Directed by Russell Mulcahy
March 7, 1986 (Los Angeles)
A centuries old Scottish Highlander must defeat his ancient nemesis in one final battle that decides the fate of the world.
Thank goodness there was only ever one film. No sequels that would ever be seriously substandard in comparison to the original. Nope. None whatsoever. This is a standalone film that got no follow up which is fortunate because any follow up would have been terrible in comparison. I am so glad studios and producers were never so stupid as to think they could improve or expand upon this glorious film.
Christopher Lambert, while he became known outside France for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes in 1984, was a name that got put on the lips of many across geekdom. This is quite possibly his best-known performance. Though Highlander is a sword wielding fantasy story with great visuals, there is some good acting and good material for those involved to work with.
The story we have here has some real emotion in it. Connor MacLeod is a man chased from his people because of their fear. He still mourns for his one true love Heather (Beatie Edney) who he long ago outlived. It has so wounded him that he has blocked out other chances to let people in and has had a rather isolated and lonely existence. He is a lonely man that is separated by time and what he is from who he wishes to be with. He even still lights a candle for her on her birthday centuries after she died!
This sort of leads to one of my favorite portions of the story and it involves a Jewish girl named Rachel (Nicola Ramsey as a child/Sheila Gish as an adult) whom he saves from a Nazi executioner during WWII and who has stayed with him well into her adulthood. Rachel has stayed with him and fallen in love with him. Connor obviously has feelings for her, but he can not bring himself to express them in any meaningful way. You can feel her pain at him protecting himself from another loss.
And that brings me to something important. This film does not have a linear narrative. The story jumps from the past to the present and back again as it tells its tale making this is a film that you have to watch from beginning to end without breaks. I learned that firsthand.
The first time I ever saw Highlander was on local television with commercial breaks and honestly I did not enjoy it. I thought it was a very poor film that was just hard to follow. It was confusing and rather boring. A friend of mine who had seen it prior to me in theaters watched the same airing on television that I did and told me how the commercial breaks ruined the movie and he pushed that POV on me for a little bit. I finally relented and rented the VHS copy at my local videostore (R.I.P. Solanco Video). That tells you how old I am.
So I popped myself some popcorn one evening and I grabbed a soda and I watched it. It was a whole different experience. I watched it from beginning to end without a commercial break and the film was absolutely amazing. It was a visually stunning film with great action and great characters and a fantastic story.
Commercial breaks harm a film that has a story that takes place in the past and present. The story here at times presents events of the past either to inform the present or parallel the present. We learn through a series of flashbacks about Connor’s life in the Highlands and his discovery of what he really is along with his meeting with Ramirez (Sean Connery) who prepares him to do battle in order to be one of the good Immortals that wins The Prize when The Gathering occurs.
Connor is not out on some fun adventure. The emotional pain from his past and the weight of what is coming weigh heavy upon him and part of him still longs for that life he had in the Scottish Highlands either with his clan or with his Heather. He is not seeking greatness. Part of him appears to want to avoid it at times.
And what is a hero without a villain. Clancy Brown is one of the great actors of his generation. The man is so often so very good. He becomes the character. Here he crafted one of the most intimidating and threatening movie villains of the 1980s right in The Kurgan (no other name given). While Christopher Lambert’s Connor MacLeod represented ultimate good, Clancy Brown’s Kurgan represented pure unadulterated evil. Every line he says is chilling and threatening and the character appears like a controlled crazy.
Heroes with power need an Obi Wan Kenobi and Connor’s is an Egyptian immortal who by the time of their meeting is going by the name of Juan Sánchez-Villalobos Ramírez (just Ramirez when addressed by characters) since he lives in Spain. Unlike the TV series (there was a TV series?) they change their names as time passes in order to blend in. Ramirez can be seen as an older Connor as he himself has outlived a few wives and understands the lonely path Connor will be on and the pain he will feel.
Every fantasy film hero needs a love interest for the end and enter Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart). She works for the NYPD and has an interest in metallurgy which has led her to publish at least one book and explains her desire to hunt down the source of the mysterious metal fragments. She does not abruptly learn the truth of Immortals and it’s all “Gosh! Cool!” on her part. Her search to find a sword that should not exist puts her on the path.
Also in this film we have those around Connor caught up in unusual events but unaware that they are indeed unusual. At no point does the majority really understand that something supernatural is happening and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. They are just investigating a series of decapitations that appear linked. It is a criminal investigation for them
That is something else that is unusual. More often than not somebody will stumble into the truth and become intimately involved in the plot from the start. Brenda discovered the existence of something unusual and because it intersected with her normal interests tried to track it down. She was trying to find an artifact and play Indiana Jones and not save the world but instead found herself involved in consequential events.
One thing this film has going for it-and one thing that I especially like-is that they never explain exactly how the immortality started. It just is a fact of life. It is a mystery, but it is not something that needs to be explained away. Viewers do not need everything in the film explained. Sometimes it is good enough to let your imagination fill in the blanks with whatever information is presented if any is presented at all.
Highlander looks like few other movies did at the time. It just had a style and direction that was and still is unique. Russell Mulcahy was primarily a music video director at the time, and you can tell that here. That is not a negative but rather a positive that makes this vie into something unique. Mulcahy has had a hit or miss career with quality and reception of his feature work. Razorback, a horror film about a pig, has developed a cult following as has this film and even The Shadow-one of the best superhero films out there.
I know nothing about sword fighting techniques but what we get here looks much more authentic than what audiences are accustomed to in movies. There is no fantastical leaping or physics defying moves on the part of any character. Though a fantasy film, they are bound by the limitations of physics and the human body. This is not like the choreography of an Asian martial arts movies or even things in the mold of sword battles in American releases do not appear here.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the Queen assisted soundtrack. Princes of the Universe alone is perhaps the best song you could use for a film like this. But everything else in this movie is just perfect when it comes to music. It is placed at all the right moments and serves to emphasize and highlight the scene, but it does not override the scene. A song like Who Wants to Live Forever highlights and enhances the scene.
Highlander is most definitely a classic film. It is an amazing action movie with great characters and a fantastic story. The sequels, which do not exist and never existed and no one ever did, failed to live up to this film or approach it in any way. This film is an amazing work. Watch it!