Ambiguity is a core fixture in the moral code of the western in general, and Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado in particular. There is a certain necessary correlation between having morally tilted characters in westerns, considering they would have to be a little dishonest and hardened in order to survive on lands rightfully belonging to Native Americans according to treaties signed by the government.
Even Silverado’s heroes lean more toward the knightly end of the moral spectrum than a lead character in a film like The Searchers, for instance. However, that does not mean that the heroes have unblemished records. The main characters in Silverado have sordid histories, but the audience follows their point of view and side with that group more readily. However, there is a thin line dividing the good guys from the bad guys in the film. Sometimes good guys are presented as bad guys, depending on which side of the law the group of friends (including Emmett, Paden, Jake, and Mal) are on at the time.
For example, two sheriffs depicted in the film have a common position and status. A sheriff is generally thought to be a moral archetype, which is the type of characters Kasdan was trying to represent in the film. A sheriff represents peace, justice, and order, and while Sheriff Langston and Cobb are both given charge of their respective towns, they are appointed and accept the jobs with differing motives.
Langston, of Turley, is a seemingly fair, efficient, proper, and morally upright character. He throws people out of town occasionally, but only in order to keep the peace. Despite his position as peacekeeper, and because he plans to hang Jake and Paden, Langston becomes a “bad guy” in the film, although the reason the two heroes are sentenced to hang is because they each murdered somebody. The sheriff is simply doing his job
Meanwhile, Cobb, the unlikely sheriff of Silverado, was appointed by the rich cattle family in town, the McKendricks, in order to have an authoritative ally. Cobb, who used to be the leader of an outlaw gang, now has his former gang members deputized. He is sly, deceitful, murderous, and shameless, and greedy. He is not afraid of hurting anybody to get what he wants, which is usually hurting somebody else. His victims include children, families, innocents, and his own friends. He abuses his power as sheriff, such as when he ambushes Mal Johnson with his posse of deputies; he pompously declares, “We’re gonna give you a fair trial, followed by a first class hanging
The fact that these contrary sheriffs are pitted in some way against the heroes of Silverado demonstrates the tightrope morals of the characters themselves. Each character is accountable for committing some immorality. Emmett and his brother, Jake, are guilty of murder. Paden once rode with Cobb’s gang of outlaws, as well as killing off men who waylaid him and robbed him clean. Mal, as far as the audience knows, has not killed anyone when his character is introduced, but he abandoned his family farm when he was young to find work in Chicago.
Abandoning family is a just as big a crime in the film as murder, it seems. After Mal left his mother died, his father’s home and ranch was burned out by the McKendricks, and his sister, Rae, was forced to become a saloon girl. Also, Emmett makes a point of telling Paden that he has to rescue Jake from hanging because Jake is Emmett’s brother, and he can not tell his sister that he let their brother swing. Furthermore, Paden loses the trust of Cobb and his former riding buddies after he abandoned them during a chase in order to tend to a stray dog one of the men had shot.
Family is a value that helps those in the “wild west” maintain their humanity, and if someone throws family away, it is an inhuman crime. Because the heroes are not entirely moral, the audience must find a different reason to choose them over Cobb and the McKendricks. This alternate sign is the motive the characters have to commit their crimes. Paden, Emmett, Mal, and Jake kill many enemies throughout the story; however, they do not kill out of greed, but out of self-defense and necessity. In Turley, Jake and Paden each kill a man, both out of self-defense. Although Langston is correct in attempting to dissuade random acts of violence in his town, he and the jury do not take into account that the man Jake killed attempted to shoot him first. Meanwhile, Paden’s victim also drew first, and he was one of the men who ambushed Paden at the beginning of the film. Emmett is also a victim of overzealous justice. The film begins with Emmett fresh from Leavenworth after being sent up for murder of the McKendricks’ father. Emmett also killed out of self-defense, but that detail was ignored.
In the scene where Paden, Emmett, and Mal sally forth to save Jake and his young nephew, Augie, the McKendricks have about twice as many men as the main group. The group is outnumbered, and the McKendricks have started the battle by kidnapping the trio’s comrades; thus, the heroes are in the right when they kill off their combatants
Another example is when Mal goes to his sister’s bedside, after she has been shot by one of Cobb’s men. There he finds Slick, a dishonest gambler who is under the protection of Cobb, and has lately become a regular patron of Rae. Earlier in the film, Rae asks Slick to help her brother, but instead Slick helps Cobb entrap Mal. Later, Mal knows he was betrayed, and feels justified in killing him when Slick pulls a gun on him. Slick is also guilty of further damaging the strength of Mal’s and Rae’s family by further degrading Rae’s decency.
While the heroes are defending them and theirs, the villains kill for more shallow reasons. Mal and his father have some good farm and cattle land, burned out by the McKendricks who hope to scare the owners away. Ethen McKendrick has a vendetta against Emmett, being not quite satisfied with Emmett’s punishment. The film actually begins with Emmett being ambushed by faceless men, determined to kill him. Later, by matching Ethen’s brand with the brand of a confiscated horse, Emmett determines that Ethen had sent a killing party out to accomplish what the jury had not. The McKendricks and Cobb go on the offensive when Emmett and his group get to town, they kill Mal’s father in order to steal his land. Although Mal does not save his father, he manages to thwart Cobb’s deputies’ efforts to kill Emmett. In retaliation, the McKendrick men attempt to kill Emmett’s sister and her family in order to lure Emmett out of hiding.
In the end, of course, each hero kills his complementary villain, Emmett kills Ethen, Mal stabs Slick, and Paden shoots down Cobb. Added to the contradiction in the sheriff motif, the fact that Paden has to kill Cobb, despite him being Paden’s father figure, goes against the rule of destroying ones family. However, once Cobb starts hurting Paden’s friends, and forcing Paden to stay on the sidelines, Cobb becomes a destructive force in the metaphorical father/son relationship they have developed.
It can not be said that Silverado is a reflection of the moral code our country holds today. The audience of the film is expected to give more weight to the crime of deserting family than to shooting other people one by one. It may, however, demonstrate the morals held by those living in the western era, where they lived by laws they made themselves. In the end of the film, the four friends are redeemed because they come back to help each other. The group becomes its own little family, and Mal, Paden, Emmett, and Jake are forgiven, despite the wrongs they committed in the past.