Written by Mark and Lawrence Kasdan
Directed by Lawrence Kasdan
The Western is a uniquely American genre of film, one of the few historical periods to have hundreds of films chronicling the history and myths. In the same way, fantasy films so often distort and reimagine medieval Europe, so too has the Western become a genre of film the audience agrees isn’t telling us the gritty details but rather evoking a sensibility and aesthetic. The 1940s and 50s were the heydays of the Western, the 1960s and 70s saw Italian influence as the spaghetti Western came to prominence, the impact of Japanese samurai films in pictures like the Magnificent Seven, and harsh unflinching violence in the movies like The Wild Bunch. Since the 1990s, we’ve seen waves of revisionist Westerns from Unforgiven to The Proposition. The 1980s was a strange time for these pictures, though, especially as the blockbuster took over the film industry.
Lawrence Kasdan was a very reliable name in Hollywood by the mid-1980s. He’d written special effects-driven fare like The Empire Strikes Back, The Return of the Jedi, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Kasdan also penned and directed the neo-noir Body Heat and the nostalgic comedy-drama The Big Chill. After playing in all those genres he decided to tackle the Western with Silverado. The film is not trying to challenge the tropes of the Western and is told in the style you might expect from Steven Spielberg, somewhat maudlin but not too much, a triumphant musical theme refrains throughout, the camera pushes in on faces reacting. This is a Western for the 1980s Blockbuster era.
Emmett (Scott Glenn) is ambushed by three men and doesn’t have any clue why they’d be after him. He sets off to find his brother (Kevin Costner) to suss out the situation but comes across the recently robbed Paden (Kevin Kline). The two men join up and travel into town, where Paden discovers some old criminal acquaintances of his are still active, and Emmett learns his brother has been locked up by the town constable (John Cleese). A daring jailbreak ensues, and the trio of men gets help from sharpshooter Mal (Danny Glover). The group gets involved with a wagon train that was duped by their guides, which eventually brings them all to Silverado, where the local law (Brian Dennehy) is running a brutal dictatorship. These men can’t stay uninvolved and decide to help bring an end to the injustice.
Silverado is a more complex film than older Westerns, there are three lead characters (Emmett, Paden, Mal), and each one has a very developed arc that is clearly communicated throughout the narrative. There’s no ambiguity to who the good guys and the bad guys are. The weight of the film rests on the performances of actors because the script can needlessly complex. It’s a feat of these performers that they can communicate the core of their characters and react so precisely that I often forgot how baroque the story became at times.
Scott Glenn is a classic cowboy hero, but it’s Kevin Kline as Paden that was the standout to me. He’s a former criminal who failed at that life because he had too much empathy. There’s a story told by his former compatriots about his sadness over a dog they shot, how Paden told them to ride ahead while he stayed behind, sat with the animal, and then buried it. When we first meet Paden, he expresses his philosophy of life is to assume that most people are friendly and will help each other and that if he believed otherwise, he’d rather be dead. Emmett never mocks Paden for this belief system the way the antagonists do but accepts Paden on his terms.
If you have seen many Westerns, I don’t expect much of anything here that will surprise you. It is extremely enjoyable, though. It’s an over the top big-budget Hollywood Western full of recognizable faces. The music can be overdone after awhile, but that theme is the synthesis of great American Western scores. I can’t imagine anyone having a bad time watching Silverado.