Should I Watch..? 'Highlander'
What's the big deal?
Highlander is an action adventure fantasy film released in 1986 and was directed by Russell Mulcahy. The film concerns a Scottish clansman who discovers he is immortal and his journey through the centuries. The film stars Christopher Lambert, Sean Connery, Roxanne Hart and Clancy Brown. The film was not an immediate success when it was released, earning just under $13 million worldwide and earning a mixed reaction from critics. However, the film benefitted enormously from the then-burgeoning home video market and went on to become a cult classic. The film also spawned a number of sequels and TV spin-offs as well as a number of classic songs by the rock group Queen, who provided much of the film's soundtrack. Rumours persist of a forthcoming remake but at the time of writing, filming has not yet started.
What's it about?
The film opens in 1985 where Russell Nash, the owner of a nearby antiques shop, duels with Iman Fasil in a parking garage and decapitates him. As the police arrive and witness the destruction around Nash, we learn Nash's true identity - he was born Conner MacLeod in 1518 in Glenfinnan in Scotland. After being mortally wounded by a vicious mercenary known as The Kurgan, Conner is aghast to find that he not only survives his injuries but that he is immortal. Cast out by his clan, he develops a close friendship with another Immortal known as Ramirez, who teaches Conner about his destiny.
Ramirez explains that they are members of a race of Immortals destined to face each other in combat for the right to win "the Prize". Only by decapitation can an Immortal be slain and the victor receives a transfer of power known as the Quickening. Back in 1985, Conner - now going by the alias Russell Nash - resides in New York and not only learns that the Kurgan has come for him but a determined detective is on his trail, worryingly close to discovering the truth.
Conner MacLeod / Russell Nash
Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez
Lt. Frank Moran
Gregory Widen, Peter Bellwood & Larry Ferguson*
Release Date (UK)
29th August, 1986
Action, Adventure, Fantasy
What's to like?
Highlander is quite possibly one of the Eighties' most ambitious action movies, an epic tale spanning centuries and a number of immortal warriors fuelled by mysterious energies. But the thing I loved the most is the film's surprisingly deep take on the story as it wrestles with themes of love and loss, the complexities of living forever as well as the classic good-vs-evil conflict. It's easy to watch the film and mock it for being brash, camp and miscast but actually, the film makes no apologies and plays as strongly as it can off of its weaknesses. After all, why mock Lambert's Scottish accent when he's immortal and frankly, can go and pick up whatever accent he damn well wants.
Lambert struggles to convince as a hero to get behind, being acting off-screen by Connery as the flamboyant Ramirez tutoring the young MacLeod in the way of the Immortal as well as Brown, a talented villain actor provided with a role of a lifetime as the thoroughly evil Kurgan. Accompanied by the fantastic soundtrack by Queen (far better than their efforts on Flash Gordon) and Mulcahy's eye for visual flair, the film is a great watch. For example, take the climatic duel on the roof of the famous Silvercup Studios in New York, filled with the clash of swinging swords and electrical explosions as the famous sign is slowly dismantled. The film is enjoyable as both an action fantasy and a romantic tragedy as MacLeod's life falls apart as he discovers the extent of his immortality.
- Due to his schedule, all of Connery's scenes had to be shot within one week. He even had a bet with Mulcahy that they couldn't get it done but Mulcahy won. Connery was paid $1 million for his week's work. Despite his short time on the film, he developed such a close relationship with Lambert that Lambert insisted Connery return for Highlander II: The Quickening.
- Queen only intended to write one song for the film but were inspired after seeing the film. Brian May wrote Who Wants To Live Forever in a cab after a screening while Roger Taylor used the line "It's a kind of magic" as the basis for the song of the same name.
- After filming the scene in the church where the Kurgan confronts MacLeod, Brown apologised to the priests and nuns present in case he had offended them.
What's not to like?
For its detractors, however, the film is a hideously overwrought blend of ridiculous story and pop-video shallowness. Lambert is noticeably weaker than his co-stars, his French accent still showing through his uncomfortable grasp of English. The film also lacks depth in the supporting cast - Hart's intrigued detective offers a brief respite from the action while North as her boss gives his scenes an element of farce due to his appearance opposite Leslie Nielsen in parody sit-com Police Squad! What is worse is that some characters, like Hugh Quarshie's immortal friend of MacLeod's, simply pop up for the briefest of moments before being unceremoniously written out again. How are we, as an audience, meant to feel anything for characters that appear and disappear seemingly at random?
The effects haven't dated that well either although you only really notice this during The Quickening when crudely animated spirits surround characters and every sheet of glass nearby simultaneously shatters. Highlander is a difficult film to take seriously because of its playful and overly stylish atmosphere. And this ultimately jars with the depth that the screenplay delivers - it's an odd clash between over-the-top swordsplay and ruminations about the lonely nature of immortality, set in the beautiful rural landscape of Scotland and the grim metropolis of downtown New York. The film is literally awash with contrasts.
Should I watch it?
Highlander won't be to everybody's tastes. On one hand, it's a camp pantomime of a film offering lots of silly action scenes and plenty of pop-rock to accompany the movie's goofy nature. On the other, it's an intelligent and thought-provoking look at something that perhaps might have just been another overblown action movie - much like James Cameron's The Terminator. I personally feel that the film is a highly entertaining romp through history, full of decent action and memorable characters and one poorly served by its unimaginative and weak follow-ups.
Great For: Eighties nostalgia, Scottish viewers, antique collectors, Queen
Not So Great For: historians, spawning sequels, dialect coaches
What else should I watch?
Considering the cult following that developed around the film, it's more than disappointing that no-one has managed to produce a decent follow-up for it. Mulcahy's sequel Highlander II: The Quickening was a complete mess, due to the film falling out of his editorial control and retconned several aspects of the first film, causing much unpopularity with fans. Even today, it is regarded as one of the worst sequels ever made despite the release of Mulcahy's director's cut of the film. Things wouldn't improve much after - Highlander III: The Sorcerer is a rehashed remake of the original, ignoring The Quickening altogether while Highlander: Endgame merely cashed in on the relative success of the TV spin-off. Until the remake eventually appears (if it ever does), you'll have to make do with the original.
The Eighties were host to a veritable host of fantasy films from cult classics like Conan The Barbarian and Willow to more ridiculous fare like Red Sonja and Masters Of The Universe. Some of the more popular films from that period include the odd-beat family favourite The NeverEnding Story and the seemingly cherished The Prince's Bride although that actually leaves me a bit cold if I'm honest, minority though I may be.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Sheelagh Cox, as true a Highlander as ever I've known. May her memory live forever.
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© 2018 Benjamin Cox