Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) is a four hundred-year-old immortal, who has been drawn to New York for a final battle with the other surviving immortals. They fight with swords as only by having their heads cut off can immortals die; in the end “there can be only one.” He was trained long ago by the cultured Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez (Sean Connery), but now, he is alone, and must face the strongest of the immortals, The Kurgan (Clancy Brown). Of course, beheadings tend to draw attention, and Connor must deal with the police and a weapon historian (Roxanne Hart) who begins to uncover his secret.
There aren’t many urban fantasies, and those that exist usually follow the example of the nearly forgotten Chandu the Magician, with one wise mage protecting the follies of modern mankind from unknown evils. Films like Doctor Mordrid, Dr. Strange, and The Magicians fit this category.
Where does Highlander fit in? It doesn’t. When it slipped into and out of theaters far too quickly back in 1986, it was something new, which could explain its poor critical notices and lack of an audience. But I was mesmerized by it than. It was an extraordinary picture that gleefully merged genres: a little epic, a little gritty street fighting, a lot of tragic romance, a touch of Film Noir, just enough from music videos, a dabble of costume drama, plenty of comedy, tons of adventure, and a foundation of High Fantasy. Literary fantasy is filled with dark stories of eldritch creatures living a secret existence within modern cities. A sub-genre in which elves, wizards, and similar beings fight with a combination of guns and bows became popular in the ’80s. But film had little to echo that movement, until Highlander. It gives us undying, magical swordsmen living secretly amongst us, and fighting in the urbane jungle for a prize. It’s a fairy tale (in the Grimm sense) for modern times.
While creating an original setting and mythology, Highlander clings tightly to some of the standard sci-fi/fantasy/adventure tropes. There is the innocent hero, the experienced tutor, the passing of the great weapon, the tragic loss, the evil villain, and the kidnapped love interest. It’s the basic story that we’ve all seen, and we all love. The trick is to present it in a new way, with something surprising, and something we’ll never forget. The most successful example of this in modern cinema is Star Wars. It gave us the old story, but with lightsabers and the dark knight in a high tech suit. Everyone who watches it wants to be a Jedi Knight and save the republic and the girl (or the boy), even though being a Jedi would be an unpleasant existence if you thought about it. Highlander is one of those very few films that manages to repeat that trick. It’s a grand opera of loneliness and power and adventure, and offers a new world for us to join, and a new type of hero we can be. Add Immortal Warriors to our cultural conscious right next to Jedi Knights.
One of the cleverest moves of the script is to give us a mythology of mystery. There’s a lot of rules for Immortals, so we know what is at stake and what is and isn’t dangerous, but not why. Why are some people born immortal? Why must they fight and eventually gather in a foreign land? Why do they feel “the quickening” when they meet? We aren’t told, and the characters don’t know. Early on, Connor would very much like the answers to those questions, though by the end, he doesn’t care. All of these are equivalent to a human asking why he exists and what is the meaning of life. If you’re looking for an answer, be prepared for disappointment. We only know that there are rules.
In a masterstroke of editing, the film tosses us into a sword duel under Madison Square Garden with no explanation, than rips us back to renaissance-era Scotland, then forward to modern New York. It was an hour before I knew what Connor knew, and by then I was swept into the tale and the lives of the characters. The scene transitions are ingenious—panning up a 1980’s fish tank to find the surface to be a Scottish loch, and fading from a tired face to a graffiti version of The Mona Lisa to mention two—and on first viewing, I found myself eager for the next to see if it would surpass the last.
The dichotomies in the film keep it fresh: ancient weapons versus metropolitan streets, past versus present, Scottish Highlands versus New York, youthful innocence versus aged cynicism. The characters change over time, as anyone would who had lived so long. In Scotland, Connor is happy, courageous, and ready to take on the world. He’s also inexperienced, and, well, let’s face it, he’s an idiot. In New York, he is brash, isolated, tired, and if not brilliant, at least worldly. He has developed a more refined sense of humor, but there’s always pain behind it. The Kurgan has changed too. In 1536, he is a determined, proud, and deeply unpleasant warrior. In modern New York, he’s unhinged. It wasn’t a long road for him, but he took it.
Highlander doesn’t need Shakespearean actors, but ones whose presence can be felt. A multifaceted actor who would vanish from the screen is of no use here. Mythic stories require larger-than-life personalities. Christopher Lambert fits the bill. It is easy to accept that there is something not quite normal about him. He may not be ready to play Hamlet, and his English is questionable, but he can express youthful exuberance as well as pain and loss, and that’s what the part requires. Sean Connery plays an Egyptian from Japan and Spain, who speaks with a Scottish accent. It’s probably best to forget preconceived notions of dialect; it’s not as if four hundred years ago, people spoke the way they do now. He is Connery, funny and certainly noticeable. Clancy Brown, who had single-handedly saved The Bride with his complex interpretation of Frankenstein’s Monster, creates a memorable villain. He’s huge (both physically and in the epic sense), loud, over-the-top, yet believable and multilayered. This is a frightening guy (I’m referring to The Kurgan, but I’d feel uneasy if Clancy Brown was standing over me as well, not to mention confused).
I can’t review Highlander without mentioning the music, which attained fame outside of the film’s fan base. It combines an orchestral score with driving rock anthems (plus one ballad) by Queen. Another example of the film’s dualistic nature, the music sets the tone for each time period. When the renamed Victor Kurgan sticks Give Me the Prize into his tape deck, with its hard pounding drums and heavy metal guitar, it’s clear who he is and that we’re not in Kansas, or Scotland, any more.
The U.S. theatrical release was dumbed down, making the beginning more linear, shortening several fights, and slashing the heart out of one character. Rachel, a Jewish child during WWII, was rescued by Connor. She became his daughter, then his lover, and eventually a mother figure. The U.S. cut pulled the WWII segment, making Rachel just a pushy secretary. But not all the edits were bad. The trimming of a drunken duel improves it by removing a false-step into broad comedy.
While a financial failure when it was first released, Highlander came into its own on video and has become a cult phenomena. It was followed by the bizarrely misconceived Highlander II: The Quickening, which contradicts much of the first film and explains the immortals as space aliens. It was later re-cut (twice) to make them time travelers. Next came, Highlander III: The Final Dimension, which ignored all events in the second film, Highlander, a television series that ignored the end of the first film and had its own spin-off TV shows, and Highlander: Endgame, which attempted to join the films and TV series. Several additional films are planned.