Although individual preferences may vary, the majority of movie fans and most critics essentially agree that the best installments of the “Indiana Jones” and “Star Wars” franchises are “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “The Empire Strikes Back.” Both had different directors, but each was produced by George Lucas and written by the then unknown Lawrence Kasdan. These were the first two films Kasdan had penned and, needless to say, they delivered him instant industry clout.
For his first two efforts as both writer and director—“Body Heat” (1981) and “The Big Chill” (1983)—Kasdan delivered two great examples of anti-tentpole character studies that were clearly aimed at older audiences not especially interested in pyrotechnics, chase scenes, and overblown special effects. Despite their limited appeal, both productions were critical and box office hits. With his third feature, Kasdan produced what is arguably the finest overall film of his career.
In the Spirit of Ford and Hawks
A crowd-pleaser by any definition of that term, “Silverado” incorporated everything Kasdan had absorbed as a boy growing up in West Virginia while devouring classic Westerns. As with “Raiders” and “Empire,” “Silverado” isn’t terribly original in content or form, meaning that all three contain the same motifs found in all previous Westerns and, in particular, everything in Howard Hawks’s and John Ford’s most iconic movies.
There’s a leading man (Kevin Kline as Paden), his sidekicks (Kevin Costner as Jake, Scott Glenn as Jake’s brother Emmett, and Danny Glover as Mal), a few (sometimes not-so-obvious) bad guys and their crews, a handful of damsels in distress, an unseen dog, peril, gunfire, some comic relief (thank you, John Cleese), and deadly confrontations that lead to redemption and the triumph of good over evil.
It’s a basic storytelling blueprint that even if followed correctly, employing only the basic ingredients, can still go awry. It is through Kasdan and his brother Mark’s screenplay, which brims with deep character development spread out evenly to nearly a dozen key speaking parts, that “Silverado” differentiates itself from thousands of other instantly forgettable also-rans.
Old Friends Reconnect
After a dialogue-free opening-title sequence featuring Emmett, the story kicks off in earnest after Paden has been ambushed by some thugs who relieved him of his horse, guns, and a very special hat, leaving him in only his red long johns. After wandering into a local town, Paden recognizes his horse, confronts the thief, and shoots him dead. About to be arrested by soldiers, Paden is vouched for by Cobb (Brian Dennehy), an old friend with obvious sway and pull. Although it’s never spelled out, it is implied that Paden and Cobb used to participate together in endeavors not thoroughly legal in nature.
Cobb lends Paden some money to buy some new duds and tells him to meet him at a nearby watering hole run by Stella (Linda Hunt), with whom Paden immediately bonds. As it turns out, the establishment is owned by Cobb, who also happens to be the town’s sheriff. Cobb eventually hires Paden with the unspoken understanding that he is owed a favor, although the latter doesn’t immediately catch the former’s drift.
Not wanting to rush things, the Kasdans take their time in providing backstories for Jake, Emmett, and Mal. The brothers are on their way to visit their sister and her family but hit a snag when Jake is prosecuted for murder and is scheduled to hang the next day. Mal is trying to stave off those attempting to steal his family’s land while trying to reconnect with his sister Rae (Lynn Whitfield), now a prostitute who is under the close watch of Slick (Jeff Goldblum), the local card shark.
Thanks in large part to John Bailey’s sweeping, panoramic cinematography and composer Bruce Broughton’s Oscar-nominated throwback, period-centric score, “Silverado” is a production that is larger in scope than the sum of its parts would initially indicate. So popular is the film’s music among score enthusiasts, it was rereleased twice with expanded versions in 1992 and in 2005.
Perhaps a Tad Too Long?
If there is anything to find fault with “Silverado,” it would be the 133-minute running time. Very few movies need more than two hours to get things done and “Silverado” is no exception. There are easily three or four scenes totaling around 15 minutes that could have been cut without any loss of continuity or sacrifice to the narrative but, on the other hand, there are likely many devoted fans of the film who probably wouldn’t mind if it had run three hours or longer.
It’s worth mentioning that Kasdan’s rough cut did exceed three hours, a great deal of which included the fleshed-out subplot involving Hannah (Rosanna Arquette), a member of a wagon train who catches the eye of both Paden and Emmett. In the “making-of” bonus material included on the DVD release of the film, Kasdan expressed regret in having to jettison most of Hannah’s story.
Breakthrough Performances Galore
With the possible exceptions of Glover, Cleese, and Dennehy (and perhaps Kline and Goldblum, who also starred together in “The Big Chill”), “Silverado” showcased breakthrough performances from the rest of the cast, including Jeff Fahey and Richard Jenkins in extended cameo roles. Few of them fared better than Costner (whose flashback scenes were cut from “The Big Chill”), who demonstrated crack comic timing that no other filmmaker (including Costner himself) has taken advantage of since.
Produced decades after Westerns fell out of favor with general audiences, “Silverado” proves to be a reminder that the memorable movies keep things simple and rely on the human element rather than too many post-production bells and whistles. Alongside Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” (1992) and Costner’s “Dances With Wolves” (1990), “Silverado” might just be one of the last great American Westerns.
Director: Lawrence Kasdan
Stars: Kevin Kline, Kevin Costner, Scott Glenn, Danny Glover, Brian Dennehy, Linda Hunt
Running Time: 2 hours, 13 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: July 10, 1985
Rating: 4 out of 5