Actor Mel Brooks (left) sits on the floor beside Harvey Korman as Cleavon Little kneels atop a desk, in a still from the film, 'Blazing Saddles,' directed by Mel Brooks, 1974. (Photo by Warner Bros./Courtesy of Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Disclaimer: Mel Brooks is cancelled

HBO attempts to protect snowflakes from Blazing Saddles

It seems like only yesterday that HBO Max, the financially troubled American cable television network’s new film streaming service, signalled its virtue by removing Gone With The Wind from viewing so that the classic film could be properly “contextualised” as what presenter and University of Chicago film professor Jacqueline Stewart calls “a prime text for examining expressions of white supremacy in popular culture”. She believes this is useful for the “re-education” of audiences who might otherwise stray into thoughtcrime.

Mel Brooks’s smash hit 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles, which seems to have been added to HBO Max since the Gone With The Wind dust up and is known for its liberal use of the feared and loathed “n-word”, arrived with a similarly patronising disclaimer already installed. In a three-minute introduction that apparently cannot be skipped over, Stewart is there again, this time to inform viewers that “racist language and attitudes pervade the film”, while instructing them that “those attitudes are espoused by characters who are portrayed here as explicitly small-minded, ignorant bigots … The real, and much more enlightened, perspective is provided by the main characters played by Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder”.

Thanks, Aunt Jacqueline. If you have not seen Blazing Saddles – and if you are under the age of forty there is an excellent chance some prudish authority figure sanitised it out of your cosseted millennial existence – it stands as one of the greatest, and the certainly the funniest, anti-racist films of all time. Based on a story by Andrew Bergman, Brooks conceived it as a scathing send-up of racism and the hypocrisy that still enabled it after the great civil rights victories of the 1960s. Brooks’s idiom was a parody of the classic Western, by then an exhausted genre that had, among other flaws, become inanely predictable and was much criticised for leaving out minorities. A landmark of American film, Blazing Saddles was selected in 2006 for inclusion in the US National Film Registry, which recognises “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films” worthy of preservation.

Drenched in hilarity – and by my count using the “n-word” 17 times in its 93-minute run – the plot involves a conspiracy by an avaricious U.S. state attorney general who wants to drive white settlers off land he needs to complete a profitable railroad project. After having outlaws wreak mayhem on the townspeople, he recommends that the governor appoint a black sheriff to restore law and order, cynically assuming that their racism will cause them to reject the new lawman and give up. Despite a rough initial reception, the sheriff outwits attempts to get rid of him and, with the help of a washed up but sympathetic alcoholic gunslinger, leads the townspeople to victory, winning their love and respect before moving on to other brave deeds.

Jokes are simply too risky to be told or laughed at, even in private

While HBO no longer wants to risk having its paying customers think for themselves (and what stale corporate outfit uneasily transitioning to a crowded new market wouldn’t?), it could rightly be said that anyone dumb enough to miss the film’s message might be a recent product of Anglo-American higher education. I do not mean this at all facetiously. Decaying and run by a self-important clerisy whose demands to be taken seriously only become shriller as it declines in reach and vitality – and from which any participant can be dismissed for even the slightest speech or behavioural infraction – academia naturally discourages humour. Jokes, which can almost always cause some kind of offence, are simply too risky to be told or laughed at, even in private. Finding the wrong thing funny can invite career-hobbling accusations that one has demeaned a student or colleague and thereby made them feel unacceptably “uncomfortable” or even physically “unsafe”. Perceived flippancy bruises sanctified “professional seriousness” in a way tantamount to sacrilege. The only tolerated exceptions are a kind of solemn irony that offers comfort in coping with academia’s increasing irrelevance and a resigned gallows humor about its ever more limited prospects.

Brooks’s explosive mix of satire, sarcasm, and absurdity is not only toxic in such an environment but also requires levels of abstract and critical thought that our administrative-managerial caste would prefer us not to have, leaving it to assume that someone like Jacqueline Stewart has to explain the film to us in black and white (pun intended) terms. This is not entirely new. Brooks’s first film, The Producers, which satirizes Nazism, was shunned by all major movie studios and had to be released as an independent art film. When Warner Brothers screened Blazing Saddles prior to its release, one executive was so worried about its content that he wanted to withhold it from distribution and take a financial loss. The studio chief relented, but ordered Brooks to remove all uses of the “n-word”, a directive he refused to follow. As recently as 2017, Brooks, by then a 91-year old American icon reasonably safe from cancellation, lamented that his film could not be made today because of our “stupidly politically correct” society, which he understandably believes has “killed comedy”.

From a “woke” point of view, the “n-word” is hardly the film’s only problem. Its “racist language and attitudes” extend to Mexicans, Chinese, Native Americans, Germans, Arabs, Jews, and the Irish. Brooks’s cameo appearance in full Indian dress while speaking Yiddish suggests “cultural appropriation” of a magnitude that would get him expelled from Yale on any given Halloween. The governor’s lascivious relationship with his sexpot secretary lightheartedly approaches what some joyless, sex-starved diversity bureaucrat would condemn as sexual harassment. The film seeks further taboo levity in drug abuse, capital punishment, physical and mental disabilities, cruelty to animals, and farting. Its climactic battle between the townspeople and outlaws spills into a modern studio rehearsal of stereotyped gay dancers practicing a routine called the French Mistake, an old slang term for when a heterosexual man “accidentally” wanders into same-sex relations.

HBO clearly cares above all about the racial issue, which in the current moment is the most visible and reliable lever to establish media mechanisms for thought control, and to condition mass acceptance of diminished rights of free speech and expression. There are hopeful signs that it will not succeed. In her bland moralising tone, Stewart sounds like a Soviet bureaucrat of the late 1980s cataloguing the ideological demerits of some tentatively allowed item of Western culture to a jaded young audience ready to embrace it as enthusiastically as my students did when I covertly screened Blazing Saddles for them after Gene Wilder’s death in 2016. In that moment I did, indeed, scurry around after hours like a harried Czechoslovakian dissident trying to evade the authorities on his way to an underground discussion of John Stuart Mill. Perhaps not accidentally, when the HBO story broke it was one of my students who alerted me. Now in a much safer place thousands of miles away where I am no longer working in academia, I enjoy infinitely more personal and intellectual freedom.

I am quite certain that I was the last university professor ever to show Blazing Saddles on a campus, but Stewart’s tedious social justice blandishments do oddly fit with the film in at least one way. Early on, when outlaws are beating up an old lady while terrorising the town, she looks to the camera and asks the viewer, “Have you ever seen such cruelty?” It is not hard to imagine, perhaps after a libation or two, even the stiff and sanctimonious Jacqueline Stewart turning to ask a captive HBO Max subscriber to equally comedic effect, “Have you ever seen such racism?”

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover