A Kind of Magic: Highlander

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 terrible movie after terrible 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 the powers-that-be struggle to find footing for a Highlander reboot which seems doomed to meet the same disastrous fate that befell the franchise’s many sequels, let’s take a look at the original film. A box office flop but a cult classic, 1986’s Highlander proved strong enough to create a devoted fan base that has remained throughout the years, despite a plethora of sequels that rank among the worst films of all time.

How did this off-beat urban fantasy turn into a hit? In truth, Highlander was about as fortuitous a series of accidents you will ever see in the film industry.

A Bunch of Nobodies

Except for Sean Connery, Highlander was a film largely devoid of big names. Even Clancy Brown, who would become a big star down the line, was relatively unheralded at the time. The screenplay came from Gregory Widen, then a UCLA film student. The production company, Davis-Panzer Productions, never had a big hit before or after the film. The roll of the unheralded only continued from there.

Connor MacLeod
Christopher Lambert as Connor MacLeod

Widen’s script told the story of 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. To play this character, the filmmakers needed somebody who could present himself as a worldly swordsman. Instead, they got a lead actor who could barely see and who spoke little English.

Christopher Lambert, fresh off Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, had severe myopia and couldn’t wear contact lenses. Despite being born in America, he had spent most of his life in Europe and had a limited grasp of English. The filmmakers, presumably, didn’t know about these limitations until after they had signed him to a contract. We all wish we could have Christopher Lambert’s agent.

While Lambert’s myopia arguably hurt the fight scenes, his limited English actually played very well on screen. He spent months with a dialect coach and spoke with such a mottled accent that it really did seem like he had spent centuries traveling the world. His vision problems and the way he acted around them gave his character an intense stare that added to his enigma—although it is amusing to remember that Connor is basically blind whenever he gives his nemesis the Kurgan a death glare.

A Bit of Romance

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.

Connor and Heather
Connor and Heather

The addition of Connor’s wife Heather became a very important revision to the original script. Originally, Connor went on to marry many times and had a total of 37 children over the course of his life, watching 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.

With the concept of Highlander functioning so well as wish fulfillment—who wouldn’t want to live forever and have amazing sword-fighting skills?—the addition of Heather grounds the story. The fantasy of immortality is wonderful, but it becomes bittersweet if you can’t share it with the person you love most of all.

Unlike most of the films which followed, Highlander was actually a romance at its core. The sword fights and special effects meant 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.

Better to Burn Out Than Fade Away

Why doesn’t Connor just let himself die? Because he can’t risk one of the evil immortals out there taking his power for themselves. The movie needed a really insane over-the-top villain, and it got one in the form of Clancy Brown as the Kurgan.

The Kurgan ready for battle.

Clancy Brown later proved to have a knack for playing great villains, including Lex Luthor from the DC Animated Universe and Byron Hadley from The Shawshank Redemption. Because his role in the film was so basic—be as bad as possible—he had a great deal of latitude with his actual role. From a crazy series of vehicular homicides to a bizarre scene where he freaked out an extra playing a priest by licking the man’s hand, Brown nailed it. The existence of somebody as terrible as the Kurgan puts an exclamation point on why Connor can’t just call it a life.

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.

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.

Another Opening for Another Show

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. Nowhere does the music help more than during the opening of the film. Sean Connery’s character Ramirez reads the audience some cryptic opening lines presented over a black screen. Then we get Queen’s “Princes of the Universe.” No one knows what’s about to happen, but they know it will be awesome.

Highlander Opening
I don’t know what this is about, but I think it’s about to get good.

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 decades.

The Problem with Sequels

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 TV 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?

Highlander 2
Also, why did anybody think Highlander 2 was a good idea?

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 machine gun 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 incapable of dying even temporarily 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 they never closed.

Easily the biggest problem with the many spin-offs and sequels that followed Highlander was that the movie ended in a very definitive way. With the film’s tagline being, “There can be only one,” there’s not a lot of wiggle room once there is in fact only one immortal left. In the context of a single film, this works great. But the lack of wiggle room at the end meant that everything that followed either had to pretend certain parts of the movie didn’t happen or had to come up with a ham-fisted way to explain why Connor wasn’t really the last immortal.

If the Highlander was so 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. Director Russel Mulcahy could have restricted how much Clancy Brown was allowed to ad-lib. The studio could have passed on Queen doing the soundtrack. The character of Heather could have been made into but one of Connor’s dozens of wives. But everything went right, and it couldn’t happen that way again.

Davis-Panzer never had another hit movie, which is probably why they kept trying to resurrect Highlander. But Christopher Lambert, while solid as Connor, wasn’t the guy to carry a franchise. Freddie Mercury died in 1991, meaning that Queen couldn’t churn 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. Everyone played over their heads in the first movie, and it just could not last. But even though fans 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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