CULT CORNER: Highlander (1986)

There can be only one… but there were about ten of the bleeders! Richard goes back to the Highlands for a cult classic. 

Who made it?: Russell Mulcahy (Director), Gregory Widen, Peter Bellwood, Larry Ferguson (Writers), Peter S. Davis, William N. Panzer (Producers).

Who’s in it?: Christopher Lambert, Roxanne Hart, Clancy Brown, Sean Connery.

Tagline: “From another time comes a man of incredible power. He is immortal. Now he is about to face the ultimate challenge. At stake is the greatest prize imaginable.”

IMDb rating: 7.2/10.

While I would usually begin any review with some form of introduction as to the nature of the film in question, perhaps with a smattering of witticism, I feel this film makes for itself the best introduction.

Highlander is the story of Connor MacLeod of the clan MacLeod, born in the town of Glenfinnan, Scotland in 1518. He is killed in battle and resurrected as an immortal, one of the many who have been resurrected throughout time. These immortals live forever ageless and impervious to harm, unless they are decapitated in single combat by another immortal. This is all explained by Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez (an ancient Egyptian masquerading as a Spaniard). At some point in the future, there will be a time and place where all immortals are attracted to fight… till there is only one. This last man standing attains “The Prize.”

The film centers around this gathering as it occurs in 1980s New York City, where MacLeod must defeat The Kurgan, the immortal who originally killed him in battle. Throw in that the Highlander MacLoed is played by French-American and Swiss-raised Christopher Lambert and the Egyptian/Spaniard Ramirez is played by a very Scottish Sean Connery, you are perhaps beginning to understand the absolute mead-guzzling insanity that is this little piece of 80s fantasy action.

While I may mock this film for its utterly improbable story and its many strange artistic choices, I kinda love it. It’s one of the earliest pieces of truly offbeat “genre” material I was introduced to, and the strange and unexplained nature of “the game” and “the prize” made it all the more compelling. Never before, I suspect, has a film owed so much of its success to its creative team. Director Russell Mulcahy and co-writer Gregory Widen simply throw their hands in the air and shout, “Hell if I know.” Why can’t the immortals fight each other on holy ground? Hell if I know! Why do we get an extended sequence suggesting that immortals can telepathically connect with animals, a power that is never mentioned or used again? Hell if I know! What is “The Quickening”? Helleth if I knoweth! Why did they hire a guy who could barely speak English or see anything without glasses to play a sword-wielding Scotsman? No, seriously?! Anyone who feels a need to complain about these unanswered questions should watch the sequel and get back to me. Considering I had a friend who bought a bargain DVD of Highlander II: The Quickening for the sole purpose of burning it in effigy, I think I make my point.

Much like the film’s story, the production as a whole has an odd mixed quality. Predominantly cutting between sixteenth century Scotland and 1985 NYC, the scenes set and filmed in Scotland take great advantage of the setting with sweeping vistas and majestic lakes. New York here is a dirty and sleazy place with smoke-filled backalleys and neon lights. The contrast is actually quite beautiful and the costume effects for both times is extremely atmospheric if historically inaccurate. Special mention to Ramirez’s flamboyant red outfit and to 1985 Kurgan who looks like a broadsword-wielding pro-wrestler. Speaking of the Kurgan, as played by Clancy Brown (most known for playing soldiers, cops and prison guards), it takes a special kind of villain to give a film this crazy a measure of focus, and the Kurgan is absolutely up to the task! The combination of a physically-imposing size and a downright harrowing vocal performance gives the Kurgan a strangely unhinged precision. He is a disciplined warrior with no moral boundaries playing by a rulebook that hasn’t been updated since medieval times. The sole letdown in terms of performances, for me at least, was Roxanne Hart as Brenda Wyatt. Within the story, she acts as a combination love interest/McGuffin, filling a clear motivational gap in the story but never really making that place her own. Heather, played by Beatie Edney, does a much better job as Connor’s original wife.

I’m not sure what it is that has always endeared me to Highlander. Perhaps it’s the fantastic soundtrack songs provided by Queen or maybe it’s the somewhat amateurish passion that seems to drive the whole thing. The fact that the scenes with Connery were filmed in only seven days, or that the whole thing was based off a college thesis, are elements that give the film its charm. While in no way perfect, Highlander achieved what so many bigger-budget productions failed to do – it captured a spirit! Having since spawned multiple sequels, novels and TV shows, I think I am justified in my goofy adoration for the Highlander. I don’t want this movie to make sense or follow traditional forms of storytelling; I’m pleased as punch with a film that embraces its own wackiness and plays it to the absolute hilt. I want sword-wielding immortals duking it out under Madison Square Garden whilst screaming about the Quickening. Considering all the materials that came along afterwards to muddy the original’s waters, in my humble opinion, “There can be only one.”

Best Scene

The Quickening actually takes longer than its name implies…

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Christopher Lambert had just barely learned to speak English when he took this role. The only other English-speaking film he had been in at that point was Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), in which he spoke only a few words.
  • Sean Connery and Lambert got along so well during filming, that they called each other by their characters’ names, even when they were not filming, and it was at Lambert’s insistence that Connery and his character returned for Highlander II: The Quickening (1991).
  • The opening voice-over by Connery has an echo effect, because it was recorded in the bathroom of his Spanish villa (where he had been working with a voice coach, in order to perfect the Spanish accent he used in the film). It was played for the producers over the phone, and they approved of it because they could not discern the quality of the recording that way.
  • The swords sparking while clashing was accomplished by attaching a wire to each sword that led down the arms of the actors to a car battery. One was connected to the positive terminal and the other to the negative terminal, so when the swords touched, there was an arc.
  • Queen originally intended to record only one song for the film, but after viewing footage from the movie, they were inspired to write more. The band members each had a favorite scene and composed songs specifically for them. Brian May wrote “Who Wants to Live Forever” during the cab ride home after seeing the film, and Roger Taylor used the line “It’s a kind of magic” as the basis for the end title song.

Richard Herring

Half-American, half-Norwegian. All Engineer, amateur filmmaker, former Scuba Diver, qualified Forklift Operator, continual Stand Up Comedian, and Certified Cinephile.

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