“From the dawn of time we 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.” This prologue, superimposed in bright red against black, begins an epic journey that was the beginning of one of the most incredible and original action fantasy franchises with one of the most rabid cult fan followings prior to Game of Thrones – and which now this year has finally turned 30!
Highlander (1986) was a film wonder unique among many of the action fantasy films that emerged from the late 1970s to early 80s. Many straightforward fantasy films of the era either took their inspiration from age-old tales (Excalibur, Dragonslayer); from 20th-century reinventions of the conventional fantasy genre, such as the works of Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian); or from certain commonly accepted themes of fantasy concerning a battle between good and evil (Legend). Highlander, however, is in a league of its own, a film that had no literary origins or inspiration from established genre conventions. Rather, it helped to redefine fantasy with its epic account of a new kind of hero – an immortal being living through the centuries, haunted by his past, cursed by his immortality, longing for a life that is mortal, and preparing for his greatest battle to be fought in modern times against a similar adversary.
Said god-struggling-as-human hero is Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), a Scotsman from the 16th-century clan wars who resides in New York. In a series of flashbacks hearkening back all those centuries, which are innovatively juxtaposed with 1985 New York, we learn his full story – that he is in fact a warrior clansman from the shores of Glenfinnan who was mortally wounded but not killed, mostly because he happens to be far from the only immortal being in existence living among mortal humans. Banished from his homeland by his mortal kin, who were under the fearful superstition that he was demonically possessed following his supposedly fatal wounding in battle, he is found and trained by Juan Sanchez Villalobos Ramirez (Sean Connery), actually a millennia-old Egyptian who once served under cover as Chief Metallurgist to Spain’s Charles V.
MacLeod learns along with us mortal audience members the full truth of the Immortals: they hide in secret among the humans under different aliases, with superpowers including speed, strength and skilled swordsmanship, and that each Immortal can in fact die by beheading, after which the beheaded Immortal’s life-force is absorbed by the victor in a process called “The Quickening.” In the modern New York scenes, MacLeod, fully trained and having suffered the loss of a beloved mortal from ages past due to his immortality, prepares himself for the Gathering, when the last Immortals in existence will converge within the City that Never Sleeps to duel to the death for “The Prize”, the ultimate element of knowledge and power that will allow the victor to decide the fate of the human race. Coveting the Prize is the malevolent and sadistic Kurgan (Clancy Brown), who is also the most powerful of the Immortals – he wounded MacLeod when the Scotsman was unaware of his origins but failed to decapitate him – and who MacLeod must destroy with all his skills in order to prevent the Kurgan from obtaining The Prize and plunging the mortal world into darkness. And all while their secret existence is about to be unveiled by a contemporary mortal, Brenda (Roxanne Hart) working for the NYPD Forensics Department, who stumbles across MacLeod in the aftermath of his opening duel in the film with a rival Immortal at Madison Square Garden, and which merely precedes his final climatic battle with the Kurgan…
I first stumbled across this film when I was 17 going on 18. At the time I was still homeschooled but taking dual-enrollment high school courses to earn credit to add to my ACT score for enrollment to the University of North Carolina – Asheville, while also preparing myself for a college setting. One of those courses was a five-week Summer School of Filmmaking course from late June to late July of 2003, at the North Carolina School of the Arts (now UNC-School of the Arts, as it would later be incorporated into the state’s university system) in Winston-Salem. The course was run by filmmaker and faculty member Janos Kovacsi (Cha-cha-cha, The Right Man for a Delicate Mission), and the Filmmaking Branch of the School was the most recent addition to the campus, complete with offices, studio, sets for filmmaking students’ shorts, three theaters and a large archive of films that was currently undergoing further expansion. The teenage filmmaker students who enrolled in this course would be divided into different teams, each under a different teaching assistant; each student would write or direct his/her own feature and rotate tasks working as an actor and/or crew member for the other students’ shorts. It was here that I wrote and directed my first short film, Spared from the Wheelchair, and rotated acting/crew tasks on the other shorts in my team.
How I got into the program was interesting. I had been a film buff since I was a kid, and after reading the published teleplay to the Hallmark two-part miniseries of Merlin starring Sam Neill, I decided I wanted to become a screenwriter and started writing treatments as a hobby (one in particular which would become an undergrad and graduate thesis project at UNC-Asheville, and which I am still working on along with other – smaller – projects in my spare time). So when my parents brought up the NC School of the Arts summer program as a way to get an early start in the process, I applied for it.
Prior to the shooting of the shorts, of course, the students screened film clips, or entire films within the campus from the original 35mm or 70mm film negatives (including Citizen Kane, North by Northwest, Doctor Zhivago, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, etc.), in lectures taught by Kovacsi and other faculty members, including guest artists like sound editor David Yewdall (whose credits include work on John Carpenter’s Christine and The Thing). This was of course done to educate the students about the importance and impact of film, to teach them the basic fundamental principles of film appreciation and craft, and to prepare them for all the possibilities of pursuing film as a commercial practice. There were also films screened in the evening as one-time showings for pleasure (including Titanic, which I finally saw for the first time six years after its initial release in 1997, and the original 1977 version of Star Wars, which I was very lucky to see on the big screen and in a packed 946-seat cinema), but which the teachers would advise us to watch in order to study different components (cinematography, story continuity, editing, etc.). There were times when we were told to go out and see films being released in public cinemas that were exhibiting new and unique formats of cinematic methods (including one of my favorites and instant classics, Danny Boyle’s digital video-shot 28 Days Later…).
But of course, that didn’t mean we couldn’t watch films within our own dorm rooms during the weekdays and weekends – and which we could do as long as we caught up with our homework. I was introduced to quite a few titles like Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001), which I watched in some classmates’ rooms down the hall from my own. And just as we were watching them, so we were also going out to buy films to add to our collections. As a bona fide cinephile obsessed with building a collection of my own while pursuing a dream as a filmmaker (both dreams which I still hold on to), and who was making the move in media format from VHS to DVD, I would take whatever allowance money was given to me by my parents to spend on going out and buying DVDs of films in genres that I enjoyed (primarily sci-fi, fantasy and horror). Among those DVDs I added to my during my five-week stay at the campus were The Stunt Man (1980), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Evil Dead (1982), Invaders from Mars (1953), Re-Animator (1985)… and of course, Highlander.
I had known about Highlander, but not from the film. Rather, it was from watching a few re-run episodes of one of the two animated series spin-offs THE RAVEN and THE ANIMATED SERIES – which exists in my mind now only in fragments – during the Saturday mornings of my pre-teen years in South Carolina. It wasn’t until I saw the film in a then-new DVD release from Anchor Bay Entertainment that I truly realized what all the fan ravings were about and what I was missing. And its production history was just as interesting for this teen whose mind was being expanded by continually growing exposure to the ever-expanding cinematic universe while entering young adulthood.
The film’s original story was a UCLA thesis by Gregory Widen (later to write Backdraft and The Prophecy), and after fleshing the screenplay out with Peter Bellwood and Larry Ferguson, he eventually saw his fantasy turn to reality under the trusted expertise of then 33-year old Australian music director Russell Mulcahy (The Shadow), who at the time had earned fame as a pioneer of the growing music video genre that followed in the wake of Richard Lester’s Beatles films A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). Among his credits and collaborations were videos for music legends like Elton John, Rod Stewart, Billy Joel, Fleetwood Mac, Duran Duran, and of course, the one and only Queen, the last of which lent their talents to contributing songs and additional music to the film with support from fantasy and action film composer Michael Kamen (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Brazil, X-Men). American-born French actor Lambert, fresh from playing Tarzan in Hugh Hudson’s Greystoke (1984), was brilliantly cast as MacLeod, with original James Bond 007 himself, Connery, playing Ramirez, and Brown (pre-The Shawshank Redemption) playing the Kurgan.
Shot in Scotland and New York (and several studios including Pinewood) on a budget of $14 million, Highlander, like the first Mad Max, did not fare well in the U.S. when it premiered in April 1986. This was due to an ill decision by both the film’s producers Peter S. Davis and William N. Panzer to cut out eight minutes to accommodate more running times in cinemas, as well as a minimal ad campaign by distributor The Cannon Group that hurt the film’s chances of US blockbuster appeal. But the full international cut, at one hour and fifty-six minutes, drew acclaim overseas and was a surprise financial hit (especially in France), and with its release in the then-exploding home video market on both sides of the Atlantic, Highlander resulted in a rabid cult film fan following that resulted in three lacklustre sequels, and a successful TV series that was to the film as Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea series was to his own 1961 film predecessor, plus the two aforementioned animated series and plenty of collectible fan merchandising.
Simply put, it really was a fairy tale dream come true – a story that had humble beginnings as a class project became, despite several setbacks, one of fantasy cinema’s greatest franchises. Yet, after all the franchise growth (not to mention continuous fan nostalgia and foaming, dialogue quotation and wannabe warrior geeks at numerous Comic-Cons), the original film of Highlander not only remains the best in the franchise, it has a staying power all its own. Why?
Mainly it’s the appealing factor of the hero’s journey renewed. The film’s protagonist is an anomaly among the other onscreen mortal heroes with exaggerated attributes (often physical, like 80’s icons Conan and Rambo) who eventually become godlike, and were common during Ronald Reagan’s years in the Oval Office. But MacLeod is a god who is already both blessed with the gifts of immortality – and cursed, forging loves and friendships both mortal and immortal alike, and suffering from terrific loss when those who are fated to die finally do… all while maintaining a down-to-earth profile that makes him nearly indistinguishable from the mortals. It works so well that the film and its cast and crew make us realise perfectly well why any god would throw away immortality just for one chance to have a human life that starts with birth, ends in death, and in between is filled with moments that are short but sweet, filled with the possibility of love and adventure, moments made even more beautiful by the threat of mortality – a long-yearned for blessing that MacLeod wishes for but can’t yet obtain.
The casting is perfect. Lambert will always be remembered as MacLeod, particularly for his portrayal in the first film, oozing both charisma and old-timey Scottish-accented swagger in a true swashbuckler vein – and expressing vulnerability and loss in a manner that all gods of worldwide mythology would envy, first from a misunderstanding resulting in his banishment, then in a romance that sees his first love during his god-training days grow old and die. Connery, in an attempt to recapture the fun of his earlier Bond movies (and whose career would really undergo a comeback with his Oscar-winning portrayal of Jimmy Malone in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables the following year), scores top points as friend and mentor Immortal Ramirez in the flashback sequences, combining both humor and gravity in middle age (I still laugh my ass off at the scene where MacLeod calls the flamboyant but wise “Spanish peacock” haggis, to which Connery responds, “What is haggis?”). Hart, as contemporary mortal investigator Brenda Wyatt, makes for a new flame whose presence sees MacLeod reassess his romantically-doomed standing among the mortals. And the Kurgan, played with full demonic demeanor by Brown and wielding a spiked-hilt sword, is one of the cinema’s most loathed and feared villains – from his first appearance as a skull-and-hair armored warrior to his 80s heavy metal punk profile, he is animalistic and relentless.
Mulcahy, an influential part of the wave of commercial and music video directors bringing new visual styles to old-fashioned storytelling in cinema, hit what was easily the pinnacle of his career here, bringing both the showy gliding camera angles and editing of his music videos – as well as then-state-of-the-art practical FX – to the action fantasy film, captured within locales both gorgeous and gritty (including MacLeod’s ancestral home, a Scottish castle previously filmed in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975), and it pays off with aplomb. The lighting and atmosphere are just as appropriate, capturing the battle of light and shadow, complete with the flying sparks from sword clashes, clashing lightning, and the explosions of every Quickening following an Immortal’s beheading. The editing, seamless at some times and loose in others, bridges the gap between ancient and modern settings, showing how easily (and at other times, less easily and more intimately) the hero of Old becomes the hero of New.
And the swords? They clash, they spark, they slice, and they make mortal surroundings explode in a manner to rival Star Wars’ lightsabers, from Kurgan’s spike-hilt broadsword to the world’s first true katana (before the samurai period!) passed from Ramirez to MacLeod, in some of the most intense swashbuckling conflicts brilliantly choreographed by Hollywood’s legendary sword master Bob Anderson (Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Mask of Zorro) within high-rises ranging from a Scottish stone-tower to a billboard atop a dilapidated warehouse! And all without the nauseating shaky-cam and extensive post-production touch-ups, including slow motion, that have become so tiresome in today’s standard action flick offerings. (Eat your hearts out, Michael Bay and Zach Snyder!) Never mind the conventional jingoistic 80’s American action movie trappings – the Kurgan, we are informed, originated from a devilish race in Russia – this fantasy really has aged well!
And of course, there is no way in hell I am leaving out Queen! Apart from The Beatles and The Monkees, the team composing singer Freddie Mercury, guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor will always be the Fab Four to me. Ever since big hits like “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Another One Bites the Dust”, “We Will Rock You”, “Fat Bottomed Girls”, “Don’t Stop Me Now” and “We Are the Champions”, not to mention their first hit soundtrack album for 1980s Flash Gordon (“Flash! Ah ahhhh! He’s a miracle!“) and collaboration on “Under Pressure” with David Bowie, Queen proved itself, with its now-firmly established classic rock standards, to be equally immortal in the music world. Their contributions to Highlander – aided by Kamen’s ethereal and uplifting score – are no exception. We have the epic ballad in the opening main credits, “Princes of the Universe” (which later became the theme to the Highlander series; the music video actually featured the band with Lambert within the warehouse set from the film), then the lovelorn “Who Wants to Live Forever” and the uplifting, transcendent “A Kind of Magic” (itself a line in the film), and other songs (some written specifically for the film) and additional rock music which strangely fit both Scotland and New York in a film from the early MTV era. These songs (like Mulcahy’s music videos for them) helped to further cement Queen’s status as arguably God’s greatest gift to rock’n’roll, and have continued to do so after Freddie Mercury’s tragic death from AIDS-caused bronchial pneumonia in 1991 (five years after Highlander‘s release). Like Queen’s earliest work, the film will continue to appeal to generations of fantasy and music fans alike, young and old.
Having already lived for 15 years as a mountain man in Western North Carolina with a hunger for adventure, action and fantasy – complete with “modern warrior” look including a fetish for black fake leather jackets, trenchcoats, blue jeans, sneakers and decorative katanas – I can still feel the immortal highlander warrior break out in me every time I venture outdoors or watch this film. Of all the action heroes that first emerged in 1980s cinema, Connor MacLeod remains one of the most original and best, combining modern action with classic fantasy, human suffering with immortal stoicism. The original Highlander film seems set to continue to appeal to a new generation of fans as we, like MacLeod, hurtle forward into a new millennium still early in its infancy.
Long story made short: “There Can Be Only One!”