Before Borat, there was Brooks. Thirty-two years prior to Sacha Baron Cohen’s sharply satirical look at prejudice and intolerance hit movie screens, Mel Brooks took a similar stab at those topics via Blazing Saddles, his comedy classic that has recently been released on Blu-ray from Warner Home Video.
Blazing Saddles is the story of a convict named Bart (Cleavon Little), who is appointed the first black sheriff of the all-white town of Rock Ridge by Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman), who hopes this selection will chase the townspeople from their homes so he can snatch up their land. The citizens”, who all seem to be named Johnson, are rather hostile at first to Bart, but he eventually wins them over. When he discovers that his appointment was nothing more than being part of Lamarr’s big plan, Bart enlists the help of the townspeople and an alcoholic gunslinger (Gene Wilder), formerly known as the Waco Kid, to save Rock Ridge.
Using the tired and true “Land Baron vs. Townsfolk” plot as a springboard, Brooks and company let loose with a barrage of satirical, scatological and racial humor, brought to life by Brooks” sharp comic timing and a spirited ensemble cast which also includes Madeline Kahn as German cabaret singer Lilly Von Schtuup, Slim Pickens as Lamarr’s henchman, Alex Karras as Mongo (a character written by Richard Pryor) and Brooks himself in two roles: one as a dim-witted governor, and a smaller role as a Yiddish-speaking Native American Chief.
Blazing Saddles is as funny and sharply satirical today as it was back in 1974. Could something this un-PC be made in today’s soceity? With a few changes here and there, namely in its liberal use of the “N” word, I would say absolutely. Like Borat, if Saddles were nothing more than just a collection of vulgar and racially-themed jokes, chances are that Brooks would be run out of town (mind you, I said if the film were made today). But like Borat, Blazing Saddles shows it has more on its mind than just being offensive by mixing sharp observations about intolerance and prejudice in with the humor.
Blazing Saddles was among the first titles that Warner Home Video released on both HD DVD and Blu-ray formats (the HD DVD came out in May of 2006 and on Blu-ray four months later). While the first batch of Warner Blu-ray titles were MPEG-2 encoded transfers, the second wave used the same VC-1 encode that HD DVD did. Saddles is presented in a VC-1, 1080p encode and in its original 2.40:1 theatrical ratio.
In doing a comparison between the HD DVD and Blu-ray editions, the only real differences I could find between the two releases were in the way the menus were handled. The HD DVD has the menu rise up from the bottom of the screen whereas the Blu-ray pops up on the bottom of the screen and then takes you to a static page listing. And that is where the differences begin and end.
Don’t let the grainy opening titles fool you. For a 32-year old film, Blazing Saddles looks fantastic. There is a slight bit of softness to the print in spots and you might see a mark here and there due to age, but overall this transfer is superb. Colors are vibrant, flesh tones and black levels are rock solid and grain is practically non-existent. Perhaps most impressive of all is the level of detail on display. From Bart’s sheriff outfit to the roof of Howard Johnson’s outhouse, Saddles looks like it was shot yesterday.
On both formats the audio is also quite good if not as overly impressive as the video presentation (I can’t see how it could be). The HD DVD has a Dolby Digital Plus audio track, whereas the Blu-ray has a Dolby Digital track. Since the film’s soundstage is mostly regulated to the front speakers (dialogue clearly presented through the center channel, music and sound effects through the left and right fronts), I seriously doubt the “Plus” on the HD-DVD gives the soundtrack any sort of advantage over Blu-ray. Surrounds are used once or twice on occasion, but you really have to be listening closely to determine where and when. As far as I can tell, the infamous campfire scene was not one of those scenes (damnit).
Blazing Saddles has a decent amount of extras (identical on both HD DVD and Blu-ray versions), all ported over from the 30th anniversary release of the regular DVD back in 2003. An audio interview that Brooks recorded for the original 1997 DVD release starts things off. The filmmaker provides some interesting tidbits about the production and comes across as amiable and easygoing throughout. Warner refers to it as an audio commentary, but since it only runs for a little more than half of the film, I think it resembles an interview more than anything else.
Back in the Saddle (4×3, 480p full frame) is a 28-minute retrospective look back at the making of the film and features interviews with Brooks, screenwriter Andrew Bergman, stars Harvey Korman and Gene Wilder and a few others associated with the production. They candidly talk about the risqué nature and significance of the script’s race-themed material as well as working with Richard Pryor (who was once pegged to play Sheriff Bart), Cleavon Little and Madeline Kahn.
Intimate Portrait: Madeline Kahn (4×3, 480p full frame) is an all-too brief excerpt from a television special that has a few celebrities looking back on working with the late comedienne. It runs only a few minutes, but given the fact that Kahn was up for an Oscar for her work in this film, one would have expected the tribute to run a bit longer.
Up next is approximately nine minutes of outtakes and deleted scenes, most of which appeared in the film’s broadcast TV airings. Nothing too special here, but if you ever wondered what the campfire scene would be like after network censors got their mitts on it, your answer can be found in this section. The scenes are presented in 4×3 non-anamorphic widescreen and are in decent but soft condition.
The theatrical trailer (2:15) is up next, followed by the 1975 television pilot based on the film entitled “Black Bart” (4×3, 480p full frame). This 23-minute endurance test is an embarrassment to everyone involved with the production and to those who are unlucky enough to sit through it at home (it took me two separate viewings to finish it). Louis Gossett, Jr. plays Bart (odd to see him with hair) and Steve Landesberg plays the Gene Wilder role. This show retains the racial nature of the movie, but forgets to add the subtext and laughs (I guess that is what the canned laugh track is for). On the plus side, the picture quality is quite good for something that should have been burned and destroyed immediately after airing 31 years ago.
Blazing Saddles is a comedy classic, one that matches its laughs with some acute observations as relevant in 2006 as they were in 1974. Warner Home Video has released a Blu-Ray disc that offers a great transfer and worthwhile extras (providing you stay away from “Black Bart”). If this isn’t in your High Definition library yet, I highly recommend it finds its way their soon.
After all” you’d do it for Randolph Scott.
– Shawn Fitzgerald