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline tried to build a pipeline through a predominantly Black community in South Memphis and over an aquifer. The construction would have avoided a well-to-do white suburb. In early 2021, a spokesperson for the proposed pipeline said the quiet part out loud, describing the planned route as “the path of least resistance.”

Except, just like the brave townsfolk taking on Union Pacific Railroad, persistent and dedicated activists gave the corporations more than they bargained for. That summer, executives scrapped the Byhalia pipeline.

For all the wisecracks at the expense of the provincials of Rock Ridge, Brooks humanizes them, and they redeem themselves by uniting with Black railroad workers to fight a common enemy.

Yet somehow, anti-woke posers keep making the claim that Blazing Saddles couldn’t be made today like beating a dead horse.

If we take Brooks’ satire seriously, it’s imperative to remake Blazing Saddles today in our politics. That means using humor, solidarity and style while patiently constructing an inclusive, diverse working-class movement that brings together the rural and the urban.

That movement must be strong enough to not only defend what we hold dear but to outsmart the wealthy elites who treat our lives as a disposable means to ill-gotten gains.

When I say inclusive, of course, I even mean the Irish.

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