Western Approaches 10
I watch westerns and I see no reason why I shouldn’t write about them every now and then. (It’s a gentle love affair)
I didn’t go to see it when it came out, making the mistake of thinking, because John Cleese was in it, that it was going to be a spoof western. I don’t mind a spoof western (Blazing Saddles, Paint Your Wagon) and I don’t mind a spoof western starring a revered English comic (Bob Hope in Son of Paleface) but this one didn’t appeal to me at the time. A pity. I would have enjoyed it very much. Despite my absence it did quite well at the box office but its true success may be shown by anyone who has the time (and the graph paper) to plot the careers of the actors involved. Most went on to have high flying film lives and all of them seem to be given a considerable boost by appearing in Silverado. Few of the cast were household names when shooting began. All of them were shortly afterwards.This isn’t a classic western in terms of the esteem in which it is held by film makers, academics or members of the public. It rarely, if ever, appears in lists of all time great westerns and you can’t buy a BFI booklet to help you evaluate your own responses. It is a bit of a classic in two other ways. Laurence Kasdan (writer and director) and his brother Mark (writer and producer) are obviously fans of the western as it was presented to the first generation of television watchers. Elements that we had grown familiar with, cheered at, tried out in our games, are incorporated into Silverado with a skill that borders on genius. On one level it is a catalogue of greatest hits that adds up to something of a homage to a golden age of cowboy trickery. (mounting horses at the gallop or from a balcony, quick on the draw techniques, no-look shootings). On another level all these elements, that are deliberately intruded, do not interfere with the forward momentum of the narrative. Like a well dressed Christmas tree we get all the trimmings without losing the tree.Much rests on the acting performances and huge plaudits ought to be awarded to the casting director. There is nothing predictable about the casting. The four heroes all came from different acting backgrounds (and went off in very different directions after filming stopped). Of the four, only Kevin Costner has become associated with the genre (and this on the strength of only 4 films in 20 years; this one, Dances With Wolves, Wyatt Earp and Open Range… enough, some people think, to earn him a place along side John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and James Stewart as a true western actor. I’m in the camp that says he’s good but not in that class.
I’d been impressed with Kevin Kline in Sophie’s Choice. This role is a big step away from that but Kline has proved over the years that he is an actor of considerable range and is at home on this range, even if his character appears to wish to be elsewhere. Scott Glenn never achieved the stardust sprinkled celebrity of his fellow horsemen but had already cemented a place in the uplands of Hollywood. His character is closest to the Ward Bond (Major Adams), Robert Horton (Flint McCullough) roles from Wagon Train. Calm, dependable, resourceful, holder of the moral compass and leader of the band.Like the Three Musketeers, The Impossibles and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, each of the group had his special set of skills. Costner was the man for the quick on the draw trickery and fancy horse riding. Kline was the card dealer and ladies’ man who always won. Danny Glover was the fellow you turned to if someone needs shooting at long range. The idea of having a black hero in a western was still novel in 1985. It wasn’t quite so unusual in 1885 in the real West. If however, Silverado marked a step forward for black actors it marked something of treading water (or even regression) for female roles. Poor old Rosanna Arquette seems to be there to make up the numbers. Her storylines have several beginnings but no development and little denouement. A pity. She’s very good and the film would have benefitted from finding a way of utilising her character and acting skills more.Some of that is true for John Cleese as well. He chooses to give the starring performance rather than the character actor role that may have been better suited. The accent may be (at least partly) American but the voice, the gestures, the expressions, the delivery is 100% Cleese. This plays well. The film encompasses comedy without sacrificing realism. His sheriff’s comic side enforces the sense of lawlessness and corruption that surrounds the world of the film (and indeed a good part of the genre). His eventual retreat from strict law enforcer to returning coward is pure Commedia delle arte and a comic highlight of the film.But none of these performances are the reason the movie works. The credit for raising this film from good to very good must go to Brian Dennehy. He is simply wonderful. The role borders on two dimensional cartoon but he fills it out to the full filmic four (he very much exists in time in the film). He’s outrageously bad yet he understands the motivation. All of his actions make sense. It is simply a wonderful acting performance. So wonderful that it supports rather than dominates the rest of the cast. This film isn’t finished until he is and anything after he has gone is a tame epilogue.You’ll find parallels for almost every aspect of Silverado in hundreds of other westerns and that is the point of it. It is a celebration of the elements we cheered from the sofa or the cinema seats of the weekend matinée. This is a film to watch in your more advanced years to remind you of just why (as a child) you came out of the Roxy shooting down Saturday shoppers or took to jumping on and off your bike while it was still moving. Many of those Saturday morning westerns were low budget affairs that don’t stand up too kindly to being watched over. Silverado does them great credit.
Which begs the question. If it is full of blatant comedy (and it is) and fancy western movie tricks and elements (which it is) how does it stand up as a narrative? The answer is very well indeed. I’d measure it by how much I care and I’d measure this by how much I (as a viewer) am drawn in by the use of dramatic tension. I could get the graph paper out again and draw lines of where the tension is supposed to be and where I feel the tension and the two lines would be almost identical. It works.
It isn’t a great film in the sense of a Citizen Kane or The Seven Samurai. It’s much too (deliberately) derivative for that. But it is a very enjoyable film and one I wish I’d seen on the big screen. I’m sure I’ll continue to miss good films for the wrong reasons. DVDs are not a patch on the cinema experience but they do allow you to catch up on things you should have seen first time around. Not a must see but very much a worth seeing movie.