Silverado (1985), Lookback/Review

Written by Lawrence Kasdan, with an all-star cast. How is Silverado not the best Western ever?

The Western is the first genre of American film. It began in 1903 with the silent film The Great Train Robbery, directed by Edwin S. Porter and starring “Broncho” Billy Anderson, who became cinema’s first cowboy star. Western shoot-‘em-ups have gone up and down in popularity through the years. They were in decline in the 1980s, battered by a decade of seventies sensitivity, skewered by science fiction horse operas like Star Wars and finally blown away like a bad fart joke by Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles in 1974. The Western was kept alive on the life support of the tobacco spit from Clint Eastwood’s cheroots. It had been revived by the Spaghetti Western genre in the 1960s but suffered from revisionism. In 1985 Lawrence Kasdan dusted off his saddlebag and invigorated the genre by giving his cowboys sensitivity training, getting them in touch with their inner cowboy child and letting them have fun in his unabashed love letter to the Western, Silverado. Kasdan gets to play cowboy with all his best friends and pulls out all the standard cowboy tricks: gunfights, saloon brawls, horse-thieving, cattle-rustling, square-dancing, lassoing, hangings, wagon trains, stampedes, duels, riding horses through streams, tumbleweed, gamblers with guns up their sleeves and knives in their boots, a High Noon style showdown and bullshitting around the campfire, not a bean in sight. No injuns, though. Silverado also didn’t have Gary Cooper-cowboys, the kind of cowboy Tony Soprano called the “strong, silent type,” usually when he wanted someone to shut up. These cowboys liked to talk.

Lawrence Kasdan wrote Silverado with his brother Mark and they bring the same childlike exuberance to the script that we see when Kevin Costner’s character, Jack, jumps from the rafters of a barn into a roll in the hay. The third-time director saw 37 scripts rejected when he first came to Hollywood before he sold the screenplay for Continental Divide to Steven Spielberg. In 1979 he was recruited to finish the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back after Leigh Brackett died. Kasdan also wrote the last entry in the Star Wars trilogy, Return of the Jedi, as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark. Kasdan wrote his directorial debut, Body Heat, in 1981. He went on to receive Oscar nominations for screenplays to The Big Chill and Grand Canyon and a Best Picture nod for The Accidental Tourist. Silverado was produced by Columbia Pictures and Delphi III Productions. The film premiered on July 12, 1985. Bruce Broughton composed the High Chaparral-worthy music which was nominated for Best Original Score at the Academy Awards along with a nomination for Best Sound.

I don’t want to kill you and you don’t want to be dead

Kasdan dipped into his evolving repertory for the ensemble cast of Silverado. He pulled Kevin Kline and Jeff Goldblum from The Big Chill, which also saw Kevin Costner’s torso as a corpse. Kasdan wrote the part Jake for Costner because he was such a good sport about having his face cut from the final movie.  Kasdan would return to the Wild West in cahoots with Kevin Costner in Wyatt Earp. Costner would put on the spurs again to ho-down with wolves. The Juilliard-trained Kevin Kline had been dubbed “the American Olivierand nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA Best Debut Performance Award for his role in Sophie’s Choice when he put on Paden’s black Stetson. Kasdan has worked with Kevin Kline in six films. Before he was Mel Gibson’s Lethal Weapon appendage, Danny Glover was a political activist-turned stage and screen actor and he brings his sense of righteousness to Malachi Johnson who’s “had enough of what ain’t right.” The few black cowboys that history remembers usually got famous for their roping and riding abilities in rodeo-type shows like Nat “Deadwood Dick” Love, Bill Pickett or Henry Clay, but Mal is a crack shot and real frontiersman, not in show business. Scott Glenn had a small part in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and did time as the ex-convict Wes Hightower in Urban Cowboy before playing the ex-convict Emmett. Silverado is the name of the frontier town where the four new-found pardners find themselves. Although it doesn’t wield the same weight that New York City does in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Silverado does have its own character, fun-loving and corrupt. A town where the outlaws make the laws.

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Brian Dennehy acted in Kojak, Lou Grant, Dallas and Dynasty on TV and in such films as 10, Semi-Tough and Foul Play and lied about his own Vietnam War service before busting Rambo’s balls in his breakthrough role as Sheriff Will Teasle in First Blood. He plays Silverado’s Sheriff Cobb like a kid in a candy store. In a rare appearance in a non-comedy film, Monty Python alum John Cleese doesn’t do any silly walks as the jurisdiction-shifting Sheriff John T. Langston, but only because it could prove to be “hard on the peace and hard on the furniture.” Jeff Goldblum’s first onscreen role was as Freak # 1 in Death Wish, starring granite-faced vigilante Charles Bronson. The future human fly and SNL-parodied  Jeopardy contestant brings a sharp suit and cool wit to his role as Calvin Stanhope, whose mother calls him Slick. Rosanna Arquette said she wanted to do Silverado even if she got cut out because she thought it would be her only chance to do a Western. The inspiration for the Peter Gabriel song “In Your Eyes” plays Hannah, who has hard ideas about living. Linda Hunt earned an Academy Award for her role as Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously in 1982 before adjusting the world to suit her midnight star, Stella. Rounding out the cast is veteran actor and “Break it to me gently” songwriter Joe Seneca as Ezra Johnson, future Lawnmower Man Jeff Fahey as Deputy Tyree, Earl Hindman, best known as the unseen neighbor on TV’s Home Improvement, as J.T., Ray Baker as Ethan McKendrick, Thomas Wilson Brown as Augie, Lynn Whitfield as Rae Johnson, Amanda Wyss as Phoebe, Richard Jenkins as Kelly, James Gammon as Dawson, Sheb Wooley as Cavalry Sergeant and Pepe Serna as Scruffy, not the dog.

The story begins when Emmett gets an ambush wakeup call in a deserted shack. He cinematically flips his shotgun and dispatches the execution posse and rides off into the desert where he finds a thirsty Paden lying in his red F-Troop underwear after a run of bad luck had him robbed and left to die.  The two take off to the town of Turley to meet Emmett’s brother, Jake, only to find him waiting for the hangman for kissing a girl. Turley’s main entertainment seems to be hangings and the jury are the talent scouts. Paden is busted for killing a man for fingering his Ivory Colt. Paden and Jake break jail and get away with the help of a cowboy who was run out of town by Sheriff John Langston for ordering while Black after going ten days without a bed or whiskey. Wanting to impress a pretty, young soon-to-be prairie widow, the four help a wagon train of settlers recover a stolen money box and lead them into the town of Silverado. Emmett and Jake stop off to see their sister before heading out to California. They hear that the rancher Ethan McKendrick, the son of the man Emmett went to jail for killing, is amassing a real estate monopoly for cattle by driving law-abiding farmers off their land. One of the evictees is Mal’s father Ezra, in spite of his familiarity with the Henry rifle. McKendrick has been paying off Paden’s old riding buddy and new “understanding boss,” Sheriff Cobb. Paden drinks the good stuff with the diminutive barmaid Stella, who shines at night as the owner of the Midnight Star saloon and replaces both Hanna and a faithful dog in his affections. Jake kisses another girl, Mal tells his now-cathouse-working sister that their father was killed, houses burn and a kid gets kidnapped. With a lot of riding and shooting, long, loving shots of shotguns and rider-less horses disappearing into the distance, the four horsemen take their personal revenge, beat down the bullies and leave Paden to wear the sheriff’s badge and tend the saloon, the only place he’s truly happy.

Welcome to Heaven

Kids all around the world play cowboy. They learned it from American movies. They learned about America from cowboy movies. Silverado lets the grown-ups play cowboy and they have a blast doing it.  Dennehy’s Sheriff Cobb looks like he’s having the most fun of all the players. He wears the tin star and rules the playground with a cartoon chortle. When Sheriff Cobb fires Kelley, who runs the gambling in the saloon he owns, to make room for Paden, the glint in his eyes betrays his glee and the laugh he’s holding back because he knows he’s going to get to knock him around. Cobb finally shoots Kelley through swinging doors and welcomes a visiting gambler to town with all the smarmy affability of a casino greeter. Cobb is the king of the hill. An uncharacteristically pissy Emmett accusingly asks Paden, “You used to ride with that guy?” a bit too self-righteously because, by the Wild West code, Cobb didn’t do anything wrong; Kelly was going to shoot him when he wasn’t looking. Although, he did spill a drop of whiskey. Silverado’s good guys and the bad guys are playing out their childhood cowboy fantasies. Every scene, line and camera setup appeal to the kid with the toy gun. These cowboys perform the kinds of idealized feats that kids dream of and that can only happen on a playground or in the movies, like the opening sequence where Scott Glenn’s rifle does a triple flip into his fingers or shoots the spines off a cactus. These aren’t do-gooding buckaroos with bumbling sidekicks and the law on their side. These are unflappable cowboys with the camera at their backs.


Den of Geek Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

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