Reflections on "Highlander" (1986)

Directed by Russell Mulcahy

Written by Gregory Widen, Peter Bellwood and Larry Ferguson

Starring Christopher Lambert, Sean Connery,

Clancy Brown and Roxanne Hart

 

A video presentation of this material is available here.

 

"Highlander" is undoubtedly one of my favourite action/adventure/fantasy films. It appeals to our imagination, our weakness for romance, and our willingness to be distracted by an involving story. It would be easy to dismiss it as "just" another action/adventure film but this is a beautifully constructed and carefully balanced contrivance of spirit, heart and mind. It sets out to entertain and does so with a knowing humour and self-awareness, yet it also emphasises the importance and struggles of principle, humanity and fraternity in the face of a constant and perhaps eternal battle with self-advancement, ruthlessness and nihilism.

Connor Macleod, the Highlander of the title, is immortal (though being beheaded leads to a somewhat abrupt end of life) and is engaged in a life-long, and potentially eternal, conflict with fellow immortals until they will all be drawn to "the gathering" where they will battle it out to win "The Prize", the nature of which is initially unspecified but it involves vast knowledge and has implied repercussions, good or evil, for the rest of humanity.

As in most good fantasy or superhero films, focus is maintained on our hero's humanity and the price he has to pay for his "gift", in this case immortality. At the same time as entertaining us with spectacular swordplay and light-hearted banter which, on their own, would provide an amusing but somewhat hollow experience, the film engages the audience's emotions and minds by inviting reflection on the implications of an excessively long life and having to fight constantly for survival and even, potentially, for the very future of the human race.

We first meet Connor as he attends a wrestling match at Madison Square Garden in New York. Before he is drawn away to do battle with another immortal in the car park, we see that he is withdrawn and disengaged from the action and the overexcited members of the audience around him. While they are aroused by the violence they witness in the ring and are virtually baying for blood, Macleod looks on almost disapprovingly and appears sombre, even depressed. We share brief flashbacks to brutal hand to hand combat in medieval times in Scotland and these brooding and painful memories do not sit well with the violence as entertainment on offer in the ring.

He heads off to meet his opponent who is known to him and is called Fasil. Macleod wishes to reason with Fasil but Fasil is determined to try to take Macleod's head and a dramatic clash takes place, after which Macleod tries to make his escape but he is apprehended by the police.

We, the audience, are intrigued and puzzled by what we have witnessed. We have been offered no exposition and have joined the dramatic action immediately. We are left with the impression of an apparently reasonable man ready and willing to defend himself to the point of taking a life but he is troubled, weary and unhappy.

Gradually, fragments of his story are shared with us in the form of memories often evoked by the senses or some shared aspect of the present. Eventually, we are shown extended episodes which build to provide a fuller picture of his life, full enough to allow us to understand his actions, reasoning and motivation.

This approach, vaguely reminiscent of the technique used by Marcel Proust in his writing, allows director Russell Mulcahy to play with the timeframe so we perceive Macleod through the puzzled and questioning eyes of the police in the present, while also gaining insight into his character and experience in the past, allowing us to understand him and feel we conspire with him in that we share the secret of his immortality and the frequent deadly conflicts he must endure. Our attention and emotions are thus engaged on several levels.

Macleod is a relatively simple man with modest ambitions and desires on whom immortality and its life-changing complications, as well as its incumbent deadly competition for The Prize, have been foisted. His natural humility and compassion make him, however, a worthy and necessary opponent to The Kurgan, an immortal driven by personal ambition with no regard for the sanctity of the lives of mere mortals, to whom he considers himself superior. He will stop at nothing to exercise selfish and pitiless control.

Although Macleod does not actively pursue The Prize for himself, he will do his utmost to protect humanity from the clutches of The Kurgan, humanity which is represented, ultimately, by Macleod's love interest, Brenda.

Another sympathetic and compassionate immortal is Ramirez, a Spaniard of Ancient Egyptian origin who seeks out Macleod to help prepare the naive and unworldly young Highlander for his forthcoming clash with barbarism.

Ramirez is a colourful and highly experienced character who appears to have come to terms with his lot and he displays no ambition regarding The Prize. He seems content to survive and pursue adventures, though he recognises Macleod's potential and the need to deprive The Kurgan of The Prize which is why he is ready and willing to train Macleod in swordsmanship and to offer paternal and sincere advice regarding love and relationships, emphasising the importance of selfless fraternity and simply helping others on the way through life.

One price to pay for the gift of immortality is the need to avoid deep and heart-felt relationships, at least if the pain and anguish of seeing a loved one decline and die are also to be avoided. Macleod is advised to have no emotional attachments, thus condemning him to an eternity of isolation and regret.

Swords and swordsmanship are absolutely fundamental to the film. There can be few martial arts more immediate and visceral, or in which levels of skill are more visible and dramatic, and which are more evocative of historic battles and events, and perhaps even old cinematic heroes. Macleod's training and all his fights are superbly entertaining, engaging, and occasionally amusing.

There is no doubt that he will fight for a valiant and heroic cause but we are drawn to Macleod largely because of his humanity, pain and emotional trauma. We share his victories and pleasures as well as his sense of loss and emptiness, and understand his virtual withdrawal from the world, living quietly under the radar for decades. We also share his hopes and desires when he enters into a relationship with police forensic scientist Brenda, a relationship that will ultimately expose both to danger.

Jumping across time periods adds an epic feel and the concept of immortality and its potentially tragic consequences also lends the film depth and scope. It must be said, however, that Mulcahy's whole approach to the film, with sumptuous costumes, sweeping shots, almost constant development of character and plot, stunning segues and the integration of numerous songs by Queen and original music by Michael Kamen lend the whole great dynamism and demand audience engagement.

Although the script jars a little in places, pace and interest are maintained throughout and humour is inserted regularly to break tension and to make an essential contribution to what is clearly intended to be a highly appealing piece of entertainment.

Frenchman Christopher Lambert may perhaps be considered a strange choice to play an innocent young Scotsman, while Sean Connery's Scottish tones hardly reflect his character's Spanish and Egyptian background, but both play with great energy, sincerity and humour and carry off their respective roles very successfully. Clancy Brown is simply superb as The Kurgan, while Roxanne Hart and Beatie Edney deserve credit for making their roles memorable and appealing.

Although not a box office success initially, the film has gained well-deserved cult status and spawned a number of sadly inferior sequels. I hear that a remake has been in the offing for several years but I have doubts as to whether the charm, romance, excitement and sheer dynamism of the original can be replicated.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie

I can be reached at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk .

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