Lawrence Kasdan came out with a bang in Hollywood as a writer. His first three screenplays were monster hits (The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi). In the middle of all that, he also found time to be the writer/director of The Big Chill (for which he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay). He was also the writer/director for one of the better entries in the modern film noir oeuvre, Body Heat.
By the time 1985 rolled around, Lawrence (and his co-writing brother, Mark) were ready to film a screenplay they had been working on that was to be a western. Not many people in Hollywood were ready to green light a western however. Most people felt that westerns were passe, even before the death of the ultimate western icon, John Wayne. But the Kasdan brothers were insistent, and with the clout that Lawrence had achieved based on his previous successes, they finally found the financial backing to film their dream project.
The western that they envisioned had all the cliches that were a part of the genre’s mythos: You had your innocent man, wrongly imprisoned, now out of jail and seeking revenge. You had your bad guy who has left behind his bad ways and wants to live life on good terms with society, despite his past trying to trip him up in the process. You had your good man whom society seems to want to run out of town, simply because he is perceived to come from the wrong side of the tracks. You had your loose cannon of a brother, for whom everything is just a joke (OK so that’s a new twist, but you can see antecedents for the character in some of the edgier westerns).
Not only that, you have an outlaw who has somehow managed to wangle a position as sheriff, who is wholly in the camp of the previously noted innocent man’s enemy. There is also a couple of love interests. Add in a genial but ruthless gambler, a female bar owner who has her own gritty outlook on life, a sister who wants her brothers to settle down and become normal citizens of the community, and, oh yeah, a neighbor who offers stoic advice from behind a fence. (Wait, that’s Wilson from Home Improvement, but the actor who played him is in the movie, and you can’t help but spot him when a brief scene has him with a cup in front of his mouth).
There are a lot of story lines to follow (kinda like a soap opera), but this is one entertaining jaunt. Kasdan went on from here to have even more success. He was nominated twice more for Oscars for Grand Canyon and The Accidental Tourist. He also had a hand in writing the recent Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens. All in all a pretty good pedigree.
With a soundtrack composed by Emmy Award winning and Oscar nominated Bruce Broughton, and a cast that includes Scott Glenn, Kevin Kline, Danny Glover, Kevin Costner, Jeff Goldblum, Linda Hunt, Brian Dennehy, Rosanna Arquette and John Cleese, this movie is one that will entertain even the most jaded of viewers.
The movie opens with Emmett (Scott Glenn) asleep in an outpost shack when he is ambushed by three men, all of whom he happens to kill. He then walks out the front door, and in a scene reminiscent of John Wayne’s entry into the house at the beginning of The Searchers, we get see a panorama of the beautiful countryside where this movie takes place.
He takes the only remaining horse after the other two run off, and sets out while the opening credits role backed by Broughton’s fantastic mood setting score. A full six minutes into the movie, Emmett finds a man, Paden (Kevin Kline), lying in the desert, apparently passed out from the heat, and, after giving Paden a sip of water, we finally hear the first words spoken in the movie:
“Pleased to meet ya”
Paden and Emmett travel on to a nearby town where Paden encounters and shoots one of the men who robbed him and left him to die in the desert. A former cohort from his outlaw days, Cobb (Brian Dennehy) vouches for him to the army people who confront him. Cobb invites Paden to join him on a “legitimate” endeavor, but Paden declines.
Emmett and Paden travel on to Turley where Emmett is going to meet up with his brother before heading out to California. At a bar, Mal (Danny Glover), gets in trouble with the locals because he is black, and the sheriff, Sheriff Langton (John Cleese) runs him out of town. Then the sheriff tells Emmett his brother is in jail, convicted of murder, and is scheduled to hang in the morning.
Jake (Kevin Costner) is glad to see his brother, but he is still going to hang. Emmett and Paden part ways because Emmett plans to bust his brother out of jail, and Paden is still trying to go straight. But Paden finds another of the men who robbed him, wearing his hat and guns, and shoots him, which gets Paden put in the jail cell with Jake.
Ok, you knew it was coming, Emmett manages to cause a distraction that allows him and Jake and Paden to hightail it out of town, pursued by Langton. But Mal, still hanging around outside of town manages to help Langton have a change of mind about pursuing them. Now we have our quartet of heroes. Fate has managed to bring them together, and fate is a hard woman to satisfy.
The divergent stories go their own way for a while. Emmett it seems has a beef with the local rancher, McKendrick (Ray Baker), who was instrumental in getting Emmett sent to prison. McKendrick is a ruthless land grabber who is trying to force Mal’s father off his ranch. And of course, Paden’s old buddy Cobb is sheriff of Silverado, a town that is all but beholden to McKendrick. Plus a caravan of settlers who have legal claim to land outside of Silverado are also in McKendrick’s sights, because he wants that land too.
Emmett and Jake’s sister is married to the land office representative (Earl Hindman) so they have even more reason to keep McKendrick from winning the day. Everyone in the movie is either on the side of Emmett or on the side of McKendrick and loyalties are big plays. Jeff Goldblum rides into town as an itinerant gambler who had a thing for one of the saloon girls (who just happens to be Mal’s sister). Paden develops a love for the local bar owner (Linda Hunt), who sees the evil that Cobb and McKendrick intend upon the town, but is powerless to stop it.
As confusing as all these threads seem, it all works out to a grand conclusion at the end. Of course, the good guys ride off into their own respective sunsets, but getting there is half the fun.
Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.