Silverado: Fulfilling Conventions of a Western The Western genre has left an indelible mark on the world and thanks to Hollywood, the ingredients to a traditional Western are hard to miss. Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado contains classic western elements and visualizes the Manifest Destiny mythology of a primitive way of life confronted with modern technology and social changes by fulfilling traditional conventions, iconography, and expectations of a standard western.
In order to understand the Western genre, it is important to know the history behind it. Most westerns have an underlying theme that ties to the Manifest Destiny that occurred in the second half of the 19th century. America was expanding to the west as conflict rose over the ambiguity of the rights of property on the American frontier. Most westerns included this mythology into the plot of the story. Silverado included this with the main character, Emmet, is riding to Silverado to meet his brother so they can make a new start travel to California.
There is also conflict amongst property as a corrupt sheriff tries to run new settlers off the land. If there is one genre that sticks to its guns when it comes to its conventions, it would be the Westerns. From the lassos to the gun fights, Hollywood has created a concrete image of what the Wild West looked like during that time period. Westerns generally stick with a certain type of plots, characters, settings and music that create the atmosphere of the American frontier during the Manifest Destiny.
The classic plot of a Western is centered around the good guys versus the bad guys, with no ambiguity of who is who with conflict often growing out of several archetypal situations: ranchers vs. farmers, Indians vs. settlers, and outlaws vs. civilization with the main goal to maintain law and order on the frontier. Silverado fulfills the white hat versus black hat conflict with four drifters meeting by chance on a trail to Silverado where they encounter a corrupt sheriff and a rotten local rancher in league with local bandits to run off new settlers and terrorize the town.
The four guys of virtue join forces to fight for what’s good against the wrong doers. The laconic heroes in the story also embed characteristics often found in characters of Westerns. Western heroes are often local lawmen or enforcement officers, ranchers, army officers, cowboys, territorial marshals, or a skilled, fast-draw gunfighter. They are normally masculine persons of integrity and principle – courageous, moral, tough, solid and self-sufficient, maverick characters and often with trusty sidekicks, possessing an independent and honorable attitude.
The Western hero could usually stand alone and face danger on his own, against the forces of lawlessness (outlaws or other antagonists), with an expert display of his physical skills (roping, gun-play, horse-handling, pioneering abilities, etc. ). Silverado’s characters follows closely with these Western character conventions. Emmet is a lone, taciturn cowboy, hardened to his elements fresh from an undeserved five year prison sentence. Paden is a well-spoken, educated man who loves his horse and his hat and is a talented gunslinger.
Mal is the classic western good guy who stands up for what is right and never backs down from a fight. We’re able to see the racism of the times that is prevalent in the West through his eyes. Lastly, Jake is wild and acrobatic, brash but carefree and thinks with his guns. There were also several women roles that were portrayed like a classical western. They were depicted as weak individuals who were second to the men in society. Rarely was a woman a main character in the films, and if she was, she was shown to be weak, holding the man back, trying to tie the man down.
However, Silverado slightly strayed away from portraying weak women with Stella being a wise saloon manageress. The setting is also important in fulfilling the traditional western conventions. Gorgeous, breathtaking landscapes are a hallmark of this genre. Westerns often stress the harshness of the wilderness and frequently set the action in an arid, desolate landscape. Specific settings include isolated forts, ranches and homesteads; the Native American village; or the small frontier town with its saloon, general store, livery stable and jailhouse.
Apart from the wilderness, it is usually the saloon that emphasizes that this is the “Wild West”: it is the place to go for music (raucous piano playing), women (often prostitutes), gambling, drinking, brawling and shooting. In some Westerns, where “civilization” has arrived, the town has a church and a school. Early Westerns were mostly filmed in the studio, just like other early Hollywood films, but when location shooting became more common from the 1930s, producers of Westerns used desolate corners of Arizona, California, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, or Wyoming.
Director Lawrence Kasdan catches the perfect blue sky above the orange desert and celebrates the beauty of wagon trains moving through pretty, rolling country and sleepy little western towns, using wide open spaces. It is important for westerns to capture this desolate and growing area so it relates back to the mythology of the Manifest Destiny. Travelers would cross to the west and often come across up and coming towns like these that don’t exactly have a strong system of law and order which directly connects to most conflicts in westerns.
In Silverado, after the opening scene of a classic bushwhack scene in Emmet’s little cabin, he exits through the door and Kasdan captures the wide open view of a classic western setting as the title appears. Kasdan continues to use long shots sporatically in the movie to show the breathtaking dessert mountains and open space to emphasize the isolation of these towns and the desolate environment that these travelers settle in. The score of Silverado also further fulfills the conventions of a western. The western music is carried throughout the movie as it greatly climaxes during the action scenes.
The Iconography used in Silverado also adheres to classic western expectations. Typical elements in westerns include hostile elements, guns and gun fights (sometimes on horseback), violence and human massacres, horses, trains (and train robberies), bank robberies and holdups, runaway stagecoachs, shoot-outs and showdowns, outlaws and sheriffs, cattle drives and cattle rustling, stampedes, posses in pursuit, barroom brawls, ‘search and destroy’ plots, breathtaking settings and open landscapes, and distinctive western clothing (denim, jeans, boots, etc. . Silverado seems to not leave out any hallmark western cliche and traditional elements throughout the story. It includes many fights scenes with sneering, equally laconic villains who spit before they draw their guns against classic shootouts where the good guys score a direct hit with every shot, no matter the distance or the situation, and the bad guys miss with every shot.
Silverado has the wagon train, the bandits hiding in a box canyon, horses, a horse thief, a hat thief, outlaws, a saloon, a gambler, a crooked sheriff, an evil ranch owner, a kidnapping, a fire, a rescue, a wagon train fording the river, a jailbreak, a canyon shootout, a town fire, a cattle stampede, bar fights, and a showdown on main street to name most iconic scenes in this western.
Specifically, Kasdan includes some a collection of scenes borrowed from other westerns such as an over-the drivers shoulder shot from inside a covered wagon, the door frame shot near the beginning from Ford’s The Searchers, Jake kicking in the saloon doors and coming out to kill two at once, Emmet’s killer horse trick strategy when he loses his gun, and of course the final showdown between good and evil. The final show down is the most recognizable and expected scene in the western.
Silverado’s final show down scene takes place on the main road, with the town’s people hidden away and awaiting this moment, as the good guy stands with the big white church behind him and the villain dressed in black across from him. And, as expected, the good guy is fast and right on target to kill his enemy. Silverado concludes with Jake and Emmet riding off into the sunset with victory that allows them to continue their journey to California.
Silverado also contains iconic actions of typical cowboys such as the coat flip where one man threatens another in a saloon or on a street, and the threatened responds by flipping back his coat to show he’s packing heat. Also, in the beginning when Paden arrives to town without his clothes and gear, he automatically goes for his gun on his hip and his tip of his hat, forgetting he is without it. Kasdan emphasizes these gestures by getting close ups such as Paden’s hand reaching for his gun. Silverado’s costumes and props complete the iconic appeal of a classical western.
The characters buff-colored, dusty and gritty cowboy apparel sets the western atmosphere with a variety of cowboy hats that each match the character’s personality. The guns used also meet western expectations but also contributes to the character’s personalities with Mal’s handy shotgun and Jake’s skilled handiness of two pistols. The lady’s costumes were also typical of a western with extravagant long dresses and big sunhats. Silverado also includes the iconic tin star to represent the authority of the sheriffs.
By creating a classic western setting, Silverado visualizes the atmosphere during the Manifest Destiny that the travelers heading to the west experienced. Overall, Silverado is the typical western by fulfilling the expected conventions and iconography. Kasdan lifts many western elements and scenes that matches with what Hollywood has brought to screen before. He payed attention to the details of westerns that ultimately created the perfect atmosphere for the mythological Manifest Destiny adventure.