Man, the things you do for a dog.
"Man's best friend," they say. But in The Wild West, it's every critter for itself. Except for some men. Lawrence Kasdan's homage to all things Western, Silverado, tears a page out of the scripts of many horse operas and saddles them together to make an uber-western about the taming of one corner of The West. It's got everything: good guys, bad guys, bad good guys, cattle rustlers, corrupt cattlemen, Laws of the Land and bad law-men, buffalo soldiers and British sheriffs, short saloon-keepers and tall drinks of gamblers, every kind of gun-fight you can imagine, and a jail-break or two.
And a shaggy "dog" story.
But it's a story with a purpose. Because it's really about loyalty. William Holden's "Pike" in The Wild Bunch gives voice to "The Sam Peckinpah Credo" of the Western: "If you ride with a man, you stay with him, or else you're just some kind of animal." Loyalty, in a word. Truth to your Word. But, the story of Paden and the dog has been mentioned many times—often tauntingly—previously in the story Silverado, and it's only now, like so much of Paden's shady past, that it comes out after the fact, to explain away (if one can) the one member of the loose quartet of gun-men that one is not sure of where he stands. The loyalty of the others, and to whom, is not in question.
But Paden, former gambler, saloon habitue and outlaw, who we first meet in his long underwear staked out in the desert (like he dropped out of the sky) no one knows on what side of the line he stands. And which side of the line he's going to choose.
And as "it's the singer, not the song," it is also the story-teller, not the story; The story reveals more about Cobb than it really does about Paden. For Cobb, it's a story about Paden's lack of loyalty and dependability, and it is a warning to Stella to be wary of how Paden can turn like a wild horse. For this Sheriff with a tarnished star, loyalty is more important than morality—Cobb never mentions what "business" he and his crew were involved in, but it can't be any good. And Paden sacrifices his loyalty to the alleged outlaws to save an unfortunate, even if it's fool-hardy, something that makes him a target of derision. Something that makes him a wild card, someone to be wary of, in a town without pity. It's a story of warning to the saloon-keeper from her duplicitous Boss, but depending of the listener, it might also be an assurance.
Directorially, it's a simple set-up for director Kasdan: he follows the talkers into the bar, elegantly frames Cobb between the Mutt and Jeff combination of Jeff Goldblum and Linda Hunt. Then, when Cobb tells his story—a bit ruefully, a little ticked, still—Kasdan makes Brian Dennehy the sole focus, until the line "Paden's off his horse and holding the dog..." at which point in the slightly hazy distance, Paden swings in, gradually sidling up to the bar, taking the long way, looking a might hurt that Cobb is telling stories out of school. As Paden gets closer, Kasdan moves back into the group. Very neat, that shot, during the story we see Paden enter, recognize him and anticipate a reaction. There's a lot going on for something so simple.
One thing I've always admired about Silverado is its precise screenplay. Things are there for a reason, and if they're not the primary focus, then they're there as sub-text, rattling around. The words "he left (Paden)" are used quite a bit in the script, accentuating the character as a lonely drifter, but words will not be used to complete his character arc; it will be one silent image.
Silverado is a lot of fun to watch and analyze, and although a Western may seem trivial next to other things Kasdan has done, this is is one of his best movies.
The Set-Up: Things are shaking up the little frontier town of "Silverado:" Under the baleful glare of Sheriff Cobb (Brian Dennehy), things are mighty cozy with the business interests and ordinary citizens have to watch their backs...and their land...and their cattle. Into town ride four strangers (Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Danny Glover and Kevin Costner) and they're already disturbing Cobb's peace. But tonight, Cobb is in a reflective mood, so he tells his diminutive saloon-keeper Stella (Linda Hunt) and the newly-arrived gambler, Slick, (Jeff Goldblum) a little bit about their mutual friend and partner Paden (Kline).
INT. SALOON - MIDNIGHT STAR - NIGHT
STELLA From what I've seen, Paden doesn't care much about money.