Silverado

Nov 12, 1991

The following notes are by Mark Kasdan, co-writer and associate producer of Silverado.

Albert Camus wrote that a person’s lifework may be “nothing but a long journey to find again, by all the detours of art, the two or three powerful images on which his whole being opened for the first time.” Those images came to me in Western movies. From childhood my brother, Lawrence Kasdan, and I shared a love of those pictures. We weren’t alone. When he decided to write and direct a Western, people flocked to participate, both in front of and behind the camera. Most of them fell into one of two groups: those who had  made many Westerns when many Westerns were being made, and those who were eager for their first opportunity. Nobody was cooly indifferent to the chance to shape some of those dynamic images.

It was a large but remarkably harmonious team; there was a warmth amongst us that neutralized the chill of filming straight through the winter at 7,000 feet. It may seem irrelevant to a viewer of our work, years later, that we had an unforgettably good time, but I’m convinced that our pleasure seeped into the scenes and permeated every frame.

Crystalline landscapes of snow, infinitely varied earth tones, and the celebrated light of Santa Fe, New Mexico, lent their real beauty to our imaginary world. That beauty is particularly well served in this presentation: the original wide-screen format, the inherent quality of laserdisc reproduction, and a new transfer supervised by the film’s director of photography.

Set in the 1880s, the story finds four men headed for the town of Silverado. Thrown together by their adventures on the trail—ambushes, a jail break and posse chase, a wagon train of settlers stranded by an outlaw gang—they try to go their separate ways, especially after they reach the town. But Silverado holds not safety but danger, a threat that only their combined strength can challenge. Watched by the women (and a young boy) who love them, the men confront their enemies, from a thundering gun battle in the midst of a stampede, to a hushed, face-to-face, fast-draw showdown.

In Silverado, we set out to create a West filled with a sense of potential, where an intricate plot would draw together a cast of charismatic figures. We sought at every turn to infuse those characters with the delicious humor unique to heroes of high adventure. But a surprising amount of the emotion in the story comes from family connections—whether blood relationships or the spiritual ties of loners who find themselves in allegiance. That familial emphasis is Silverado‘s special gift to audiences of all ages, but there is a general standard to measure against. To take a place in the great tradition of the genre, to approach those potent, formative images Camus wrote of, a Western must depict at least one hero who cuts a certain kind of figure. Let me explain.

Like all period films, Westerns have always had two kinds of meaning. First, they show us a little about the historical West. Whatever the oversimplifications or stereotypes of the film frontier, there is always some connection to the real frontier, a place famously significant in our national psyche. More important, the physical texture of the past is represented with an essential fidelity that delights us all. The weather, the landscapes, the horses have not been altered by the passage of a hundred years. I operated an extra tape recorder during the big scene of the wagon train crossing the Rio Grande. My job was to catch the clatter of horses’ hooves and iron-rimmed, wooden wagon wheels on river cobbles, water rushing in the background. Suddenly it came to me with a shock that while this was a re-creation of a pioneer river crossing, it was also a real river crossing, that the sounds I heard were exactly what they must have been then—none of the elements have changed.

Human nature is also unchanged, and this is the second kind of meaning, the secret of the continued popularity of films set in other times. Freed of the confusing, conflicting details of current events, we are able to see universal issues dramatized and resolved. Friendship and loyalty, honor and justice, freedom in living and courage in facing death—in Westerns, these matters are seen plainly, unobscured by the specifics in which they are wrapped in our daily lives.

Trying to understand the enduring power of these movies, I found a cogent explanation in Robert Warshow’s essay, “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner.” Warshow discerned the significance of the essential Western hero: a man who wears a gun on his hip as a sign of complete responsibility for his own life and death, a reminder of the reponsibility we all bear. Good and evil existed in the Old West, of course. But we care only because they also exist today. The Western hero is a compulsively watchable figure, timeless despite his cowboy gear. He confronts for us the choice that can be honorable or not and shows us how to comport ourselves in the extreme circumstances that frighten and fascinate us. It gives us pleasure to watch him ride fast and punch hard and, if necessary, shoot straight. But he lives on because it gives us something we need more than pleasure to watch him live gracefully and act honorably and, if necessary, die bravely.