Now that both Clint Eastwood's "Pale Rider" and Lawrence Kasdan's "Silverado" have hit town, the question is whether the Western has ridden back into favor along with them or has indeed been ambushed and left for dead by changing tastes.
In the face of an early summer softness in the box office generally, "Pale Rider" has been doing very nicely. The reason, it is clear, is primarily Eastwood, who sits taller and more interestingly in the saddle than anyone since the old Duke himself. No one strides the perilous dusty main street or pushes through the swinging doors of the saloon like John Wayne did, and Eastwood does.
"Silverado" has been having a slower time of it, but I think that it must eventually do well enough. It is an essentially enjoyable and untroubling experience--untroubling despite all the violence, which is abundant and continuous, because as in the Westerns of yesteryear, the violence is (I think) understood to be part of a large charade that has approximately the same relationship to reality as Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap."
Without getting entrapped in words, it is possible to say that "Silverado" is not so much a Western as a celebration of the idea of the Western.
From its opening shoot-out, with Scott Glenn inside a shack, blazing away at three assassins outside whose exact whereabouts he mostly has to surmise from the evidence of arriving bullets, "Silverado" has the confident air of the slightly preposterous.
It is larger than life, even as shoot-'em-ups go (or used to go). But it is not a mockery--Kasdan was careful about this--and the homage is affectionate. The movie offers many of the set pieces of the classic Western, above all the scenery itself, majestic and man-dwarfing, spectacularly unspoiled and nostalgia-inducing in a time when we have despoiled almost everything in the name of progress. Lack of progress, you could say, is the most important product of "Silverado."
There is also a large-scale stampede, and it has been years since we've had one of those. The big guys vs. little guys, the nesters vs. the cattlemen is the central theme and it must be the second most durable of the Western plots, right after the lone mysterious stranger come to town to avenge an ancient wrong.
If "Silverado" in its unstinting appreciation of the genre doesn't have quite the same pulling power of "Pale Rider," you have to ask yourself why.
The primary answer is indeed Eastwood. Thanks to the defining and refining of a persona that began in the Sergio Leone Westerns Eastwood made in Europe, his No Name wanderer, laconic to the point of mutism, narrow-eyed and untrusting, trail-dusty and stubble-bearded, ambiguously positioned inside and outside the law, is by now a thoroughly engrossing figure. If he is both inside and outside the law, it is (here) because the law itself is corrupt and a man must go outside it to set things right.
(The Preacher is far more pacifist and reluctant than Dirty Harry, but he is moved by the same kind of indignant righteousness.)
"Pale Rider" has been compared to "Shane," and although Eastwood rejects any suggestion that this was intended, there are comparable elements, including a shoot-down, a stalking and the ride-away ending with a child calling after him. But the Preacher himself has more to do with the Leone creation than with Shane. Still, if you seek inspiration in the Western past, you can't go to more effective models.
Where "Silverado" falters, it seems to me, is in its choice of a collective hero, four figures instead of one. John Wayne made all those Three Mesquiteers films early in his career, but, pale, slender and young, he was already the clear first among equals.
The Mesquiteers, like the Musketeers, were somehow always in pursuit of a single plot, which helped. This time there are a plethora of subplots and a succession of shoot-outs. The story takes curtain calls.
While "Silverado" updates the form in some ways, as in using a black protagonist (the excellent Danny Glover from "Places in the Heart") and offering a strong feminist speech (by the otherwise underemployed Rosanna Arquette from "Desperately Seeking Susan"), it remains rather paradoxically bloodless and sexless.
It is amusing and entertaining, and in its best moments--as of Glover trying to get a drink in an unfriendly bar--it is pleasurably dramatic. Yet on the whole it stays curiously uninvolving.
It is as if, having elected not to mock the Western, Kasdan could not go far enough the other way to take it seriously in its own mythic terms.
Part of the shrewdness of "Pale Rider" is that it updates the form in its own way, offering a timely ecological theme (the bad guys are going to devastate the countryside with their hydraulic mining, as indeed they did) and also having the self-styled Preacher bed down the pretty widow with no promise of foreverness. Western heroes don't kiss their horses the way they used to.
What is clear is that the Western is not an automatic sell, anymore than any other genre, but it is also evident that the traditional Western has been in short supply too long. The audience is there and eager, as "Pale Rider" demonstrates, and as "Silverado," whose virtues of scenery and action outweigh its defects, will show in the longer run.
The truth is that the Western is as demanding a form as the minuet, and there have been whitened bones along the trail for the last decade or more to prove the point. But its basic ingredients--hero and conflict, good and evil having at it under the big Western sky, preferably with an issue that exceeds the banal--are still central to the American experience, and still enormously appealing.