Mel Brooks turns 95 today, so what better time to look back at his funniest movie?
Blazing Saddles is shocking today, but it’s always been shocking. The western parody’s central conceit is to demythologize the genre as thoroughly as possible. The main result of that is Brooks portraying the typical heroes of the western—the mythic American cowboy, and the simple God-fearing town folk that they protect—as virulent, hateful racists, as they most likely would have been in real life in the staggeringly racist and hateful late 1800s. Some will find a movie that tries to mine the most shocking and painful slurs for humor to be fundamentally racist, especially one written by four white men; its fifth writer was Richard Pryor, though, and its his tradition of using comedy to openly criticize White America for its perpetual racism that informs Blazing Saddles.
Yes, many have no doubt laughed at the movie for the wrong reasons. Yes, Fox News types who complain that “you couldn’t make Blazing Saddles today,” as if its repeated use of the N word is the movie’s most important aspect, might have some pointy sheets hanging in their closet. And you can certainly hold Blazing Saddles partially to blame for “ironic racism” and countless attempts to do something similar in the decades since that don’t have an ounce of the original’s wit or intelligence. Its legacy is absolutely mixed, and we can’t fault anybody who doesn’t like the movie or believes the way it addresses racism is counterproductive.
If you can accept that the movie uses the language it does for a very specific and very pointed purpose, Blazing Saddles is one of the funniest movies you’ll ever see. Brooks was at the height of his power as a writer and satirist, Cleavon Little feasted on the movie role of a lifetime, and Gene Wilder is as brilliant as ever in his catatonically depressed depiction of an alcoholic gunslinger. As with so many of Brooks’ movies, it’s impeccably cast from top to bottom, with comedy pros like Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn, and Brooks himself sidling up alongside familiar western faces like Slim Pickens. Although not quite at the machine gun pace of the Zucker Abrahams Zucker movies that started a few years later, Blazing Saddles still has an almost overwhelming amount of jokes, with Brooks and his cowriters squeezing them in wherever possible. And as with much of Brooks’ work, it has a gleefully meta bent, with characters routinely referencing things and people that wouldn’t exist until the next century, and the whole film spilling into another movie by the end.
Of course, there are a lot of lines in Blazing Saddles that we wouldn’t ever actually say, type, or repeat in any form of communication ourselves, and even if you haven’t seen the movie you probably know exactly what we’re talking about. The movie uses slurs throughout to mock and comment on America’s history of widespread virulent racism, and although it can be shocking and hilarious in context, when divorced from the film itself those lines just look like hate speech. There are also a few openly homophobic lines that have aged far worse than the movie’s racial humor. Reducing Blazing Saddles to just those jokes is a disservice to the rest of the movie and the men who wrote it, including Brooks and Pryor, and one reason this list exists is to point out that there’s more to this movie than just its most infamous lines.
So let’s tread carefully as we go back and remember the best lines from Blazing Saddles—or at least the ones we’d be comfortable enough to say or write ourselves.
Charlie: “They said you was hung.”
Bart: “And they was right.”
Mel Brooks never met a double entendre—or a dick joke—that he didn’t love. So when the railroad worker Charlie sees that his friend and fellow coworker Bart wasn’t actually hanged, as he assumed, his surprised reaction is a perfect setup for Brooks and his writers to scratch both itches at the same time. Smartly the movie doesn’t focus too hard on the line; Cleavon Little tosses it off in his reliably cool manner and the conversation doesn’t skip a beat. Much of what Little says in Blazing Saddles falls into that category of lines I mentioned in the intro, but don’t let the paucity of quotes from his character in this list make you think he’s not its star. He absolutely carries the film, maintaining a constant tone of bemused contempt behind his façade of affability, even while he’s constantly insulted by the people he’s trying to help. He’s clearly the smartest guy in the movie, and he clearly knows it.
Bart: “Well, Jim, since you are my guest and I am your host, what’s your pleasure? What do you like to do?”
Jim: “Oh, I don’t know. Play chess. [pause] Screw.”
Bart: “Well, let’s play chess.”
Jim: “Look at my hand.” (He raises his right hand and keeps it perfectly still.)
Bart: “Steady as a rock.”
Jim: (He raises his left hand, which is twitching spastically.) “Yeah, but I shoot with this one.”
Jim: “Well, it got so that every piss-ant prairie punk who thought he could shoot a gun would ride into town to try out the Waco Kid. I must have killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille. It got pretty gritty. I started to hear the word ‘draw’ in my sleep. Then one day, I was just walking down the street when I heard a voice behind me say, ‘Reach for it, mister!’ I spun around, and there I was, face to face with a six-year old kid. Well, I just threw my guns down and walked away. Little bastard shot me in the ass. So I limped to the nearest saloon, crawled inside a whiskey bottle… and I’ve been there ever since.”
Jim: (In response to Bart getting upset over how racist everybody is towards him, despite going out of his way to be polite to them) “What did you expect? ‘Welcome, sonny’? ‘Make yourself at home’? ‘Marry my daughter’? You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.”
Gene Wilder brings a calming presence to the comic chaos of Blazing Saddles with his performance as the washed up gunslinger Jim. Pretty much the only person in Rock Ridge who doesn’t immediately recoil at the sight of Bart, the former Waco Kid becomes a crucial ally in the new sheriff’s efforts to foil Hedley Lamarr’s scheme. The entire scene where Wilder and Little first meet is a masterclass not just in comedy writing but acting, as well, with Little sliding into the straight man role as Wilder and his brilliantly sad eyes deadpan their way through Jim’s tragic backstory.
Taggart: “What do you want me to do, sir?”
Hedley Lamarr: “I want you to round up every vicious criminal and gunslinger in the west. Take this down. I want rustlers, cut throats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass-kickers, shit-kickers and Methodists.
Taggart: (finally finding something to write with) “Could you repeat that, sir?”
Governor Lepetomane: “Thank you, Hedy, thank you.”
Hedley Lamarr: “It’s not Hedy, it’s Hedley. Hedley Lamarr.”
Governor Lepetomane: “What the hell are you worried about? This is 1874. You’ll be able to sue her.”
Every good western needs a memorable villain, even if it’s a parody. Blazing Saddles features Harvey Korman at his slimiest as Hedley Lamarr, the conniving lawyer who wants to force the people of Rock Ridge to flee so he can sell the land to a railroad company. The high-strung Korman just has something innately unlikable about him, which made him a perfect partner to the imminently likable Tim Conway on The Carol Burnett Show. There’s no Conway to be found in Blazing Saddles (he’d get his western moment a few years later with The Apple Dumpling Gang), but Korman is joined by legendary cowboy actor (and Dr. Strangelove nuke wrangler) Slim Pickens as his henchman Taggart, and Mel Brooks himself as the capricious, vain, and easily duped Governor Lepetomane. And when good old fashioned corruption and chicanery isn’t enough, and they need even more muscle to power their threats, Lamarr and Co. call in…
Mongo: “Mongo only pawn… in game of life.”
That’s not the only line Alex Karras’s brutish enforcer has in Blazing Saddles, but it’s the only one he ever needed, as it sums up the entire character in seven self-aware words. Mongo realizes his own destiny is simply to be used as a tool by those with more power and intelligence than him; it takes his ill-fated run-in with Bart to make Mongo realize he doesn’t have to blindly obey Lamarr, and he ultimately helps Bart and Jim in bringing his former boss down. Oh, and it wasn’t a line, but clearly Mongo slugging a horse is about as hilarious as horse violence gets.
Lili Von Shtupp: “Here I stand, the goddess of desire / Set men on fire / I have this power / Morning, noon, and night is dwink and dancing / Some quick womancing / And then a shower. / Stage-door Johnnies constantly suwwound me. / They alvays hound me / Vith vone wequest. / Who can satisfy their lustful habit? / I’m not a wabbit! / I need some weeest.
I’m tired, sick and tired of love. / I’ve had my fill of love / From below and above. / Tired, tired of being admired / Tired of love uninspired. / Let’s face it, I’m tired. / I’ve been vith thousands of men / Again and again / They pwomise the moon / They’re alvays coming and going / and going and coming / And alvays too soon. Wight, girls? / I’m tired, tired of playing the game. / Ain’t it a cwying shame? I’m so tired. / Goddammit, I’m exhausted.”
Lili Von Shtupp: “Hello, handsome, is that a ten-gallon hat or are you just enjoying the show?”
Madeline Kahn reminds the entire world that she was just the goddamned best with her turn as Lili Von Shtupp, the (very, very tired) showgirl who Lamarr tasks with seducing Bart. Von Shtupp’s supposedly sexy song consists entirely of her explaining how damn exhausting men and their obsession with sex are, as the point flies well over the heads of all the horny cowboys in the audience. Kahn reveals how thin the line is between sultry Garbo-esque cool and listless depression, recasting the stereotypical lingerie-clad seductress from a woman’s perspective in the process.