When the typical Western movie fan rattles off his or her list of all-time favorites, there are some titles that you are almost certain to see: Stagecoach; The Searchers; Shane; The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; The Good, the Bad and The Ugly. There is one additional title that belong with that group in my opinion, Lawrence Kasdan’s 1985 modern classic, Silverado.
Derided by some critics as derivative and by others as overly dependent on Hollywood star power, Silverado has never gotten, in my humble opinion, the admiration that it deserves for delivering on all the experiences one wants from a well-done Western: a taut struggle between good and evil, familiar and appealing characters, beautiful albeit stark landscapes, and a rollicking score.
Silverado centers around a quartet of unlikely but immensely appealing heroes. Scott Glenn, who has always embodied the definition of laconic, plays Emmett. Kevin Kline is the wry romantic Paden. A highly caffeinated Kevin Costner, is Emmett’s trouble-prone younger brother, Jake. And Danny Glover plays the stoic Mal. The central conflict of the film—which surprise, surprise, revolves around land disputes—pits these four off against the corrupt McKendrick family led by Ray Baker.
But Silverado features a cavalcade of 1980s stars in supporting roles and even brief cameos: Jeff Goldblum, Linda Hunt, Brian Dennehy, John Cleese, Rosanna Arquette, and Jeff Fahey. Other minor roles are peopled by familiar character actors such as Joe Seneca, Brion James, James Gammon, and Sheb Wooley (you may not know their names but you’d recognize them).
The performances are, to a one, fully realized, but I especially liked Kevin Kline’s wistful Paden, a more subdued performance from an actor renowned for acting larger than life. Oscar winner Linda Hunt (most recently a cryptic fixture on NCIS: Los Angeles) plays the proprietor of Silverado’s favorite saloon. Her interchanges with Kline’s Paden form the emotional spine of the film. And (cowboy) hats off to Brian Dennehy as the smug villain Cobb.
Filmed in beautifully scenic New Mexico, Silverado combines wonderfully evocative natural settings with an iconic rough-and-tumble frontier town so familiar to devotees of the genre. And finally, there is Bruce Broughton’s soaring film score – full of brass and bluster. The score was nominated for an Academy Award (but lost to John Barry’s excellent Out of Africa).
Director Lawrence Kasdan, better known for his domestic dramas and comedies such as The Big Chill, Grand Canyon, and The Accidental Tourist (and also a screenwriter for numerous episodes in the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises), clearly understands the rhythms and tropes of classic Westerns. And he remembers his lessons from Indy and Luke about blending strong characters with the strong action set pieces. His witty, rat-a-tat script, co-written with his brother Mark, imbues these archetypal characters with personality and humor, and keeps the twisty plot moving to its inevitable showdown conclusion.
Does Silverado explore new ground for the genre? No, but the film is an entertaining, deeply satisfying homage to vintage Westerns that fits the fan’s expectations like a well-broken-in Stetson (a black one with a pretty silver band).
— In Defense of is a periodic essay that argues why certain subjects in pop culture are deserving of your respect