Long awaited and heavily hyped, Silverado sought to revive the feel of the big, colorful western epics of the ’50s in the way that, a few years before, writer-director Lawrence Kasdan had helped Lucas and Spielberg revive the pulp adventures of the ’30s in Raiders of the Lost Ark. You know the kind of western we’re talking about—not the timeless, mythic, character-centered westerns of Ford, Hawks, Mann, and Boetticher, but movies of the kind that always seemed to come “thundering onto the screen,” starring more big-name actors than the entire cast of your average Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott film. The kind of western that hasn’t really lasted so well.
Silverado hasn’t either, and what was observed in most reviews in the summer of ’85 remains true today: The film is often loads of fun, but its sprawling story of four drifters who converge, separate, and converge again with a common (and politically correct) purpose is both too long and too short. Too short in that it was cut down from three hours to just a hair over two, leaving the film cluttered with characters and episodes whose real contribution to the film lay on the cutting room floor. Too long because what is left bounces around episodically rather than moving relentlessly toward an inevitable confrontation, as a western should, takes too much time getting down to business, and then spends too much time wrapping up afterward.
Kasdan’s film, containing respectful homages to a lot of the great westerns, is neither the summing up nor the revival that Kasdan wanted it to be. All of the elements are here: drifters with a dark past and an uncertain future, corrupt lawmen, gold-hearted saloon girls, hopeful migrant settlers, gunslinging outlaws, oppressive capitalists. But Kasdan’s grand concept never builds on what it builds up. Amply entertaining in the occasional bit of dialogue or action setpiece, the film entire ends up feeling inconsequential, as if the most awesome warrior in the world strode majestically up to you, fixed your gaze, then winked and skipped away.
Kevin Kline is a likable cowboy for the ’80s, owning a handful of solid moments such as the one in which he stands, unmoving, taking his time to load his new pistol and take careful aim, while the man who stole his horse rides him down, guns already blazing. But in the end, only Kevin Costner looks, acts and sits a horse like a real western hero—notwithstanding the fact that he plays a strutting wannabe who’s not yet quite good enough. And that points to what may be the real legacy of Silverado: the first western pairing of the director and actor who would later make the more skilled and memorable 190-minute epic Wyatt Earp (1994), which did admirable homage to many great westerns, to the genre itself, and to the cultural impact of its antihero; and which, in turn, pointed the way to Costner’s own accomplished Open Range, his most respectable contribution to the western genre.
Robert C. Cumbow, author of books on John Carpenter and Sergio Leone, also contributed to our “Summer of ’84” series. His home base is the Seattle film blog The Parallax View, where much of his 40 years of film writing is archived.