‘Blazing Saddles’: What a Difference a few Decades Makes

As part of my process of reviewing “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank,” I decided to re-watch “Blazing Saddles.” I’m a great fan of Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little, but since I first saw the film, I’ve learned a lot about Asian American history. “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” was originally meant to be called “Blazing Samurai,” but someone decided to give a nod to an Asian martial arts classic: the 1972 Hong Kong Bruce Lee film “Fist of Fury.” 

The Bruce Lee vehicle was a martial arts film set in 1910, with Lee playing a student, Chen Zhen,  ho must defend the honor of the Chinese during a time of Japanese colonialism. Zhen must bring to justice the people who were responsible for his master’s death and there’s no happy ending.  Don’t worry. In “Paws of Fury: Legend of Hank,” no dogs die. 

Mel Brooks has produced a few cinematic dogs, but every dog has its day and for Brooks, “Blazing Saddles” was one of them. Yet for me, “Blazing Saddles” is a case where ignorance is bliss. 

“Blazing Saddles” is a 1974 film that took on racism in a way that erased the actual racism in the United States. Taking place in an unnamed state in the West in 1874, the film begins as the foreman of a new railroad that is under construction is making requests of his workers. While there are a couple of Chinese workers (uncredited and only identifiable because of the hats they wear), the main group is Black because this is about the racism faced by African Americans in a post-Civil War Wild West. Sent out to investigate the land further down where the rail has been laid and barely being saved from quicksand, Bart (Cleavon Little) commits a crime that sends him to the hangman. But Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) decides to make Bart the sheriff of the town of Rock Ridge.

Because the railroad is now forced to detour through Rock Ridge to avoid quicksand, the Rock Ridge land will be worth a lot of money. Lamarr’s plan is to drive the people out by appointing a sheriff that will offend the people so much they will leave in disgust.  Bart isn’t welcomed yet he befriends find a fast-drawing gunslinger Jim (Gene Wilder),  the Waco Kid, who becomes his deputy. When the townspeople won’t leave and Bart won’t give up, Hedley Lamarr separately sends in a large lout, Mongo (Alex Karras), and a femme fatale, Lili Von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn) to deter Bart, but neither works. Mongo befriends Bart and provides some important information and Lili falls in lust. There’s reference to sex that is outdated but complimentary to Black men.

You might remember that the N-word was used in the original “Blazing Saddles,” but that film was about racism. “Blazing Saddles” had a Black lead, Cleavon Little. One of the writers was Black, Richard Pryor. Gene Wilder is Jewish. Two minorities taking on the West. Its humor is mostly anachronisms and reverse ethnic jokes. 

However, Black people did not help build the first transcontinental railroad. Known originally as the “Pacific Railroad,” the line was constructed between 1863 and 1869. The Transcontinental Railroad was 

According to the Smithsonian article, Chinese laborers made up “the main body of labor for Central Pacific, as the company constructed the hardest stretch of the railroad, through the Sierra Nevada Mountains.”

African Americans  built most of the railroads in the South according to Theodore Kornweibel, Professor Emeritus of African American History at San Diego State University.  The National Park Service for the Gauley Bridge Railroad Station in West Virginia (constructed in 1893, notes that the workers were predominately Black. The legend of John Henry springs from West Virginia

There were other lines built. According to the Library of Congress, between 1871 and 1900, 170,000 miles of track was added to the railroad system, including four additional transcontinental railroads. 

There would be a Silver Spike Ceremony in 1883 for the Western Division which was responsible for the track between El Paso and the Pecos River. 

At peak construction in January-February 1882, Strobridge’s Western Division was pushing to complete the last 20 miles of track and employed upwards of 7,000 people, 6,000 of whom were reported to have been Chinese laborers. Once the line was completed in 1883, most of the Chinese laborers eventually went back to California after working in the Mojave Desert on a branch line to tap the Arizona and Pacific Lines. Only a handful of the Chinese workers remained in Texas.

At this time, much of the construction work on the U.S. rail system was done by Chinese immigrants. But, most of what we know about their contributions is restricted to period literature about areas in California, Nevada, and Utah.

Remember that once the construction was done, the Chinese became unwelcome on a federal level as signified by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. With the Chinese out, the Japanese workers began to take their place on the railroads. According to “Building Tracks to New Beginnings: Japanese Railroad Workers in the West“: 

After working on a section gang himself, Edward Daigoro Hashimoto found his way to Salt Lake City and established the E. D. Hashimoto Company in 1902. Nicknamed “The Mikado”, he furnished section gangs for the Western Pacific and Denver Rio Grande Railroads, along with miners for Bingham and Carbon County. By 1906, over 13,000 Japanese immigrants worked for the railroads. A few years later, at the urging of anti-Asian groups in the west, Japan was pressured and agreed to stop labor immigration to the United States under the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1908.

About 1/8 of the Japanese immigrants by 1909 were on the payroll of railroad companies in Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado according to the NPS website for Manzanar

As much of the territory had been part of Mexico, it should not be surprising that between 1870-1930, Mexican workers helped build railroads across the Midwestern and Western United States. 

The first Black deputy was US Marshal Bass Reeves who was hired in 1875. I cannot find an instance where a marshal or sheriff in the West during that time period was Chinese American. The time period of “Blazing Saddles” was when the Chinese were being forcibly expelled from cities, towns and settlements in the West. Lynchings in the West targeted Latinos, Native Americans and Asians (mostly Chinese) not Black or African Americans.  It would be African Americans who would be able to find steady work on the railroads as Pullman porters. The African American porters would eventually work together with Filipino workers to form a union at the Pullman Company. 

Filipinos were US citizens whereas, Chinese and Japanese were not allowed to naturalize and only because of United States v. Wong Kim Ark, their children were allowed to be citizens. Limitations on immigration prevented the Chinese and Japanese from forming families or building bigger communities until after World War II. 

While the Chinese are represented slightly in the Mel Brooks comedy, the focus is on prejudice toward African Americans which no doubt existed, but not to the extent as was shown toward the Chinese and later the Japanese and the Filipinos in the West. “Blazing Saddles” works best if you aren’t aware of the history of the railroads built in the West. 

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