Silverado (1985) – Directed by Lawrence Kasdan – Starring Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Danny Glover, Kevin Costner, Brian Dennehy, Linda Hunt, Jeff Goldblum, Rosanna Arquette, John Cleese, Ray Baker, Lynn Whitfield, and Jeff Fahey.
Lawrence Kasdan’s SILVERADO is determined to be both a classic Western and a non-traditional Western. The film contains plenty of gun fights, scoundrels, anti-heroes, shifty locals, revenge, testosterone, big shots of open spaces, and clustered shots of a small town built in the mud and out of wood, but it also steadfastly refuses to give us a traditional tough guy and it refuses to have any of the violence lead to any actual consequence.
Kasdan’s script is a technically proficient work that’s probably not taught in too many film schools anymore, but should be because everything in SILVERADO is here for a reason, a pretty solid achievement for a film that clocks in at over 2 hours. Kasdan also masterfully “tricks” you into his script. In the opening half hour where he introduces the main characters, Kasdan imbues SILVERADO with a whimsical energy (at least, whimsical for a Western, at least.) Paden (Kevin Kline) has a relaxed approach to life; left for dead in the middle of the desert by scoundrels who took his horse and possessions, leaving him with only his one-piece red undergarments, Paden has simply decided to lay in the sun and wait for the end.
Emmett (Scott Glenn) is established in the film’s firs scene as the traditional Western bad-ass, killing a group of men who’ve come to kill him, but the competently shot action scene where Emmett stays inside his shack and kills people through the walls and ceiling can’t compete with the image of Paden lying peacefully in the sand, and then his first words to Emmett, hoarsely whispered from his prone position: “Pleased to meet you.” Kline is so good as Paden that I’m willing to forgive his role in the mostly dreadful Wild Wild West.
When Paden and Emmett had first come to Turley, Paden sees the man who stole his horse and he goes into the nearest store to buy a gun to get the horse back. He takes the nicest gun out of the case but the only money he has is the single coin piece Emmett gave him to help out with some clothes, so he ends up leaving the store with the crummiest gun in the case. He moves to the middle of the street, still wearing only those red overall undies, putting bullets in the creaky gun as the horse thief rides down on him, shooting at Paden without success. One of the bullets goes through the undies right at the crotch, the thermals hanging low enough to not damage anything hanging. Paden finally gets his bullet in and shoots the man dead.
After Paden kills the guy, the scene cuts to him getting happily licked in the face by his horse. The army officer investigating the incident asks Paden why he should take his word that the horse is Paden’s.
“Can’t you see this horse loves?” Paden asks.
“I had a woman do that to me once,” the officer replies back, “but that didn’t make her my wife.”
The scene wonderfully blends violence with humor, presenting scene as amusing as it is violent, which seems to portend that SILVERADO is going to be more pleasant than anything else, with a West that’s clearly created for a Hollywood production.
This scene also introduces one of the film’s antagonists in Cobb (Brian Dennehy), a rough older guy in whose gang Paden used to ride. Dennehy gives the best performance in a film full of great performances; every scene he’s in he owns and the back-and-forth between him and Kline is a pure treat to watch, Cobb’s grinning wickedness perfectly countering with Paden’s outer calm.
Kline plays Paden as a perfectly affable guy, but though the exterior is cool, he’s wary of his insides burning too bright. He has a code, but it’s not the traditional tough guy code you might expect to find in a Western. Instead, when Emmett and Paden ride into the town of Turley, finding Emmett’s manchild-like brother Jake (Kevin Costner) arrested for murder and set to hang. Emmett tells Paden he’s going to break Jake out of jail and Paden tells Emmett somberly that he’s going to have to deal himself out. He doesn’t get too deep into why, but he Paden and Emmett head into a saloon, Paden sees the guy who stole his hat, and another thief gets gunned down by the calm Paden.
With Paden now in jail alongside Jake, he decides to help him escape.
Funny the things jail can do to a man.
Turley also contains another of Kasdan’s “tricks” into getting you to think SILVERADO is just going to be an enjoyable Western – John Cleese is the sheriff. Now, Cleese doesn’t do anything silly. In fact, he’s downright no nonsense. Paden and Emmett are having lunch at a saloon when Mal (Danny Glover) comes in and asks for a drink. This becomes a big deal because Danny Glover is black, which means Mal is black, which means there’s plenty of white folk that don’t take too kindly to his kind being around. The saloon keeper wants him gone, some local cowboys try to rough him up. Paden and Emmett just sit there and watch – it’s not their fight. That’s not to say they’re not moved by what’s going on, as Paden mentions to Emmett (apparently lost in his dinner plate but actually completely aware of what’s going on around him) that the situation seems downright unfair. Emmett wants to know, “Unfair to who?”
Showing that a dude on the frontier is a cool guy because he’s nice to a non-white is a a trope as old as white people have been on the American frontier, of course, and Paden and Emmett prove their progressiveness by taking Mal’s side (the truthful side) when Sheriff John Cleese shows up to figure out what’s what. Sheriff Langston lets Mal go but tells him to get out of town, then sits down at Emmett and Paden’s table, helps himself to some of their bread, and proceeds to interrogate them as to why they’re in town. “Just meeting a guy,” Emmett tells him, and describes his brother.
“I know where he is,” Langston tells him, and then we’re off to the jail.
Jake and Paden escape with some help from Emmett and the threw cowboys ride hard out of town, Langston and his posse hard on their trail. When the posse closes in, a gunshot is heard and bullets start hitting things near Langston. One of the deputies tells the sheriff they’re lucky this shooter is such a bad shot, but Langston calls him an idiot and says, “He’s hit everything he’s aimed at.” The shooter is Mal, paying Paden and Emmett back, and when he knocks Langston’s hat off his head, the sheriff remarks that, “Today, my jurisdiction ends right here.”
That moment is the demarcation point in the movie. Having suitably introduced his four heroes, and created a bond between them, Kasdan’s picture turns much more serious. SILVERADO doesn’t get glumly serious like Kasdan’s later Western, Wyatt Earp (which seems determined to have absolutely no fun), but the men ride to Silverado (helping a caravan along the way, in part so Paden can hit on Rosanna Arquette) and settle into their lives.
For Mal, it’s a visit to his parent’s homestead, where he finds the main building nearly burned to the ground and hordes of cattle grazing on the land. His parents are nowhere in sight, but later that night his father returns and tells him he’s being run off the land by the cattle rancher Ethan McKendrick (Ray Baker). After Mal scares off two of McKendrick’s thugs, they return the next day with more men and kill Mal’s dad.
For Emmett and Jake, it’s reconnecting with their sister’s family, but there’s pre-existing bad blood with McKendrick. Emmett went to jail for killing McKendrick’s father in self-defense years earlier, and while McKendrick says that’s in the past, he wouldn’t make a very good antagonist if that were true. McKendrick sends his men after Emmett and Jake, kidnapping their nephew in the process. Emmett only survives the ambush thanks to the intervention of Mal. The travelling companions have now been joined as allies against McKendrick. With Emmett to hurt to travel, Mal goes to town for him, but he’s betrayed by “Slick” Stanhope (Jeff Goldblum), a gambler who’s involved with Mal’s sister (Lynn Whitfield), and Cobb’s men get the jump on him.
Cobb is the would-be bigshot of Silverado, as he’s both the sheriff of the town and the owner of the main saloon. He hires Paden to help run the place, and uses Paden’s affection for Stella (Linda Hunt), the other co-manager of the place to keep Paden out of the conflict that’s coming between McKendrick and Emmett, Jake, and Mal. Paden agrees, but Stella won’t have it, and Paden asserts himself back into the fray.
What follows is a raid by Mal, Paden, and Emmett (Jake has been kidnapped by the McKendricks) on the McKendrick compound, and then a big gunfight in town that sees the four men emerge victorious and virtually unscathed. The film’s final action piece sees a showdown between Paden and Cobb that ends with Paden victorious.
If there’s a complaint about SILVERADO it’s this final sequence that sees all the good guys end up happy and alive, but then you realize that despite the serious themes since our protagonists left Turley, SILVERADO was never really meant to be a realistic Western as much as it’s meant to be a new kind of Hollywood Western, built on the classic model but infused with contemporary sensibilities. Westerns were out of style when Kasdan made SILVERADO, and so it’s a wise decision to play it relatively safe and give people a happy ending. That’s not to say SILVERADO is simplistic, because it’s not. Kasdan gives you plenty of stuff to chew on – far, far too much to get into here, but know this if you haven’t seen the movie – SILVERADO is a professional movie made by smart people and starring fantastic actors. Brian Dennehy gives the performance of his career, Kevin Kline gives one of his best, and the rest of the all-star cast is right there with him.
SILVERADO is one of those films that always seems to get overlooked or fails to get mentioned alongside the great Westerns, and while I certainly wouldn’t put it in the rarefied air category of Once Upon a Time in the West and Unforgiven, I wouldn’t put it all that far behind them, either. SILVERADO is an immensely satisfying and enjoyable film.