Saturday, May 14, 2011

Cult Classic of the Week: Silverado (1985)

I had not seen Silverado until this past week. It was popular at the time of its release, particularly among the gaming and movie geeks I knew at the time. I just never got around to seeing it at the theater or on video.

After surviving a pre-credits ambush, ex-con Emmett (Scott Glenn) meets Paden (Kevin Kline) in the desert, left for dead by the bandits who stole his horse, hat and gun. They catch up with the bandits at a cavalry outpost, where they also encounter Cobb (Brian Dennehy), who used to run with Paden in earlier lawless days. Cobb offers Paden work, which he refuses. Emmett and Paden continue on to Turley to find Emmett's younger brother Jake (Kevin Costner) so they can both travel on to California. While in Turley they meet Mal (Danny Glover), an African-American gunfighter who left work in the stockyards of Chicago to find his family. Mal is thrown out of town by the sheriff (John Cleese) and the other three escape after busting Jake out of jail. The four of them find their way to Silverado where the son of the cattle baron Emmett killed in self-defense and Sheriff Cobb (something he forgot to mention to Paden earlier) control the town with intimidation and violence. 

Lawrence Kasdan directed, produced and co-wrote the movie along with his brother. I wonder if there's a parallel between the Kasdan brothers and the characters of brothers Jake and Emmett: which one is the solid, steady loner, and which is the talented but wild and undisciplined one?

Kasdan had struck gold with several hit films before this. He completed the screenplay of The Empire Strikes Back with Leigh Brackett, wrote and directed Body Heat, wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi, and wrote, directed and produced The Big Chill.

There seem to be two schools of thought among movie buffs concerning Silverado. One viewpoint holds that Kasdan works too close to the old line in the Western genre. The movie uses many of the classic Western movie cliches but doesn't do anything new with them. The second opinion is that it's Kasdan's adherence to these tropes that are its strength. Silverado is really one of the Last Great Westerns of the classic Hollywood studio era. There wouldn't be another major Western until Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven in 1992, which would then usher in a new round of Westerns including Tombstone and Kasdan's Wyatt Earp (again with Costner) in 1993.

I agree with the second viewpoint. It does use many classic Western tropes we have seen before but they are used here in a new way. Not in the revisionist way that we saw in Westerns of the 1970s--many of the Hollywood Westerns in the 1970s portrayed the End of the West as a historical idea but also as the End of the Hollywood System and the rise of independent filmmakers, heavily influenced by the spaghetti Westerns of Italy and Spain.  

Silverado is a return to the ideas of the '40s, '50s and early '60s Hollywood Western. It's idealistic but not sappy, fun but not comedic. The events of the film and the obstacles put in the paths of our heroes are taken seriously by the characters (and by the film itself) even though there is still an optimistic tone that is reminiscent of the best classic Westerns. The difference is that here Kasdan is using a more modern method of storytelling that really became standard in Hollywood films at the end of the Eighties. We have multiple heroes with multiple storylines going at once and we see how these threads spread out and converge again. Kasdan uses classic filming shots and camera setups with a more modern story and editing style to create a new "old" Western. I understand the argument of its detractors, but the film has such heart and is such fun to watch. The four lead actors--most of them fairly early in their careers--really shine and work well together. I especially enjoy the fun and youthful Kevin Costner seen here, in contrast to the more serious demeanor he displays in much of his later work.

Silverado is also notable for the construction of the largest standing Western town set up to that time (later destroyed by fire during the filming of Will Smith's Wild Wild West, also co-staring Kevin Kline) which was re-dressed to portray both the towns of Turley and Silverado.

I watched Silverado using Instant Netflix. The menu screen suggests that it's in HD, although I couldn't tell if Netflix used a high-def transfer or the DVD transfer. The film is also available on 2-disc DVD and Blu-ray with several great extras, including a commentary track by Western historians.

See the theatrical trailer here.

1 comment:

Lori said...

I like your statement about "gaming and movie geeks!" Nice post! :)