Silverado (1985) — Westerns for dummies

“The world is what you make of it, friend. If it doesn’t fit, you make alterations.”

Sue’s rating: Where’s the dog?

Sue’s review: When people start waxing philosophical (actually I don’t think there’s anything philosophical about waxing,) about great cult movies, odds are pretty good that Silverado doesn’t make an appearance in anyone’s personal top ten. Or hundred. Or thousand. So why, you might ask, am I risking all of my cult cred by dragging this particular movie into the Mutant Reviewer inner sanctum? I have three reasons.

1. John Cleese. Even in a small part, anything and anyone Python deserves a measure of culty homage.

2. This film has a pedigree including Scott Glenn, Kevin Kline, Kevin Costner, Danny Glover, Brian Dennehy, Jeff Goldblum and a whole passel of other notables along with Lawrence Kasdan as the director. That’s intriguing enough right there.

3. The Silverado 20th Anniversary Edition DVD was just released and since I liked the movie when it was brand spanking new, I feel really elderly, depressed and cranky right now. So if Justin says one thing… ONE THING… about this not being proper Mutant fodder, I’ll make him go stand in the corner. Don’t think I can’t.

Silverado isn’t actually a great Western in and of itself. It’s really more like “Westerns for Dummies” because with one glaring exception (a lack of politically incorrect slams on Native Americans — for which I am profoundly grateful) it contains every stereotype, every tradition, every freakin’ cliché ever found on the big screen when six-guns blazed, cattle stampeded and hats could hold enough water to drown an elephant. In fact, I have the distinct impression that this was as much an homage as a stand-alone project so if you only plan to see one western movie in your life, this is probably your best bet in a Cliff Notes kind of way.

In a nutshell, the story follows four main characters who fall into each others’ company by sheer coincidence. Y’know little things like jail breaks, bar fights and lying half-dead in the desert. Could happen to anyone. Amiable saloon-loving Paden, brothers Emmett and Jake and ex-slaughterhouse employee-of-the-month Malachai form a congenial little band as they travel together to the frontier town of Silverado — their common destination for various reasons. As the story moves along, each of them runs into conflicts of loyalty, personal disasters and tough decisions that ultimately only violence can resolve. (Surprise surprise!)

The theme of Silverado is as simple and worthy as Good vs. Evil… with maybe one or two shades of gray thrown in for credibility. Hey, it’s what made the old west romantic, right?

The weakness of the film is that it contains a complexity of plot threads that weave and spin together until they’ve created a long enough rope for it to hang itself with. There’s just too much information and elusive back-story. The end result is a movie that in all honesty lasts about twenty minutes longer than it absolutely needs to. (It’s 127 minutes altogether.)

As an author who carries a lot of red-pencil scars, I can tell you that it’s an incredibly painful process to edit out a scene, a character or a bit of dialogue that you know in your heart-of-hearts is brilliant and witty and undoubtedly the best thing you’ve ever done in your entire life. Some writers (Coughgeorgelucascough) can’t seem to bring themselves to do it at all. My best guess is that Kasdan loved his work a little too much to edit out the surplus in Silverado. I mean, it’s such a PRETTY film! But if a word, a phrase, a scene, a character doesn’t serve to advance the plot, there’s no justification for keeping it. Pretty deadwood is still deadwood and I’ll bet my bobble-head moose that anyone else familiar with this movie would be able to identify the same unnecessary scenes that I did.

What redeems Silverado and makes it a perennial favorite of mine, is that it contains a really nice blending of drama, humor, and action. It knows when to be serious, but more importantly it knows when to lighten up. There are some zingy little chuckles to be enjoyed. Emmett and Paden are two pretty formidable dudes in the best western tradition and the irrepressible young Jake has a lot more personality than you’d normally expect from Kevin Costner. The musical score is catchy, the scenery is stunning, and the ending is definitely more interesting than one group of guys throwing lead at another group of guys in an OK Corral style shootout. It’s a solid effort and definitely worth a view.

Didja notice?

  • Even though each main character supposedly rode the same horses throughout the movie, (Emmett’s gray, Jake’s pinto, Paden’s bay), there are actually several horses used. The markings on the bay and pinto change constantly (sometimes in the same scene) and the gray makes several mutations in color and conformation.
  • Sheriff (John Cleese) Langston’s opening line.
  • The jail cell in Turley looks sort of like a giant hamster cage.
  • Danny Glover packs some serious heat.
  • Criminals are hung at… 10 a.m.
  • What happened to the dog?
  • Why wear platform shoes when you can use a platform?
  • Either Cobb fudged on his job application for sheriff, or the Silverado employment agency didn’t check job references very closely.
  • Kevin Coster was sort of fun in this. What happened?

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