(1985) Western (Columbia) Scott Glenn, Kevin Kline, Kevin Costner, Danny Glover, Rosanna Arquette, Brian Dennehy, Jeff Goldblum, Linda Hunt, John Cleese, Ray Baker, Lynn Whitfield, Jeff Fahey, Tom Brown, Richard Jenkins, Amanda Wyss, James Gammon, Joe Seneca. Directed by Lawrence Kasdan
Back in ’85, the Western as a genre was essentially dead. It had been in many ways one of the most dominant genres in movies during the 50s and into the 60s but faded from popular appeal, although the Italians made some pretty good ones in the 70s with Clint Eastwood particularly. However, the anti-hero craze of that era didn’t translate to the Western very well although periodically movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and others managed to re-capture the magic.
Silverado was an attempt to do just that by Kasdan, screenwriter of Raiders of the Lost Ark and director of The Big Chill and Body Heat. He assembled a cast of some of the best young (at the time) actors in Hollywood and set them loose on the genre.
Emmett (Glenn) is a loner, an expert gunslinger just released from prison after killing the father of a cattle baron named McKendrick (Baker) who had drawn on Emmett. Now he wants nothing more than to be left alone but apparently it is not to be as he is attacked by a trio of bushwhackers ambushing him in his cabin.
Emmett decides to head to Silverado to find out what’s going on. Whilst en route, he discovers Paden (Kline), wearing only his skivvies and left to die in the desert. Emmett rescues him and together they head to Turley to meet up with Emmett’s brother Jake (Costner). Jake however is in jail awaiting hanging – he killed a man in self-defense but the judge didn’t see it that way. When Paden discovers one of the men who robbed him, he kills him and ends up in the same cell as Jake. Emmett breaks them both out and the trio escapes with the help of Mal (Glover), an African-American cowboy run out of town by Sheriff English John Langston (Cleese).
The quartet then encounter a wagon train whose money has been stolen by bandits. A comely homesteader (Arquette) attracts the attention of Paden, who along with his mates takes the money back and returns it to the homesteaders.
In Silverado, Mal discovers his father (Seneca) has been run off his ranch by McKendrick’s men who later return and kill his dad. Mal’s sister is working as a saloon girl in the saloon run by Stella (Hunt) and administered by the town Sheriff, Cobb (Dennehy) a former outlaw who once rode with Paden but now reports to McKendrick. He offers Paden the job of saloon manager which Paden accepts.
Emmett finds out from his sister that McKendrick is driving out all the lawful homesteaders in an attempt to make the range free for his cattle and indeed McKendrick’s men attempt to drive off the new set of homesteaders. The situation escalates when Emmett is ambushed and beaten nearly to death before being rescued by Mal, and his sister’s home burned to the ground, her husband (the land officer) murdered and their son Augie (Brown) kidnapped. The four men – Emmett, Paden, Jake and Mal – must take the law into their own hands if justice is to be done in Silverado.
This is really a throwback to the popcorn Westerns of the late 50s and the early 60s – John Ford would have approved, I think. The ensemble cast shows varying degrees of comfort in the saddle – Glenn is a natural for the genre, Kline less so although his laconic delivery channels that of Gary Cooper. The wide open spaces of New Mexico are brilliantly photographed and made ample use of by cinematographer John Bailey.
Costner’s performance of Jake is compelling and charismatic and would propel him into stardom. He damn near steals the show from his better-known peers which is no small feat. He captures the attention of the audience every time he’s onscreen and brings a whole lot of energy to the film. In many ways he drives the movie into a more modern vein, or at least modern for its time.
The 80s were a particularly fertile time for films and this one is a classic of its time. While it didn’t resurrect the Western the way I think the filmmakers and studio hoped it would, it did at least open the door for a trickle of Westerns (some with Costner) to get studio green lights. Without Silverado I doubt we see Dances With Wolves, The Unforgiven and the dozens of others that have appeared since then. I suppose in that sense, it was successful – the Western remains a fringe genre but at least it’s not extinct.
WHY RENT THIS: Great ensemble cast. A real throwback to the epic Western.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat pedestrian storyline.
FAMILY VALUES: There are more than a few shoot-outs and a couple of bad words here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Costner was cast as Jake by Kasdan as a way of making amends for cutting his role completely out of The Big Chill.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a very interesting interview with Costner as he is quite candid not only about making the film but about his misgivings about the character as well. The Gift Set edition included a pack of playing cards, although this version is long out of print. You may be able to pick it up on eBay however.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $32.2M on a $23M production budget; it was considered a box office disappointment at the time although it has become more than profitable due to its home video release and regular cable and broadcast appearances.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tombstone
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: A Midsummer’s Night Dream (1999)