Silverado

This is the uncut version of a piece I wrote for the September 1985 Film Comment. Richard Corliss didn’t normally cut my stuff, but as usual I had written late and long, and at the last minute he needed to cede some space to the ads. —RTJ

I said I liked Silverado and the editor said mostly he didn’t. I said it had given me a grand time; he grumbled something about structural problems. I allowed as how it bordered on the miraculous that some wised-up, thoroughly contemporary filmmakers had managed to rediscover the pleasures of the pure Western without parodying, tarting up, or otherwise condescending to the genre. He said he only liked Westerns that transcended the genre, and as far as he was concerned the genre needed all the transcending it could get. I said, “I like Westerns. I grew up with Westerns!” He chuckled, pleasantly: “Ken Maynard?” “Among others.” That put the discussion on hold for about two weeks.

Well, I did grow up with Westerns — Jack Randall and Hopalong Cassidy on Saturday-afternoon TV, occasional Technicolor excursions with Audie Murphy, Alan Ladd, Jimmy Stewart at the moviehouse. Something other than nostalgia accounts for my continuing fondness for those youthful experiences. Some of those Westerns would turn out years later to be films de Anthony Mann or “the George Stevens classic, Shane“; others would recede in the memory as simply movies with Audie Murphy or Jack Randall in them. Cumulatively, all left their mark. In some fundamental ways, my pleasure in the ultrastylized look, movements, and behaviors of Westerns shaped my sense of what movies at large ought to be, what sorts of texture, ritual, and discovery we should require of them.

Is any other kind of movie more purely aesthetic? Although Westerns speak to a dream of America and uniquely American codes of honor and integrity, I never seriously confused the genre (specific exceptions aside) with an even halfway literal record of historical events and personages. The first time I heard Westerns likened to tales of King Arthur’s Round Table, I figured, “Yeah, well, sure!” The pure Western is as abstract and fanciful — and just as true to human aspirations and the hunger for legend.

The great thing is, Westerns turn narrative itself into legend. We follow the storylines about range feuds, families decimated, old friends falling out, new alliances being forged in the crucible of action and history, and if someone asks of a given movie, “What’s it about?,” we probably answer with a few phrases of plot summary. But what we really watch, what makes the hair on the backs of our necks shiver and our faces spread in glee, is something else entirely. It’s the recognition we share of a privileged code, the evolution of signs: the way a certain Henry rifle or a pair of pearl-handled .45s or the brand on the flank of a pinto keeps turning up; whether there’s cut whiskey in the bottle on the table; how long it takes before we know why some people persist in greeting one fellow in Silverado by inquiring, “Where’s the dog?”

Lawrence Kasdan, who produced and directed Silverado and wrote it with his brother Mark, obviously loves and understands this elemental aspect of the Western, and wanted to reclaim it from decades of parody and revisionism. He’s taken pains that his movie should be “about” nothing beyond its own patterns of incident, character, and the characters’ apprehension of one another. The endeavor constitutes neither an excursion into camp preciosity nor an aridly academic exercise in restoring an archaic genre. Rather (if my own experiences and the rapt delight of three separate general audiences are any indication), Silverado marks the rediscovery of a truly popular art form as supple as it is formalized, as accessible as it is exotic, and prodigiously entertaining.

The trick is that the prodigious entertainment necessarily springs from extreme concentration. This plays into one of the fundamental tensions in the genre: between the vast, apparently endless potentiality of the landscape and the life-or-death consequentiality of the smallest, most mundane detail. At the beginning of the film, Emmett (Scott Glenn) is bushwhacked by several gunmen, whom he succeeds in dispatching handily. Two of their horses run off; Emmett finds the third tethered nearby and leads it behind him as he continues his journey. When he comes upon Paden (Kevin Kline), horseless, stripped to his long johns, and left by four no-goods to parch in the desert, he revives the fellow and trades terse introductions with him. “Where’re you goin’?” Emmett asks. “Where’s the pinto goin’?” Paden responds agreeably, and the next cut discloses the two horsemen approaching an outpost together. Rapport is all well and good, but at base Paden rides that pinto or he dies.

Kasdan pursues this logic of survival and advancement, and builds a wry narrative structure on it. The pinto carries Paden to that outpost where, with money Emmett loans him to buy new clothes, he obtains instead a secondhand revolver and kills one of the men who had left him to die. That man had Paden’s bay horse (“the only thing I really miss”), aboard which Paden now accompanies Emmett to the town of Turley. (It’s no longer a matter of life and death, but Emmett’s a decent guy and Turley sounds as good a place as any.) There Paden spots another of his victimizers under a black hat with a silver band (“After the bay, the only thing I really miss…”). Guns are drawn, Paden blasts the lowlife out from under the hat, which plops on the floor in a closeup all its own—and in the next cut, the hat goes to jail.

I’ve shorthanded a good deal here, overleaping such crucial business as the introduction of the two other principals in Silverado‘s heroic foursome: Mal (Danny Glover), a less-than-stoic black who’s just about “had enough o’ what ain’t right” in the wild white West, and Emmett’s kid brother Jake (Kevin Costner), who’s already occupying that jail cell before Paden is shoved into it under his reclaimed headgear. No “structural problems” here. The Kasdans’ script contains nary a wasted line or move, inventing crackling-good crisis situations (how does a man in long johns with ten borrowed dollars to his name obtain a gun, load it, and accurately fire it before an unscrupulous man across the street either rides his stolen horse away or shoots him down?) and layering one spare, generic transaction over another until a persuasive fictive life emerges.

Silverado is the kind of Western in which characters have absolutely no existence beyond the moves they eloquently make onscreen. They’re as thin and transparent as a strip of celluloid, but if they and their actions are interlayered right, patterns assert themselves and the interplay of coded gestures can suggest the shape and possibility of real human connection, and values that are defined even as they are acted on. That’s the essence of Western conduct and, not coincidentally, of how every film defines its own unique principles of value and meaning, style and substance, in the act of unreeling.

I said that the Western as art form is as supple as it is formalized; that’s one reason Kasdan has been able to hearken back to the basic forms of the program Western (that is, to Ken Maynard rather than John Ford) while at the same time adapting the models to the present day. This means that, for instance, when the sheriff of Turley has to intercede in an altercation involving the principal characters, there is no hard and exclusive reason why the sheriff should not be an Englishman who’s carved out his own frontier fiefdom by force of cosmopolitan peculiarity as well as quick wit and strong will. Hence, though John Cleese arrives upon the scene with a characteristically Pythonesque “What’s all this then?,” the shock of dislocating recognition on the audience’s part is only momentary, and our delight increased geometrically as Cleese goes on to meet all the generic obligations this lawman figure owes to the furtherance of the plot, while also agreeably seasoning the flavor of the picaresque adventure. By the same token, the arrival of Jeff Goldblum as a fur-collared gentleman gambler in the immediate aftermath of a killing on the main street of Silverado plucks at the fine line of period credibility just enough to set it vibrating amusingly. There’s room for even a long absurdist drink of water like Goldblum in the mythopoetic spaces of the Western, if not necessarily the Old West.

Probably no other aspect of the production has bothered reviewers more than what seem the disproportionate uses to which Kasdan has put some of his stellar cast members. Here and there it’s clear that some material that was written and shot had disappeared by the time the final cut was locked in. Goldblum’s gambler operates as something of a tease for awhile: is he going to cast his lot with the good guys or the bad guys (cf. a similar figure played by supporting actor Rock Hudson, vis-à-vis leads James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy, in Bend of the River)? The answer, when it comes, seems a trifle awkward in its abruptness, and retroactively begs a bit more preparation with regard for his relations with those who have reason to trust him.

That John Cleese never reappears after the heroes and the story have ridden out of his jurisdiction also has troubled some commentators. The only problem here is that Cleese is a player people recognize and would enjoy seeing more of—and that his name, beginning with ‘C’, looms overprominently in the alphabetical credits. No one I know of has objected to the disappearance of the crusty outlaw leader Dawson, marvelously played by James Gammon and left ranting up a box canyon after the narrative has moved on to its titular location, the town of Silverado. One actor has marquee clout, the other doesn’t. The narrative short-livedness of both characters has nothing to do with arrant construction, everything to do with the genre’s prodigal appetite for incident and color.

Then there’s Rosanna Arquette, top of the alphabetical batting order after stars Kevin Kline and Scott Glenn, and first in the hearts of screening-roomsful of critics bouncing in their seats. Even a reasonably disinterested observer aware of Arquette’s current hotsiness must be distracted by seeing her lavished on the peripheral role of a homesteading lady both Paden and Emmett pay court to after their fashion. It’s easy to guess where a couple more scenes with her must have belonged at one time. However, her participation is consistent with the amount of screentime and dramatic importance accorded similar distaff characters in earlier shoot-’em-ups. If Patricia Gaul or Amanda Wyss had been awarded her role, there’d be no more clamor for additional footage of the proto-feminist widder woman than there is for more scenes with Emmett’s sister Kate or Jake’s saloon-girl inamorata.

Clearly, whatever he may have scripted and shot, Kasdan ultimately elected to cut Silverado along a steady, masculine action line. Not surprisingly, the leathery, laconic Scott Glenn fits the classic Gary Cooper mold as though it had been struck for him. Kevin Kline is inescapably a more contemporary presence, and urban-contemporary at that — or, as the estimable Peter Hogue put it, “He’s got a quiche-eater’s streak in him.” Kline and Kasdan cannily accommodate this quality, even turn it into a virtue by translating it into Paden’s penchant for irony and guile. And to Western habitués nervously guarding the genre’s frontiers against incursion by supercilious yuppies, there have been few scenes in 1985 more gratifying than the string of exchanges between Kline and Linda Hunt as a saloonkeeper of exemplary civility. This pair, two of the hippest, most esteemed theaterfolk of their generation, slip right into the rigorously ethical, self-aware behavior and communication that constitutes the genre’s most privileged mode of being. Saying what needs saying and understanding reams left unsaid, they make a marriage of true minds across the bar of Silverado’s Midnight Star.

Stylistically as well, Kasdan has his modes of being straight, and straight to the generic point. The director takes his pleasure in the dynamics of a classic genre rather than contriving hommages to classics of the genre: Silverado reminds me of a hundred Westerns I’ve seen, but none in particular. A couple dozen people get killed, but a single gunshot is usually, bloodlessly fatal, and accuracy tends to be a function of deterministic frame composition. It’s worth noting that the most communicably painful wounds in the movie aren’t fatal: a vicious, dying thrust of a gunman’s arm that sends a bullet into Mal’s sister’s stomach during a jailbreak; and the meaty punch! of a rifle slug entering Emmett’s thigh at the final showdown.

As for that showdown, with the four heroes converging on the hilltop town of Silverado, realistic strategy plays no part in it. Within a distinctly limited assortment of streets and buildings, each knight-errant seeks out his opposite number and sends him (and the occasional crony) to his reward. The fights do not overlap; every arena is a private space bearing no relation to the rest. The same Western connoisseur who prizes the scrupulous attention to trajectory and topography in an Anthony Mann shootout can also value the rarefied ritual of this final clearing of the books. It compels an order of exultation all its own, of a kind with that moment around the middle of the second reel when Kasdan gives us an auspicious horizon shot and the four male leads, who had not previously made common cause, now appear together, riding abreast.

The communal satisfaction of the audience at that moment is palpable — satisfaction in the moment itself and what it signifies about the nature of the action that will follow, and also satisfaction in the unstated but felt-in-the-blood awareness that it’s been far too long since a Western reached for this kind of recognition. It’s scarcely the highest order of recognition the Western at its greatest can yield; but then, the charm and gratification of Silverado inheres in the good faith with which it reaches for something other than greatness.

These peak gestures in Silverado recall nothing so much as those penultimate passages when the Bar-20 riders saddled up and thundered off to the showdown, Glück’s “Dance of the Furies” surging on the soundtrack; or when Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, and Raymond Hatton at last forswore their separate-agent status and gathered their reins with a signatory “Let’s go, Rough Riders!” You don’t learn about this level of the Western in film courses, but the filmgoer or film critic who has entered upon his maturity bereft of such cultural conditioning is poorer for it.

At least, that’s how this legatee of a misspent youth chooses to see it. With what awe and wonder I used to attend the esoteric transactions of that alien race up there on the screen. What they said and didn’t have to say, comprehended without my comprehending how, yet somehow succeeded in resolving through clear and direct action, constituted a simulacrum of adult capability to my pre-adolescent heart and mind. When I grew up, I hoped, I’d understand stuff like that. Meanwhile, it was wondrous.

In this connection, the varmint who steals Silverado for his own is Brian Dennehy. He plays my favorite Western type, the guy who turns up early in the proceedings, trades some cryptic dialogue with the hero (in this case, Paden), gives plenty of indication that he and the hero have shared some history, been friends, but somehow no longer are. Looking at this fellow, one can’t help liking him. When he shows up again, we’re glad to see him. We don’t even mind if he kills one or two minor characters nobody will miss, just to confirm him as a worthy and talented adversary. One senses in his ever-appraising grin not just danger but also a relish for life’s little ironies, like the fact that he’s unashamedly corrupt and will eventually have to kill or be killed by precisely the one fellow he holds in esteem, his old chum with a weakness for values. Dennehy, a great silvery bear, crawls inside this Western archetype as if it were an irresistible oversized costume coat, and wears it with rare style. Basically, that’s what Silverado does with the long-neglected mantle of the Western.

RTJ

Copyright © 1985 Richard T. Jameson


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