Highlander

From the original movie poster...you know you want to see this film.Highlander. I love it, even though it has caused me so much pain. Like many fans of the Highlander franchise, I keep coming back for crappy movie after crappy movie, each time hoping that those in control of the franchise somehow catch lightning in a bottle as they did with the first film. As of late I’ve gotten back on a Highlander kick, looking at the high points and the many low points of the franchise. Adding to my fervor is the fact that my Christmas bounty from my family included the director’s cut of the original film, the “Immortal edition,” which is essentially the director’s cut in a new case with some Queen-related bonus features but cool to own anyway, and Highlander 3: The Sorcerer as a gag gift. (My mother apparently wanted to get me Highlander: the Source as the gag gift, which would have possibly ruined Christmas with my inevitable overreaction.) So I’ve got a lot of reasons to think about this franchise now and plenty of material to use for rants. I’m planning on going over the franchise as a whole eventually, but first I figure it’s best to explain why I’m so obsessed with it, and why I and many other Highlander fans come back to the franchise again and again like abused spouses. To do that, the only possible place to start is the first film, which is unquestionably the high point of the franchise.

Highlander was released in 1986 and was basically a combination of luck and skill in its production. The screenplay was written by Gregory Widen as a film student and eventually wound up in the hands of William Panzer and Peter Davis. Widen sold the script for $200,000, and the film was off and running.

Widen’s script came about when he looked at a suit of armor in a museum and wondered what the man who wore it would be like if he was still around today. From that basic question came the imagined world where a race of immortals walked among us, only dying when another of their kind took their head. The main character was Connor MacLeod, a man who had died in 1536 in battle in the highlands of Scotland only to awake the next day as good as new. He was cast out of his homeland as the spawn of the devil and forced into a strange new world where he had to conceal the truth about himself, battle his own kind for survival, and watch those he loved age and die while he remained eternally young.

While the final film differed in significant ways from Widen’s original script, the concept of immortality and loneliness is what makes Highlander such a powerful idea. Connor is a man who chooses again and again to live among humans, taking part in history as it is created. He loves the mortals around him and wants to be a part of their world, but can never form close relationships because they age while he does not. One of the key revisions to the script was to add a “one true love” character for Connor, his wife Heather. In the original script that Widen wrote, Connor’s betrothed joined his clan in casting him out. Connor went on to marry many times and have a total of 37 children over the course of his life, but watched them all age and die. The final script revised this to immortals being unable to have children, but gave Connor one woman who loved him unconditionally no matter what he was. Connor stayed with Heather until she died of old age, missing out on the chance to have children with her and grow old next to her. Even centuries later, Connor lit a candle on Heather’s birthday in remembrance of his true love.

Unlike most of what followed, Highlander was actually a romance at its core. The sword fights and special effects really mean nothing without that emotional core. Connor MacLeod has been many things over the course of his life, but the loneliness remains. He is a man who wants to die and join Heather. But, at the same time, he loves the world he lives in and wants to remain a part of it. Nowhere in the original film is this better shown than in a scene in which he sniffs a glass of brandy from 1783 and recalls all the wonderful things that happened in that year. Adding another dimension to Connor’s loneliness is a sense of duty. He and other good immortals can’t just let themselves die because the risk is so great that an evil immortal, such as Connor’s eternal rival the Kurgan, could be the last man standing and effectively have ultimate power. As each immortal dies, the one who killed him gains all of that immortal’s knowledge and power. If the Kurgan or another evil immortal is the last one, with all the strength of the other immortals who have lived through the centuries, then the world that Connor loves so much is doomed forever.

Highlander combines an epic plot, great sword fights, and a touching romantic story. It, like so many great science fiction and fantasy tales, explores the human condition and takes our inner desires to an extreme. We all want to live forever, but what does that really mean? Would we still want to be alive 100 years from now? 1000? How many loved ones would have to die around us before we wanted to give up on life entirely? At the same time, though, how many new loves would we have to make us want to go on? Although Connor misses Heather, he doesn’t spend all his time moping. He forms other relationships, notably a father-daughter relationship with Rachel Ellenstein, a girl he saves in World War II and who remains by his side well into her adulthood, eventually becoming physically older than he is, and a romantic relationship with Brenda Wyatt, who serves as the key romance in the story.

With such a complex character, you’d think the casting department would want to get it just right. You’ve got to find a guy who can convincingly play someone who begins life as a Scottish barbarian and who has lived for almost 500 years. To boot, you’ve got to find someone who can fight well with a sword and perform some pretty incredible stunts. So who did they get? Christopher Lambert, an American-born, Swiss-raised Frenchman who could barely see and couldn’t speak fluent English. Enamored with his performance in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, the studio didn’t find out those last couple of facts until Lambert was already locked into a contract. The real winner in the Highlander franchise is Christopher Lambert’s agent, because whoever he is, he played the studio like a fiddle multiple times.

To be fair, though, Christopher Lambert actually panned out well as Connor. I’m not of the opinion that Lambert is a particularly good actor, but he really is dynamite in Highlander. His severe myopia doesn’t hinder him too much in the fight scenes, and the fact that he had been all over Europe lent him some cred as Connor, as he sounded like a man who had been just about everywhere. Moreover, while most of the performances in Lambert’s career seem a bit under-acted, as Connor he turned in a performance that was legitimately subtle. He had a kind of charm to the character and conveyed loneliness well without using a lot of lines. He even had an eccentric charm as Connor, with his short staccato laughs and the moments where you could tell the character actually had fun as an immortal. Considering everything going against Lambert in taking on this role, if anything he’s been underrated for his very solid performance.

Although the movie has a romantic core, an epic plot and lots of action is what puts seats in theatres. In order to get that, the creators needed a really good villain. Enter Clancy Brown, aka the Kurgan, aka Lex Luthor from the DC Animated Universe, aka Byron Hadley from The Shawshank Redemption, aka about a dozen other of the best villains ever put on film. Actually, he only reluctantly took on the role of the Kurgan because he was worried about the prosthetics and makeup required for the role causing an allergic reaction. But in the end he did, and he was awesome. In terms of sheer fun and over-the-top villainy, he’s up there as one of the greatest villains in film history. The Kurgan is a perfect antagonist for Connor – while Connor values life and love, the Kurgan is all about being the biggest badass on the block. He was raised by a clan that threw children to the wolves and knows nothing but violence as a lifestyle. The Kurgan sees life as something to conquer, not enjoy. He is really almost childlike in his understanding of the world, like a schoolyard bully. He is known as the strongest immortal, and constantly holds that up as the biggest achievement of his millennia-old life. He tells Connor’s mentor Ramirez that fighting him is useless because, “I am the strongest,” and rubs it in Connor’s face, taunting, “You will always be weaker than I.” While Connor loves life and the people in it, the Kurgan is only happy when he is proving his strength, either in battle or sexual conquest. The fact that Brown was given lots of room to ad-lib made him even more menacing…and also freaked out many extras, particularly in the church scene when he gloats about the fact that he raped Heather back in the day. Many of the priests and nuns there were not actors, and their reactions of shock and horror were genuine.

Admittedly, the Kurgan was made of 1980s cheese. He was over the top and almost funny in his appearance and actions, but he was a great villain. There was no doubt what he wanted, where he stood, and how difficult it would be to best him in battle. Clancy Brown’s performance was so great that every other villain in a Highlander movie has tried to copy it, and they have all come off laughably bad, capturing the cheesy part of the performance but not the menace that the Kurgan presented.

And then there was Sean Connery playing Juan Sanchez Villa Lobos Ramirez. He was cast primarily due to name recognition, and it honestly wasn’t the best of work from the casting department. I mean, you’ve got a movie called Highlander, and instead of casting a Scotsman like Connery as the titular highlander, you go with a Frenchman (or Swiss, or American…I don’t really know what nationality Lambert identifies himself as). And Connery gets the role of an Egyptian who lived in Japan for a while and then masquerades as a Spaniard…all while doing his well-known Scottish brogue. That’s classic bad casting, but again it worked out, mainly because when people see Sean Connery they seem to automatically accept his role as great, no matter what it is. Additionally, he and Christopher Lambert became friends during the production (of which Connery was in for only a single week due to his tight schedule), which added a genuine feeling of camaraderie between Connor and his mentor. So again, a seemingly lousy casting choice paid off. How many bullets did this movie dodge just to make it to post-production?!

To top everything off, the movie got a huge boost from Queen, who came in to do the soundtrack. They composed several songs just for this movie, all of which are amazingly good. And while the film didn’t perform well at the box office (making most of its money overseas and through video sales), I imagine that what folks did come into this film got drawn in by the music. And once they were at the theatre, the opening credits let them know they were in for something awesome. Sean Connery reads the audience the opening lines, “From the dawn of time came, moving silently down through the centuries. Living many secret lives, struggling to reach the time of the Gathering, when the few who remain will battle to the last. No one has ever known we were among you…until now.” Then we get Queen’s “Princes of the Universe.” No one knows what’s about to happen, but they know it will be awesome.

The movie itself keeps that mystique going. Opening up, Connor kills somebody, then gets struck by lightning in a parking garage. Then we flash back to the middle ages, when Connor was a highland warrior. It’s not until about 40 minutes into the movie that Ramirez actually breaks it down for us and explains what’s going on. Even then, there are a lot of questions that get left up to the fans to decide. What exactly is the Prize that the last immortal gets? Why does the Gathering have to happen? Why do the immortals, even evil ones like the Kurgan, have a tradition that requires them not to fight on holy ground? The questions are not plot issues, but rather things that spark the imagination. Those questions are the reason the movie spawned a franchise that spanned for two decades.

In terms of its own internal mythos, the original movie managed to avoid a lot of the logical issues that fans came up later with the rest of the franchise. The series, particularly, came up with two big ones: why do immortals not fight as a team, and why don’t the immortals just shoot their enemies and then take their heads? As to the first question, in the movie there just aren’t enough immortals to really team up, and the “single combat only” rule is never even mentioned because of that. Sure, Connor and Kastigir could potentially try tag-teaming the Kurgan, but there’s also an undercurrent that suggests that the immortals aren’t just good versus bad. Despite their friendship, Connor and Kastigir have some tension between them early on, and even Ramirez doesn’t answer Connor’s question when asked point blank if he would take Connor’s head if it came down to it. What exactly is going on in the minds of these immortal men is for the audience to interpret, again adding to the charm and imagination of the film. As to the second question, shooting immortals does precisely nothing in this film. The Kurgan takes a full clip of machinegun fire and stands up almost immediately afterwards. Connor gets dropped in a lake when he can’t swim and instead discovers that he can breathe underwater. In the original film, the immortals are just that – immortal, incapable of dying unless they lose their heads. For the life of me, I don’t know why the later movies and the series dropped this detail, thus creating a hole in logic that never got dealt with.

Ultimately, the one thing I have to criticize about Highlander is its ending, which caused a lot of trouble when the franchise tried to continue. In the context of a single film, it was a good ending: Connor kills the Kurgan and becomes the last immortal. The Prize turns out to be the ability to read minds and access the knowledge of everyone in the world, and also enables Connor to grow old and have children. He gets his happy ending with Brenda while retaining all of the wisdom he’s earned and getting a chance to fix the world he loves so much. At the same time, though, if you’re going to make a movie with so many intriguing concepts and so many unanswered questions, why end it with that sense of finality? Had the Kurgan been a bad immortal and not the bad immortal, we could have had several sequels building on the mythos, instead of increasingly contrived ways of undoing the movie’s final resolution. But really, that boils down to the movie being too high quality for its own good. It was never meant to go on, but fans want more so very badly.

So now I’ve spent over 2,500 words raving about Highlander. If the first movie is this good, why couldn’t we get one single decent sequel out of it? Well, my theory goes back to what I said about the film being lightning in a bottle. As I’ve detailed above, so many things could have gone wrong but turned out well in this movie’s production. Christopher Lambert could have sucked as Connor. Clancy Brown could have backed out as the Kurgan, or director Russel Mulcahy could have restricted how much he was able to ad-lib. Sean Connery could have looked at his schedule and decided he wanted a vacation instead of spending a week doing the movie. The studio could have gone with the Police over Queen for the soundtrack (seriously, the Police was considered, along with folks like David Bowie, before Queen came in and proved to be the perfect match). Everything went right, and it couldn’t happen that way again. Christopher Lambert isn’t a strong enough actor to carry a franchise. Freddie Mercury died in 1991, meaning that Queen couldn’t keep churning out new hits for future installments. No one else managed to match Clancy Brown’s charisma as a villain, or Sean Connery’s as a mentor. Biggest of all, the producers Bill Panzer and Peter Davis could not manage the franchise to save their lives, making poor decision after poor decision that led through crap like Highlander II: The Quickening into a brief bright spot during Highlander: The Series, and then to the depths of Highlander: The Source. Everyone was playing over their head in the first movie, and it just could not last. But even though we are disappointed again and again with the franchise’s failure to recapture that old glory, at least we still have the original Highlander: classic, original, and eternal.

I guess you could say…

*slips on Caruso shades*

…that Highlander really was “A Kind of Magic.”

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One Response to “Highlander”

  1. Jonathan Ferguson Says:

    I’ve just finished reading every one of your Highlander reviews, and you’ve been absolutely spot-on every time. Your love for the good aspects shines through as much as your bitter disappointment in the many, many bad ones. Like you, I will always love the original, really enjoy the anime movie & some of the series, tolerate III, the comics & the rest of the series, despair at II, Endgame & the animated series, & utterly despise The Source – the (hopefully) final insult. Yet I can’t help wondering what a wholly different team might do with the premise by removing any and all studio interference & slavish adherence to the same old plot beats/clichés. But then, I too suffer from Highlander Stockholm Syndrome…

    Anyway, thank you for helping me to come to terms with 20-odd years of love and hate!

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