The film satirizes the racism obscured by myth-making Hollywood accounts of the American West, with the hero being a black sheriff in an all-white town. The film is full of deliberate anachronisms, from the Count Basie Orchestra playing "April in Paris" in the Wild West, to Slim Pickens referring to the Wide World of Sports, to the German army of World War II.
In the American frontier of 1874, construction on a new railroad will soon be going through Rock Ridge, a frontier town inhabited exclusively by white people with the surname Johnson. The conniving State attorney general Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) wants to force Rock Ridge's residents to abandon their town, thereby lowering land prices. After he sends a gang of thugs, led by his flunky assistant Taggart (Slim Pickens), to shoot the sheriff and trash the town, the townspeople demand that Governor William J. Le Petomane (Mel Brooks) appoint a new sheriff to protect them. Lamarr persuades the dim-witted Le Petomane to appoint Bart (Cleavon Little), a black railroad worker who was about to be executed for starting a fight. A black sheriff, he reasons, will offend the townspeople, create chaos, and leave the town at his mercy.
With his quick wits and the assistance of recovering alcoholic gunfighter Jim, the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), Bart works to overcome the townspeople's hostile reception. He subdues Mongo (Alex Karras), an immensely strong, dim-witted, but philosophical henchman sent to kill him, and then beats German seductress-for-hire Lili von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn) at her own game. Lamarr, furious that his schemes have backfired, hatches a larger plan involving a recruited army of thugs, including common criminals, Ku Klux Klansmen, Nazi soldiers, and Methodists.
Three miles east of Rock Ridge, Bart introduces the white townspeople to the black and Chinese railroad workers—who have agreed to help in exchange for acceptance by the community — and explains his plan to defeat Lamarr's army. They labor all night to build a perfect replica of their town, as a diversion; but with no people in it, Bart realizes it won't fool the villains. While the townspeople construct replicas of themselves, Bart, Jim, and Mongo buy time by constructing the "Gov. William J. Le Petomane Thruway," forcing the raiding party to turn back for "a shitload of dimes" to pay the toll. Once through the tollbooth, the raiders attack the fake town populated with dummies, which are boobytrapped with dynamite bombs. After Jim detonates the bombs with his sharpshooting, launching bad guys and horses skyward, the Rock Ridgers storm the villains.
The resulting brawl between townsfolk, railroad workers, and Lamarr's thugs breaks the fourth wall - literally -spilling onto a neighboring set where director Buddy Bizarre (Dom DeLuise) is directing a Busby Berkeley-style top-hat-and-tails musical number; then into the studio commissary for a food fight; and then out of the Warner Bros. film lot into the streets of Burbank. Lamarr, realizing he has been beaten again, hails a taxi and orders the driver to "drive me off this picture". He ducks into Grauman's Chinese Theatre, which is playing the premiere of Blazing Saddles. As he settles into his seat, he sees Bart arriving on horseback outside the theatre. Bart blocks Lamarr's escape, and then, in a spoof of a classic cinematic gunfight, shoots him in the groin. Bart and Jim then go into Grauman's to watch the end of the film, in which Bart announces to the townspeople that he is moving on, for his work there is done (and he is bored). Riding out of town, he finds Jim (finishing his popcorn), and invites him along to "nowhere special". The two friends ride off into the sunset—in a chauffeured stretch limousine.
Cast notesCount Basie had a cameo appearance with his band, playing "April in Paris" in the middle of the desert as Bart rides toward Rock Ridge to assume the post of sheriff.Brooks cast himself in three on-screen roles—Governor Le Petomane, the Yiddish-speaking Indian chief, and an applicant for Hedley Lamarr's thug army (an aviator wearing sunglasses and a flight jacket)—and two off-screen voice roles—one of Lili's German chorus boys during "I'm Tired," and a moviegoer.
The idea for the film came from a story outline written by Andrew Bergman that he originally intended to develop and produce himself. "I wrote a first draft called Tex-X," (a play on Malcolm X's name), he said. "Alan Arkin was hired to direct and James Earl Jones was going to play the sheriff. That fell apart, as things often do." Brooks was taken with the story, which he described as "hip talk—1974 talk and expressions—happening in 1874 in the Old West," and purchased the film rights from Bergman. Though he had not worked with a writing team since Your Show of Shows, he hired a group of writers (including Bergman) to expand the outline, and posted a large sign: "Please do not write a polite script." Brooks described the writing process as chaotic: "Blazing Saddles was more or less written in the middle of a drunken fistfight. There were five of us all yelling loudly for our ideas to be put into the movie. Not only was I the loudest, but luckily I also had the right as director to decide what was in or out." Bergman remembers the room being just as chaotic, telling Creative Screenwriting, "In the beginning, we had five people. One guy left after a couple of weeks. Then, it was basically me, Mel, Richie Pryor and Norman Steinberg. Richie left after the first draft and then Norman, Mel and I wrote the next three or four drafts. It was a riot. It was a rioter’s room!"
The original title, Tex X, was rejected, as were Black Bart and Purple Sage. Brooks said he finally conceived Blazing Saddles one morning while taking a shower. For the movie's title song, Brooks advertised in the trade papers for a "Frankie Laine-type" singer; to his surprise, Laine himself offered his services. "Frankie sang his heart out . . . and we didn't have the heart to tell him it was a spoof. He never heard the whip cracks; we put those in later. We got so lucky with his serious interpretation of the song."
Casting was problematic. Richard Pryor was Brooks' original choice to play the sheriff, but the studio, claiming his history of drug arrests made him uninsurable, refused to approve financing with Pryor as the star. Cleavon Little was cast in the role, and Pryor remained as a writer. Brooks offered the other leading role, the Waco Kid, to John Wayne; he declined, deeming the film "too blue" for his family-oriented image, but assured Brooks that "he would be the first one in line to see it." Gig Young was cast, but he collapsed during his first scene from what was later determined to be alcohol withdrawal syndrome, and Gene Wilder was flown in to replace him. Johnny Carson and Wilder both turned down the Hedley Lamarr role before Harvey Korman was cast. Madeline Kahn objected when Brooks asked to see her legs during her audition. "She said, 'So it’s THAT kind of an audition?'" Brooks recalled. "I explained that I was a happily married man and that I needed someone who could straddle a chair with her legs like Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again. So she lifted her skirt and said, 'No touching.'"
Brooks had numerous conflicts over content with Warner Bros. executives, including frequent use of the word "nigger," Lili Von Shtupp's seduction scene, the cacophony of flatulence around the campfire, and Mongo punching out a horse. Brooks, whose contract gave him final content control, declined to make any substantive changes, with the exception of cutting Bart's final line during Lili's seduction: "I hate to disappoint you, ma'am, but you're sucking my arm." When asked later about the many "nigger" references, Brooks said he received consistent support from Pryor and Little. He added, "If they did a remake of Blazing Saddles today, they would leave out the N-word. And then, you've got no movie." Brooks said he received many letters of complaint after the film's release, " . . . but of course, most of them were from white people."
The film was almost not released. “When we screened it for executives, there were few laughs," said Brooks. "The head of distribution said, 'Let’s dump it and take a loss.’ But [studio president John] Calley insisted they open it in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago as a test. It became the studio’s top moneymaker that summer.” The world premiere took place on February 7, 1974, at the Pickwick Drive-In Theater in Burbank; 250 invited guests—including Little and Wilder—watched the film on horseback.
Hedy Lamarr sued Warner Bros., charging that the film's running parody of her name infringed on her right to privacy. Brooks said he was flattered; the studio settled out of court for a small sum and an apology for “almost using her name." Brooks said that Lamarr "never got the joke."
While the film is now considered a classic comedy, critical reaction was mixed when the film was released. Vincent Canby wrote:
Blazing Saddles has no dominant personality, and it looks as if it includes every gag thought up in every story conference. Whether good, bad or mild, nothing was thrown out. Woody Allen's comedy, though very much a product of our Age of Analysis, recalls the wonder and discipline of people like Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. Mr. Brooks's sights are lower. His brashness is rare, but his use of anachronism and anarchy recalls not the great film comedies of the past, but the middling ones like the Hope-Crosby "Road" pictures. With his talent he should do much better than that.
Roger Ebert gave the film four stars and called it a "crazed grabbag of a movie that does everything to keep us laughing except hit us over the head with a rubber chicken. Mostly, it succeeds. It's an audience picture; it doesn't have a lot of classy polish and its structure is a total mess. But of course! What does that matter while Alex Karras is knocking a horse cold with a right cross to the jaw?"
The film grossed $119.5 million at the box office, becoming only the tenth film up to that time to pass the $100 million mark.
On the film-critics aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film has 90% positive reviews, saying, "Daring, provocative, and laugh-out-loud funny, Blazing Saddles is a gleefully vulgar spoof of Westerns that marks a high point in Mel Brooks' storied career."
Awards and honors
The film received three Academy Award nominations in 1974: Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Madeline Kahn), Best Film Editing, and Best Music, Original Song (the title song). The film also earned two BAFTA awards nominations, for Best Newcomer (Cleavon Little) and Best Screenplay.
The film won the Writers Guild of America Award for "Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen" for writers Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, and Alan Uger.
In 2006, Blazing Saddles was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:1998: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies – Nominated2000: AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs – #62004: AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs:"I'm Tired" – Nominated2005: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:Bart: "Excuse me while I whip this out." – Nominated2007: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – Nominated2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:Nominated Western Film
A television series titled Black Bart was produced for CBS based on Bergman's original story. It featured Louis Gossett, Jr. as Bart and Steve Landesberg as his drunkard sidekick, a former Confederate officer named "Reb Jordan." Other cast members included Millie Slavin and Noble Willingham. Bergman is listed as the sole creator.
CBS aired the pilot once on April 4, 1975. The pilot episode featured guest appearances by Gerrit Graham and Brooke Adams and was written by Michael Elias and Rich Eustis. Elias and Eutis later created and executive produced the ABC sitcom Head of the Class (1986–1991).
Interviewed in 1996, Steve Landesberg said Black Bart "was like a joke. . . . We did the pilot, and CBS dumped it at the end of the 1975 season in April or May on a Friday. We thought it was done, then CBS tells us to come back and film six more episodes. And then another six. Six episodes each season, when an order was usually for 24 or 26. I was on Barney Miller by that point, and we'd film during the winter break when all other TV shows were on hiatus. And they never aired any of them. It was like a sick joke. If I wasn't under contract I would have walked, but they were paying me so I can't complain."
In 1989, Louis Gossett, Jr. told Entertainment Tonight, "CBS and Warner Bros. made a deal. . . . The deal was that CBS would get to air Blazing Saddles, and any sequels from the movie, in exchange for co-producing a TV show. At the time Warners wanted to make Blazing Saddles into a comedy series of films, a new one coming out every year or so. They wanted to use the model that the Brits had for the Carry On films. But [Mel] Brooks had a clause in his contract that said Warner had to keep producing Blazing Saddles stories, in the movies or TV, or they'd lose the rights to make sequels. The TV show was a way to keep the rights. They didn't have to air it, just keep producing it. So for four years I spent my winter on a soundstage being paid to be in show that would never see the light of day, just so Warners could keep the sequel rights to Blazing Saddles. By 1979 they finally figured out the market had changed and they weren't going to make any sequels, so we were cancelled, if a show that never was supposed to air can be cancelled."
Mel Brooks addressed the existence of the Black Bart series in 2005: "My lawyers, bless their souls, came to me and said, 'Warner Bros. is going to try and take away your control of the movie. Let's put in a crazy condition that says they can't do any sequels unless they make it right away or make a TV show out of it within six months.' Which is brilliant. They couldn't make a sequel in six months, and the movie was too vulgar to be a TV show. Now it would air in family hour if that was still a thing. So the lawyers put that in, never thinking they'd make a TV show. . . . In 1977, three years later, Warner Bros.comes to me and says they want to make another Blazing Saddles, and I say, 'No. You don't have the right to do that.' They say, 'Yes we do, we've been making a TV series and still control the rights.' What TV series? I haven't seen a TV show. They take me onto the lot, into a projection booth, and show me three episodes. My lawyers never thought to put in language that said they had to air the damn thing, only that they had to make it. Oy gevalt! Well, management changed and they never did Blazing Saddles 2, and as far as I know they're still making that stupid show to this day."
The pilot episode of Black Bart was later included as a bonus feature on the Blazing Saddles 30th Anniversary DVD and the Blu-ray disc.
The first studio-licensed release of the full music soundtrack to Blazing Saddles was on La-La Land Records on August 26, 2008. Remastered from original studio vault elements, the limited edition CD (a run of 3000) features the songs from the film as well as composer John Morris's score. Instrumental versions of all the songs are bonus tracks on the disc. The disc features exclusive liner notes featuring comments from Mel Brooks and John Morris.
The 2017 animated film Blazing Samurai, starring Michael Cera, Samuel L. Jackson, Michelle Yeoh, and Ricky Gervais, has been characterized by its creators as "equally inspired by and an homage to Blazing Saddles." Brooks served as an executive producer for the production, and voiced one of the characters.
The film was first released on DVD in 1997. In 2006, the film was released on Blu-ray. A 40th Anniversary Blu-Ray set was released in 2014.