Silverado gets more fun to watch with each viewing. I saw it twice in theaters in 1985, and by now I’ve seen it so many times that it’s solidly among my four-star favorites. If you don’t like Westerns, you should check out Silverado and let writer-director Lawrence Kasdan show you why he does in this unabashed celebration of the genre. If you do like Westerns, you and Kasdan have something in common, and you should have as much fun watching this movie as he had making it.
Silverado was actually my introduction to Westerns. After seeing it, I was eager for another one, so when Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider came out later that year, I rushed to the theater. To my disappointment, Pale Rider was no Silverado. (Afterwards I learned that Pale Rider wasn’t trying to be Silverado. It was trying to be Shane.)
Since then I’ve seen a lot of Westerns, both classic ones and other neo-Westerns. A few I’ve even liked. Not many have been quite as entertaining as Silverado; but on the other hand, knowing them has made watching Silverado even more fun, since I now have first-hand knowledge of the established conventions that Kasdan was playing with and paying tribute to.
Kasdan, who also wrote the screenplay for Raiders of the Lost Ark, has described Silverado as his "Western Raiders"; and, indeed, Silverado has the same sense of tongue-in-cheek excitement, the same taut, complex storytelling, and the same wistful nostalgic innocence as Spielberg’s tribute to the old matineé serial cliffhangers. It’s not as fast-paced or relentlessly thrilling as Raiders, nor does it have that film’s giant set pieces and extended stunt sequences; but that’s because it’s a neo-Western, not a neo-cliffhanger.
Of course, Raiders also had a spiritual dimension that’s absent here. Silverado has a good-versus-evil storyline, with four heroic gunslingers standing up to a corrupt sheriff and an evil clan of ranchers, but nothing like divine judgment against Nazi infidels. Worth noting, though, is a nice use of imagery during a climactic showdown on the outskirts of town between one of the heroes and a main villain: The hero stands in the middle of the street, with the buildings of Silverado looming behind him, and, prominently visible over his shoulder, the white-spired church. The villain stands at the other end of the street, framed only by barren wilderness. The hero champions civilization, order, and decency (if not quite religion); the villain embodies chaos and dissipation. "What a waste," sighs the villain, not noticing the irony.
Silverado starts slowly, establishing its characters and situations one by one, gradually picking up speed and mass like a snowball rolling down a mountain. By the time the credits roll, we’ve had a whirlwind tour of virtually everything you can do in a Western.
There are shootouts, standoffs, ambushes, jail breaks, posse pursuits, wagon convoys, saloon gunfights, outlaw hideouts, family feuds, wounded heroes, bucket-line firefighting, a cattle stampede, and much more. There are also quirky oddities — sheriff John Cleese’s British mannerisms, Kevin Kline’s low-key humor, Jeff Goldblum’s outlandish wardrobe — that are far from stereotypically "Western" but somehow make themselves at home in this one, creating an atmosphere that is uniquely Silverado’s.
At the same time, dated themes from the classic Westerns that have now become culturally problematic are prudently avoided. In contrast to later neo-Westerns like Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven — which were really anti-Westerns, or deconstructions of the myth and the romance of the old West — Silverado cheerfully focuses on those aspects of Western lore that can still be unabashedly enjoyed: strong, competent heroes who stand up to bullies; pioneer spirit; family ties and loyalty among friends. As critic Brian Webster points out, Silverado has cowboys but not Indians, because it’s hard today to make a feel-good movie about cowboys and Indians. (There are black characters who suffer injustice, but that’s different.)
The ensemble cast includes a remarkable lineup of stars, not all of whom were at the time the big names they are today: Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Danny Glover, and Kevin Coster (in a thoroughly enjoyable, goofy performance from before Dances With Wolves made him Important) are the four principals, with John Cleese, Jeff Goldblum, Brian Dennehy, Rosanna Arquette, and Linda Hunt among the supporting cast.
The performances are excellent across the board, and Kasdan manages his large cast about as well as possible, though unfortunately time constraints resulted in cutting too much of Rosanna Arquette and Jeff Goldblum, and as a result their characters don’t entirely make sense.
In general, though, Silverado holds together remarkably well. The sprawling story is sturdy and well-crafted, the dialogue razor-sharp, the action rousing and cleverly choreographed. The film is full of inventive conceits, such as how Scott Glenn manages to alert Danny Glover to a stalking adversary, or how Kevin Costner flaunts his gun wizardry against a pair of opponents. There are also subtle touches that reward repeated viewing, such as the import of a moment when Kevin Kline happens to be strapping on his gun belt, or the range of emotions that flicker across Linda Hunt’s face as she grasps her role in a delicate situation. Add to this Bruce Broughton’s swashbuckling score and beautiful, sweeping New Mexico landscapes, and you’ve got a movie that succeeds on virtually every level.
There are some morally problematic elements, mostly depicted with restraint and discretion. Oblique dialogue and dress make it clear that Danny Glover’s sister works as a prostitute (an occupation her brother and father regard with disapproval); and there’s a fleeting scene in which Kevin Costner has a literal roll in the hay with a young woman of similar occupation (though this seems to be an ordinary fling rather than a business arrangement). There’s also an episode with a villainous deputy "searching" Glover’s sister for hidden weapons with unconcealed lacivious intent. All of this is handled without nudity or coarse language. Also, of course, there’s a fair amount of violence and sometimes bloody killing; though the heroes, at least, generally follow basic principles of fair play and honorable combat.
In the end, the only lasting disappointment about Silverado is the unfulfilled promise of the last line. "We’ll be back!" shouts Kevin Costner as they ride into the sunset; but, alas, they weren’t; the movie’s original box-office performance didn’t demand a sequel. Since then, in its quiet way, the film has been steadily accumulating a sizable following, and it continues to make new fans today. By now, of course, a sequel is probably out of the question (if nothing else, who could afford to get all those stars together again?); but Silverado will continue to be appreciated and recommended for decades to come.
Note: Be warned: The full-screen pan-and-scan VHS version of Silverado scandalously lops off an essential part of the screen during a major climactic scene. Fortunately, a widescreen version is available for VHS as well as DVD, and it’s worth searching out. It is simply not possible to appreciate exactly what happens in this crucial scene unless you see it in widescreen. Also, the widescreen VHS, like the DVD, has interesting supplemental material on the making of the film that’s very much worth watching.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.