1986: Looking Back At HIGHLANDER

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Tony Fyler want The Prize. 

Historical fantasy is not, traditionally, a genre which deals well with the utterly new. It likes variations on a range of themes, some of which go back to the likes of Arthurian legend – magical swords? Big tick. Dragons and other mythological creatures? Big tick. Good and evil magic-users? Double-tick and underline.

Any sense of contemporary reality. Erm…you ain’t from round here, are ya boy?

Highlander, when it burst onto screens in 1986, was a challenge to all that, and yet in itself it was seeded by ideas that went back as far as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando – mysterious figures who, for some reason or other, don’t die. Immortals.

Now, historical fantasy likes an immortal as much as, if not more than any other genre, but it doesn’t traditionally like them to still be about in the year when the reader or viewer is watching. Highlander took a man born in the sixteenth century, and had him living through the centuries, occasionally chopping the heads off other immortals right up to the present day. It showed the danger of rejection, the pain of love and loss between a mortal and an immortal, the desperate violence the immortals were prepared to do to those around each other in order to take each other’s heads, and the reason why all this was happening – the immortals growing stronger with each head they take, experiencing The Quickening en route, ultimately, to The Gathering, when the last two of their kind would fight each other for The Prize.

There are issues with the premise, of course there are – The fact that no-one actually knows what The Prize is being a fairly major one. They were issues that were subsequently addressed in the live action TV show spawned from this most unfortunately-straplined of movies (When you tell the world ‘There can be only one,’ it gets a little embarrassing when in fact there are four sequels, an animated series, a live action series that ran to six seasons, and a separate spin-off series from the live action series, by which time all connection with the original has been entirely lost).

But let’s not let niggles of realism detract us here. In terms of its originality, Highlander was a shot in the arm, bringing sword and sorcery tropes to a new level of excitement, with the idea of these immortals living and killing each other throughout time. It set up its fantasy world within the confines of our own history, and was a major influence on how fantasy was written from then on. It did for sword and sorcery to some extent what Anne Rice’s vampire series did for horror, taking it out of the Ye Olde Settynges in which it was familiar, and making it exciting by making it current as well as historical, and therefore making it significantly more real to the audience.

That said, let us not beat around the bush. Highlander was a fantastic premise. It was delivered on screen in possibly the most horrible way imaginable.

The casting is of course an unavoidable issue. When you have a movie called Highlander, you’d imagine one of the principal requirements for the lead role would be an actor who can speak English with a credible Scottish accent. Step forward then noted French actor, Christopher Lambert.


Well then, when you’re casting the Highlander’s best friend, an Egyptian living at the Spanish court, you’re going to go for someone with an exotic look, and a rich, dark mixture of accents, right?

Oh look, there’s Sean Connery, wonder what he’s doing in this movie.

Wait, what?

Don’t get me wrong – Sean Connery can play anything, because frankly, for much of his career, he’s played Sean Connery and that’s been gloriously enough – when a man can play a Russian submarine commander sounding Scottish and still make it work, you’re in the presence of a very particular kind of acting genius. But in Highlander, Sean Connery’s obvious Scottishness only serves to highlight the fact that Christopher Lambert probably couldn’t have pointed to Scotland on a map before filming started, let alone portrayed one of its native sons convincingly.

But there’s more wrong with Highlander than its bizarre casting.

Firstly, there’s the lighting. Much of the movie, especially in its later sections, has a feeling of being shot in the dark, or at least in a state of chronic underlighting. Partially we can assume that’s to disguise a substitute Lambert, as the star was chronically short-sighted, making him something of a liability when wielding even a fake sword at speed, as the film demanded. Partially, also, it’s possible the dark tones were there to cast an air of mystery around Clancy Brown’s Kurgan, but the combination of all the darkness and Lambert’s low Gallic muttering serves to make Highlander feel like a polished diamond of an idea stuck in a visually and aurally muddy movie.

And then there’s the immortals.

Now, I’m all for naturalistic storytelling, and that rather demands that MacLeod only encounter, or remember encounters with, the immortals of specific relevance to him during the course of his progress towards the Gathering. But writer Gregory Widen, having had the idea, seems almost reluctant to make any noise about the immortals at all. Fasil, the backflipping guy whose arrival introduces us to the idea that two guys in Madison Square Garden in 1986 are actually going to have a swordfight in the car park until one of them decapitates the other, is given precisely diddly-squat in terms of backstory or reference. Seriously, all we learn of his journey through the ages is that he uses a Salamanca broadsword. Kastagir, MacLeod’s friend who takes on the Kurgan and loses his head, we get a few references for, but not much more. Even Ramirez, about whom we learn most, still feels like a handful of details thrown into a characterisation. The Kurgan, the film’s Big Bad, is a masterstroke of joyous viciousness, and Clancy Brown succeeds in redefining bogeymen for a generation with his portrayal, and most particularly with that voice. But all we know of the Kurgans is what Ramirez tells us, and all we know of the motivations of this particular Kurgan comes to us in gorgeous, short vignettes of evil from the man himself. Most crucially, while the scenes we get are well chosen to show his character’s development over the centuries, MacLeod himself is unconvincingly delivered as a rounded human being, giving the whole thing not only what feels like a chronic shortage of immortals and things to make them interesting, but a hollowness in the heart of the movie, meaning we only care who wins The Prize because of Brown’s exceptional work at making what we do know about the Kurgan deeply disturbing.

To deliver a tone of fantastical excitement, veteran chameleonic peacock-rockers Queen were brought in on musical duties, and, as they’d done with Flash Gordon, the band created not only some of the most memorable moments in the experience of watching Highlander, but also a soundtrack that stands the test of time arguably better than the movie it accompanied. Both the Flash Gordon and A Kind of Magic albums stand on their own merits – but can you imagine either movie without Queen? Flash Gordon Without ‘Flash – Ah-ahhhhh!’? Highlander without Princes of the Universe at the start, or the Kurgan’s battle-theme, Gimme The Prize? Imagine Highlander without Who Wants To Live Forever and what you’re imagining is a much-impoverished movie. Crucially, the music of Queen delivers a pulse of thrill which the movie doesn’t then go on to entirely fulfil. The sword-battles and the central ideas are exciting, but much else that surrounds them feels too muted to justify the bombastic thrill that Queen promises.

Overall, thirty years on, Highlander remains a watchable slice of inventive historical fantasy, that diamond of a central idea untarnishable even by the increasingly dreadful and lunatic sequels, and surprisingly rather polished by the Adrian Paul TV series, (which at least allowed the exploration of individual immortals’ histories). But between the bizarre casting, the understandable but frustratingly restrained use of the immortals and the murkiness of some of the visuals, it’s almost impossible to watch without imagining the movie that Highlander could have been, had different choices been made.

And in fact, the movie it still could be – that diamond idea of immortals fighting throughout time still refuses to die, and Hollywood has decreed that there can be at least one more, with a remake of the original on the cards. The curse of casting appears still to dog Highlander – at one point, Ryan Reynolds was down to play the new MacLeod and Tom Cruise was mooted as the new Ramirez. A Queenless Highlander will never have quite the same excitement as the original. But given the whisper of Tom Hardy as frontrunner for the lead and Dave Bautista as a potential Kurgan, it might yet deliver rather more on that excitement than the original did.

Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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