Silverado: Lawrence Kasdan’s exuberant tribute to traditional Westerns gave Kevin Costner his breakout role

Silverado(1985), co-written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, and starring Scott Glenn, Kevin Kline, Danny Glover and Kevin Costner, was an attempt to reinvigorate the ‘Western’ that was considered dead by the mid 1980s. In his attempt to create the ultimate Western tribute, Kasdan throws every genre trope and cliché into the pot, but the result is still a very pleasurable cinematic experience.

After helping wiz kids, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, in successfully reinventing the old republic serial style action\adventure\cliffhanger film with Empire Strikes Back(1980) and Raiders of the lost Ark(1981), and then himself revitalizing the film Noir by giving it a sexy, steamy spin with Body Heat(1981), writer\Director Lawrence Kasdan decided to reinvigorate the purest and the most popular of American film genres, ‘the Western’. Kasdan had already utilized several Western tropes and archetypes in his writing of the the fifth episode of the ‘Star Wars’ space opera, and even more in Indiana Jones’ first adventure- the truck and horse chase sequence is a direct tribute to Westerns. Now, he desired to a do a purely old-fashioned, traditional Western: no revisionism, no social or political commentary, no moral ambiguity, no condescending or sending up; just an effort to capture the fun and excitement of those white hat-black hat westerns, where heroes and villains are perfectly delineated. But this was not going to be easy, because by the 1980s, Westerns were considered to be dead. The back to back flopping of big-budget Westerns like Comes a Horseman(1978), Heaven’s Gate(1980) and The Legend of the Lone Ranger(1981) – all directed by respected filmmakers like Alan J. Pakula, Michael Cimino and William Fraker- had convinced Hollywood that the genre has no future. The audiences have become too sophisticated and modern to accept men riding horses in the wilderness and simple tales of good triumphing over evil. Also, the revisionism that had kept into Westerns from the mid to late sixties onwards had slowly eroded the charms of the traditional Western; John Wayne, the greatest American movie legend, the symbol of the American West and the last man making these traditional Westerns, had passed away in 1979, and the last Western he made, The Shootist, was in the mold of a revisionist Western, Perhaps his penultimate film, Rooster Cogburn and the Lady or the even earlier Big Jake or Cahill, U.S. Marshall were the last of the traditional Westerns made. So it was exactly a decade after ‘Big Duke’s’ last hurrah to the genre that Kasdan was venturing into the territory. And it was not going to be a cheapie or quickie; Kasdan envisioned a big, sprawling, expensive (costing $25 million), all-star cast Western where he was going to showcase almost everything he (and the audiences) loved about the genre.

Now this leads to some of the film’s problems; It feels like Kasdan felt that this was the only Western he will ever get to make, so he wanted to realize everything about the genre; the film is chock-a-block with everything that you associate with a Western: wide angled shots of desert vistas, craggy mountains, canyons, Snowbound streets, outposts, frontier towns; then there are the archetypal characters: Scott Glenn channels Gary Cooper’s silent, stoic heroism, Kevin Kline is a more modern James Stewart type, Kevin Costner is the devilish rake in the mold of a Burt Lancaster or Kirk Douglas, and Danny Glover as the Black cowboy reminds us of Sidney Poitier from Duel at Diablo. Each of these lead characters have their own story and character arcs, even as their story entwine with one another’s. Then, there are gunfights, barroom brawls, cattle stampedes, prison breakouts, conversations around campfires, corrupt lawmen, crooked gamblers, barmaid with a heart of gold, a beautiful proto-feminist widow who works her land, a good girl forced into prostitution, evil ranchers, friends turned foes, love between brothers and lots and lots of macho posturing and male bonding. Phew! I think i have covered it all. It’s exhausting, and too much to be contained in 132 minutes of runtime. The only element missing are the ‘Injuns’. One can feel that Kasdan had a 3 hr. plus roadshow epic in mind, and it had to be drastically cut down from that length; because a lot of the characters have little to do in the overall scheme of things- just to remind you of a character or moment from a past Western- and a lot of plot points are unresolved. Also, I think the moviemaking and movie going culture of the 80s may have also lead to this surplus of ideas and characters. By the 1980s. making and marketing movies had become a game of demographics, so one was forced to put in individual elements to appeal to each section of the demographic; one for the youngsters, one for women, one for the black audience, one for the old, another bit for children, etc.; more so since Kasdan was trying to resurrect the Western in its downtime. All this make the film’s plotline hard to follow; there are too many things going on to get a complete hold of it in its first viewing. All that aside, there are still two things that saves the film; one: Kasdan’s palpable love for the genre which he manages to convey in whole to the audience, and the energy and verve with which he realizes most of the genre’s greatest trademarks. Second: Kasdan wisely puts the maximum effort and narrative concentration on the male bonding between the four leads, and the drama, adventure and humor that results from it. Westerns have always been a masculine genre; and strangers finding common cause, becoming friends and joining hands to take out the common foe; or friends turning foes and shooting it out in a grand duel, are hallmarks of any Western; Silverado has both.

First of these 4 masculine leads is Emmett(Scott Glenn). Emmett has just sprung from Leavenworth prison where he served 5 years for killing the evil rancher, McKendrick. When the film opens, Emmett is holed up in a shack and is being ambushed by some gunslingers. Emmett fights his way out, and is soon on his way, riding through the desert wilderness. He’s going to California to get a fresh start. But he has to stop at a town called Turley to pick up his younger brother Jake(Kevin Costner) and then meet up with his sister, Kate, and her family in the town of “Silverado” to say goodbye, and from there move on to California. On his way, Emmett runs into Paden- dressed only in his long johns and left to die in the desert. Paden had fell in with a group of cowboys who robbed him blind. Emmett helps him onto a spare pinto horse he’s been dragging along, and they get to a nearby outpost to supply themselves. There, Paden spots one of the men (who robbed him) riding his horse, and armed with just a broken down pistol, kills the guy and reclaims his horse. Paden also runs into an old partner in crime named Cobb(Brian Dennehy). Paden used to run with Cobb and his gang; and after he had to serve time for a crime that they committed, he had quit and has been on his own since. Cobb once again offers Paden a place in his gang, telling him that this time it’s ‘legit’, but Paden doesn’t bite. Paden and Emmett reach Turley, where they’re acquainted with Mal(Danny Glover). Mal has come back from Chicago, and he too is own his way to Silverado where his father has a farm. He hasn’t had a drink or warm bed for ten days, and he hope to get that in Turley; but, being a black man, he’s refused service at the bar. This leads to a fistfight, which is broken up with the arrival of Sherriff Langston(John Cleese)- who looks and sounds more like Sheriff of Nottingham played by a Monty Python cast member (which Cleese is). Mal is ordered out of town by Langston; he also informs Emmett that Jake is in prison for murder and is about to be hanged the next day. Soon, Paden also lands up in prison with Jake; Paden had spotted the guy who stole his hat and shot him down too. Next Morning, Emmett hatches a plan by which he manages to free Paden and Jake and they escape from Turley. Langston’s Posse is close behind them, but they’re stopped in their way by Mal’s superior gunmanship. Langston withdraws and now our 4 heroes are together for the first time as they proceed to Silverado. Here, we get the Western ‘money shot’: the 4 riding in unison with rousing music playing in the background .

On the way to Silverado, they spot a wagon train of settlers who have been robbed of their wealth. In the train there’s a beautiful woman, Hannah(Rosanna Arquette) who locks eyes with both Paden and Emmett. She’s the typical ‘Western’ married women- with a ‘Dick’ husband- whom we knew is going to be widowed soon, and will end up forming a romantic triangle with the two heroes. This happens sooner than we thought: the foursome helps the settlers to regain their wealth, with Hannah’s husband accompanying them. In the ensuing gunfight in a box canyon, husband dies and the stolen money is successfully recovered. The foursome ride on with the settlers, and on the outskirts of Silverado they split up; Mal rides towards his farm; Emmett and Jake go to their sister’s place; while Paden accompanies Hannah to her homestead. Rest of the film’s action takes place in Silverado: first, Emmett realizes that it was McKendrick’s son, Ethan, who had sent the men to ambush him in the shack. Also, Ethan wants to run out the other settlers in the area to keep the land an open range for his cattle. Ethan is assisted in his business by Cobb, who’s now the Sheriff of Silverado. Seeing that Paden has arrived in Silverado, Cobb offers him a partnership in his gambling saloon, managed by a honest woman, Stella(Linda Hunt), thus, keeping Paden away from involving in his and McKendrick’s affairs. Paden accepts the job, but things does not remain peaceful between him and Cobb for much long, as Ethan McKendrick gets into his act. First, he murders Mal’s father, then he kills Kate’s husband, and kidnaps Jake and Kate’s son Augie. He then has Emmett badly tortured by McKendrick’s men; Emmett is saved in the nick of time by Mal. Obviously, our heroes cannot let things go on like this for much longer. So, Mal, Paden and Emmett ambushes McKendrick’s ranch by stampeding his cattle, and saves Jake and Augie. Next, the foursome now together again, head to Silverado to confront McKendrick and Cobb. In the grand finale, the bad guys are vanquished and the good guys have their happy ending.

Even though the scenes in the film gives the vibes that you have seen it before, you cannot say it’s an absolute copy of anything that came before, or the film on the whole reminds you of a particular past Western film (films). This is what I really find interesting about this film. Take the film’s opening: for a Western, you expect the film to begin in wide open wilderness under bright big skies. Instead, it begins in the pitch darkness of a claustrophobic shack holding Emmett. Once Emmett has dispatched the guys out to kill him, he moves towards the door and opens it, and now we get the ‘money shot’ straight out of John Ford’s “The Searchers”: the door opening into the wide, sunbaked landscape. Cinematographer, John Bailey’s magnificent widescreen lensing of the landscape that drenches the screen in yellowish browns is complemented by Bruce Broughton’s lush, rousing, instrumental score that’s mix of Alfred Newman’s scores from the fifties and John Williams’ score for Star Wars and Indiana Jones films. And Kasdan doesn’t stop there, we get another homage to John Huston’s “The treasure of Sierra Madre” that was also referenced in “Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid”: The McKendrick’s insignia on one of the horses rode by the assassins, and it’s from this that Emmett later finds out that it was McKendrick who tried to kill him. Post this prologue, we get the credits sequence where Kasdan uses the opportunity to both familiarize and pleasure the audience with the classic images form the Western: we get a series of lovingly composed picture postcards of the beautiful, but unsparing and gritty landscape as Emmett starts riding to his destination. It’s then that he come across Paden splayed out on the desert surface; an image that brings to mind a similar image involving Clint Eastwood and Eli Walach in Sergio Leone’s “The Good The Bad and The Ugly.” But there Walach was torturing Eastwood, here Emmett is saving Paden’s life from torture. As it’s obvious, one radical departure between Silverado and other postmodern works of Leone or Quentin Tarantino is that their films were equally homage and critique of the Westerns. They celebrate what they love about Westerns and critiques and revises stuff they hate, but in Kasdan’s case, it’s a full on celebration, there’s no criticisms or revisionisms; only slight adjustments, like the addition of Black characters and portraying the racism they faced in old west. but even that is worked into the Western template of good guys vs bad guys; none of the heroes exhibit even remotely unlikeable traits, and the character of Mal is integrated into the heroic foursome without any questions, not even hints of casual racism or friendly racial banter. The vibes are certainly “The Magnificent Seven” kind as the heroes join up and ride together; later we get plot elements from films as disparate as “Heaven’s Gate”, “The Big Country.” and “Chisum.”

Though known more for his Screenwriting, Silverado contains some of the best and fully realized of Kasdan’s filmmaking. Just take the dual climax, first set on the ranch and then in the town; the action is orchestrated with such craft and brilliance that it can be a lesson to today’s filmmakers in action choreography. Each hero gets a separate duel with his villain, and each seem to be taking place in a world of their own, orchestrated with a different flavor: one on horseback, one a classic western showdown, etc.. It’s also interesting to see him give a new spin to standard Western situations; like a gunfighter target practicing in the open; here Emmett is seen shooting out the thorns off a cactus plant in the desert, but as soon as he has discharged all his bullets, McKendrick’s men attacks and seriously wounds him. But still, Kasdan falls short as a director in conveying the full breadth and scope of the screenplay he had written with his brother, Mark. The script is very very ambitious; Kasdan is aiming for a grand tapestry of Western tropes, with each character and plot point worked into it, if not strictly to advance the plot forward, but to provide the audience with different flavors of the Western, but as a filmmaker, he’s not fully skilled at doing this. He wants to make the “Raiders of the lost Ark” of Westerns, but he doesn’t have Spielberg’s panache and skill to keep letting new plot points, characters and cliffhangers pile up one after another and pull them off with electrifying clarity without confusing the audience. Raiders also had the benefit of having just one hero as opposed to this film’s four. I would love to see a pure genre specialist with great technical expertise- like Steven Spielberg or Robert Zemeckis- tackle this script. Also, the cast assembled is rather too modern; on one level everyone looks miscast, except for Brian Dennehy playing the corrupt Sherriff. He’s doing a variation of the character he played in “First Blood”, and he has the style and persona that convinces us that he belongs in that period and in this genre. Of the leads, Kevin Kline looks the most miscast; like someone from the New York stage having dressed up us a cowboy and arrived on the set of a Western. He looks okay in the earlier scenes where he’s kind of a bumbling and clownish, but as he develops into a steely, tough character he looks more bland and perplexed. In the final shootout with Dennehy, he doesn’t for a moment convinces me that he has in him to take out Dennehy; he triumphs Dennehy only because he’s the hero and latter is the villain. Danny Glover looks tough and enormous in his western outfits, but he’s at his best when playing characters with certain quirks and eccentricities- as in Lethal Weapon; Mal is too bland and straight for him. Even Scott Glenn, who’s the most Western looking of the heroes, is too cagey and tightly coiled to make his character work fully. As for Kevin Costner- for whom this was a breakthrough role- his energy and enthusiasm is infectious and perfect for the film, but he has a tendency to go overboard and be irritating sometimes. But it’s a pleasurable surprise to see Costner give such a performance, as his screen presence in later years would border on bland and too self-serious. I like him best when he lets go off himself , as in “Tin Cup” which is my favorite Costner performance. But that said, i must say that I warmed to the actors on the second and third watch; it was a risk that Kasdan took to cast modern dramatic actors as these mythic archetypes, perhaps to make a greater connection with the contemporary audience. It’s not something that pays off fully, nevertheless it’s not bad enough to be a hindrance in the enjoyment of the film.

The complaints I have made about the film are in no way to diminish its entertainment value, or to downsize the love and effort that’s gone into the construction of this film. I find this film immensely enjoyable, but i also feel that it’s not a very good film all round, at least, it doesn’t live up to the full potential of its original screenplay and its ambitions. And these reasons may have contributed to the film’s box office failure- not that it was outright flop, it made around $32 million, which wasn’t enough to breakeven- in spite of how entertaining and well made the film is. The film did not revitalize the Western genre which it should have. But the greatest legacy of the film is that it was influential in other ways: Costner went on to become a superstar and gained the clout to make Dances with Wolves(1990), which is the film that resurrected the Western genre. Glover went on to do the Lethal Weapon series. Bruce Broughton got an academy award nomination for his score and would go on to score other memorable movies like Tombstone(1993). All this wouldn’t have been possible without this film. Also, “Silverado” was a big hit on Video and has now attained cult classic status. As for Kasdan, who’s a big fan of John Sturges and David Lean’s epic films, this was a dream project, which he accomplished against tough odds- it was a tough shoot marred by sickness, blizzards and flash floods- and though the final box office result may not have been to his liking, he can still be very proud of this film.


2 thoughts on “Silverado: Lawrence Kasdan’s exuberant tribute to traditional Westerns gave Kevin Costner his breakout role

    1. You’re Welcome PJ , Do give it another try. I was also very confused by the film when I watched it the first time. But it has grown on me in subsequent viewings


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