A gunslinger named Emmett (Scott Glenn) finds a dying man named Paden (Kevin Kline) in the middle of the desert. After nursing him back to health they both ride together towards a frontier town named Silverado. En route they pick up Emmett’s brother Jake (Kevin Costner) and the cowboy Mal (Danny Glover). Once they arrive in Silverado, however, Paden’s past catches up with him in the form of local sheriff Cobb (Brian Dennehy) and Paden must make a choice over whether to stand by or to take a stand for the people of the town.
Silverado, a 1985 western by writer/director Lawrence Kasdan, is a deliberately nostalgic pastiche. It revisits the tropes and archetypes of the classic American western with a wry sense of self-awareness. While imperfect, it has an immense charm that comes from making a pact with its audience. Kasdan knows he is effectively just remixing old films, and his audience knows that too. Working in concert, both filmmaker and audience can luxuriate in the sort of movie that – in 1985 at least – few studios were making any more.
Its greatest asset is its cast, which not only includes Kline, Costner, Glover, Glenn and Dennehy, but also Rosanna Arquette, Brion James, John Cleese, Jeff Goldblum, Jeff Fahey, Richard Jenkins and Linda Hunt. Kasdan not only packs his film with quality actors, he exploits them cleverly as well. No one overpowers the film. No single character outlasts their welcome. It’s a comparatively large cast for a western, but for the most part he balances them all tremendously well. Even actors like Cleese and Goldblum, who can pull a film slightly out of shape if used too egregiously, are smartly put to use and make a fantastic impression.
Kevin Kline makes for an unusual western hero. He is an intellectual at heart, and a reluctant gunslinger. When push comes to shove he does actually need to be shoved to take action. There is a sense of Hamlet about him in that regard; he is conflicted by opposing senses of fear and justice. He is very much a cowboy in the Glenn Ford mold.
A real highlight among the cast is Linda Hunt – always a gem in any of her films – whose barkeep character Stella strikes up a genuinely warm and mature friendship with Paden during the film’s second half. Truth be told their friendship is the best part of the film’s second hour, which begins to get bogged down as the plot becomes overly complicated and busy. The first half, by contrast, is hugely entertaining.
Kasdan shoots the film in a luxuriating widescreen fashion, taking full advantage of the American landscape to give Silverado an expansive and old-fashioned feel. It visually references a raft of older westerns, effectively losing an identity of its own but instead maximising its comfortable nostalgia. The only distinctiveness Kasdan really adds is in the dialogue: there’s a wit, familiar to fans of Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back, that sparkles nicely through each conversation.
In the end you come back to Silverado for the warmth and the cast. It does not add significantly to the canon of the American western – unlike its 1985 stablemate Pale Rider – but it does entertain and brings a smile to one’s face. It’s an imperfect but charming ride.