There can be only one: Why the first Highlander is the Best
|FEATURES - MOVIES|
Did a veritable industry of sequels mar a great original...?
Gregory Widen was just an undergraduate in the screenwriting program at UCLA when he wrote a script entitled Shadow Clan for a class assignment. He sold the script for $200,000 to producers William Panzer and Peter S. Davis, who then sent it to be re-written. Add one music video director (Russell Mulcahy), a charismatic leading man (Christopher Lambert) and an ensemble cast, and film history was made. While not a box office success on release in 1986, Highlander did well overseas, and gained a cult following on home video, eventually leading to five sequels, three spin-off television series, an animated direct-to-video movie, books, comic books, video games and a slew of quotable lines (as well as many welts, since my friends and I spent many hours with makeshift swords fighting each other). Highlander has become a cult classic in the hearts of many.
The film follows the story of Connor McLeod (Lambert, in the role that would make him an even bigger star in the wake of 1984's Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes), an immortal who was born in 1518 in Glenfinnan, Scotland near the shores of Loch Shiel. He lives in New York City under the name of Russell Nash, an antiques dealer. The only person that knows his secret is his adopted daughter, Rachel (Sheila Gish), a woman in her late forties/early fifties, who acts as a secretary for his shop. Connor is attending a wrestling event at Madison Square Gardens, when suddenly he retreats to a parking garage. He is met by a man named Iman Fasil, who draws a sword. McLeod draws a katana, and a brief battle ensues, with McLeod decapitating his challenger. The body starts to glow, and electricity shoots out of it, making its way to McLeod, who absorbs it. He hides the sword and tries to flee, but is stopped by the police.
Flashback to Connor’s youth, as he and his clansmen plan on going into battle with another clan. On the day of the battle, a creepy-looking guy that looks like he climbed out of a Dungeons & Dragons handbook informs the leader of the opposing clan that he wishes to fight Connor alone. The fight begins, and everyone is fighting except Connor, who is avoided by everybody. Suddenly, his chance comes, when the D&D guy appears out of nowhere. He climbs off of his horse, and Connor goes to attack, only to be run through by the other’s sword. Before he can take Connor’s head, the other McLeods come to Connor’s aid, and send the assailant running. He calls back, “Another time, McLeod”. That night, he dies in his bed, only to be very much alive the next morning. His clan believe him to be evil, and drive him from the village.
The film continues to flip from the present to flashbacks in McLeod’s life, telling the story of what brought him to this point in time. In the present, he is watched by the police, who believe he murdered Fasil in cold blood. A forensic specialist named Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart) is investigating the murder, but stumbles upon a mystery about the sword that killed Fasil, and wants to know more about it, eventually falling in love with McLeod.
The flashbacks give us the whole story. After being banished by his people, McLeod meets and falls in love with a woman named Heather (Beatie Edney). The two marry and live in a small, dilapidated castle, happy. Then one day, a stranger arrives, and nothing is ever the same for our hero. The stranger, Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez (the always wonderful Sean Connery), is a centuries-old Egyptian living in Spain as the Chief Metallurgist to King Charles V. He explains that he and McLeod are immortals, an ancient race whose only role seems to be to behead each other until there are only a handful left, and at which time, they will be called to “The Gathering”, when they will fight until only one is left - and that one will receive “The Prize”. Immortals can only be killed when the head is removed, and can never have children. And since they outlive any spouses they might have, they end up alone and miserable if they do indeed fall in love. Ramirez trains McLeod in sword fighting, and tries to get his young charge to leave his wife, if only to save him the pain he has known too many times before. He shows McLeod his sword, a beautiful ivory-handled katana.
It was, he explains, a gift from a Japanese swordsmith whose daughter he had fallen in love with. He also explains the rules of battle to McLeod: Never fight on holy ground and never more than two in a fight (these rules have been broken many times since in the various other spin-offs). He tells McLeod that the man he fought years ago is an immortal known as The Kurgan (Clancy Brown), a vicious and powerful man who is older than Ramirez (and fought Ramirez on a few occasions), born in an unknown place somewhere in Russia. The Kurgan will stop at nothing to take the heads of all of the immortals and claim The Prize as his own. One night, as McLeod is out, Heather and Ramirez are interrupted by The Kurgan, who is looking for McLeod. He fights Ramirez, killing him and raping Heather. She never tells McLeod of it, and they live together in peace until her death. He buries her and begins wandering, taking Ramirez’s sword to fight with.
In the present, Wyatt begins to suspect that there’s something not right about Nash, and starts to investigate. She finds through handwriting analysis that every signature on the deeds for Nash’s property have been the same person, which can’t be possible, since the property has changed hands several times over a period of over a hundred years. She confronts Nash, who tells her the truth, by way of making her stab him. He lives, and explains who he really is. And in true action movie fashion, the two make love. But The Kurgan has been keeping up on McLeod’s life, and kidnaps Brenda. McLeod tracks them down, and a battle of the ages begins. Eventually, McLeod takes Kurgan’s head, and is given The Prize. He is finally mortal, can sire children, and is bestowed with telepathy, which he vows to use to help mankind.
The film is filled with so many wonderful moments. One scene involves McLeod meeting an old friend, Kastagir, and the two share a drink and talk about the Gathering. Then they reminisce about the last party they threw, which was in 1783. A hilarious flashback shows an inebriated McLeod taking part in a duel, but frustrating his opponent, as every time he gets stabbed, he gets back up. He eventually calls off the duel, apologizes for his indiscretion, and walks away. It’s the mix of humor and action, as well as the flashbacks that tell the history of the events that make the movie a full story, even if uneven in parts. The Director’s Cut also has a cut scene added, when he meets his adopted daughter Rachel as he saves her from Nazis in World War II. As a soldier yells at him in German, McLeod gives that classic smile, and just says “Whatever you say, mac. You’re the master race.” He then mows him down with his machine gun.
Lambert is perfect as McLeod, even if his Scottish accent is not as convincing as it could be. He is equal parts charming rogue, suave gentleman, and dangerous man of mystery. If he’d have been English, he’d have made a wonderful James Bond. Speaking of which, Sean Connery makes the part of Ramirez his own, giving it an almost boyish charm, and yet a gravitas one would expect from a character that is over 2000-years-old. Brown is certainly well cast in this, as he seems to be able to do evil at the drop of a hat. The rest of the cast is great, and pull their own weight, making you believe the story. And the film’s use of music by Queen made the songs “Princes of the Universe” (the theme song, used also by the series as the theme) and “Who Wants to Live Forever” instant classics.
"Highlander II: The Quickening is a fun sci-fi action film. It’s just a terrible sequel."
Eventually, people started to believe that you couldn’t have too much of a good thing, and a sequel was made. 1991's Highlander II: The Quickening is a fun sci-fi action film. It’s just a terrible sequel. Suddenly, the immortals aren’t humans at all, but are fugitives from another planet, sent to Earth where they are immortal. In the future, an aged McLeod is confronted by an environmentalist (Virginia Madsen) who is with a group trying to disengage “The Shield”, a field that surrounds the planet to keep ultraviolet rays out. Suddenly, two other aliens show up, and McLeod fights them off, but is blown up by a tanker. When he emerges from the flames, he’s young again. Then he magically calls Ramirez back from the dead, and the two fight to save the world from the evil General Katana (Michael Ironside). It was panned heavily by critics and fans, and dismissed from canon by many. A “Renegade Cut” was eventually released, which is a better cut of the movie (now the immortals are from the future, not another planet), but still not Highlander. A second sequel was released in 1994, Highlander: The Final Dimension (aka Highlander III: The Sorcerer), involving three immortals who were trapped in a magic cave. While an improvement upon the second film, and a step in the right direction, it still lacked much of what made the first movie great.
Then the producers decided they should try television for their outlet. Originally, it was to feature Connor, but played by Adrian Paul (just coming off of the recently cancelled Dark Shadows reboot, not to be confused with Tim Burton's upcoming version). He asked the producers to change it to another character so as to keep from being confused with and compared to Lambert. They made him Duncan McLeod, Connor’s cousin. Duncan was born in the same village about 74 years after Connor. Lambert agreed to guest star in the pilot, which involved the two Highlanders fighting another immortal, with Duncan winning. His companions are his lover Tess, who is killed off in the second season, and Richie, a wayward youth that breaks into his shop in the first episode, becomes Duncan‘s friend, and eventually turns out to be an immortal himself. The series ran for six seasons, was well-made and told some good stories, but Duncan paled in comparison to Connor. The series also brought into the mythology a group called The Watchers, a group that keeps track of immortals and their scorecards. Duncan befriends two of them: Joe, a human who acts as an information kiosk for Duncan; and Methos, an immortal born in 4500 B.C. Methos utilizes the alias Adam Pierson, and avoids combat as much as possible. The idea of the Watchers is unique, but after a while, the show seems out of touch with what the original idea had been.
Highlander: Endgame revived the film franchise by pairing Connor and Duncan up for the second time, but the first and only time on the big screen. The film had great effects and good fight scenes, but the story was weak. The villain, Jacob Kell, was originally a priest that had burned Connor’s mother alive for alleged witchcraft. Connor kills Jacob, only for him to resurrect and take vengeance on Connor. Then there’s Kate, Duncan’s wife from 200 years ago, who he stabbed on their wedding night because she was immortal (now there’s the wedding present that keeps on giving), and that way they could live out a long life together. She bails on him, only for the two to finally reconcile in the film. And in the end, Connor and Duncan realize they can’t defeat Kell, so Connor sacrifices himself and has Duncan take his head so that, combined, they can kill Kell (does any of this make any sense to you?).
There was another film with Duncan after this one, Highlander: The Source (2007), which was to be the first in a trilogy to be shown on the SciFi Channel. The movie was so bad that no more were made afterward. I never actually finished watching this one - it was that terrible. There was also an animated series set in the future, featuring a young Highlander who is adopted by the Clan McLeod, a direct-to-video anime film made in Japan that features an ancestor of the McLeods, but is set in the future, and two comic series by Dynamite Entertainment, both of which were very good. There are also several original novels out, and a few video games. The Highlander franchise has done well for itself, even if it’s hit or miss.
"Highlander doesn’t need to be remade, updated, renovated, reimagined, or anything else, other than just watched and enjoyed"
The biggest issue I have ever really had with any of the sequels or spin-offs has simply been this: If Connor McLeod was the last immortal, and indeed won The Prize during The Gathering, how did other immortals come to be? It gets explained in small ways, like time travel and immortals that were locked in magical prisons, or in the case of the television series that Connor’s killing of Kurgan merely set into motions the true Gathering. For the most part, it’s all good fun, but makes for a lot of retconning for the story to remain even halfway true to the original.
And the biggest blow of all came in 2008 when Summit Entertainment (yes, those folks behind those Twilight films) announced that they were planning to remake the original film. The producers promise to stay true to the core of the Highlander mythology, taking the best parts of all aspects of the franchise, and make a film that fans of the original will enjoy as well as those who are new to the movie. Of course, this spawned yet another round of internet debates, as fans argued that a remake was unnecessary, while others used the same tired arguments that the new film wouldn’t ruin the original, and that filmmakers could update the story with a better budget. I personally think a remake is a terrible idea, and I think that if this film does, in fact, happen, producers will realize that it was a mistake all along. Highlander doesn’t need to be remade, updated, renovated, reimagined, or anything else, other than just watched and enjoyed. Even with such a long franchise tagging along, it is the original movie that made it all possible. It reinvented sword-fighting movies, and the historical action film, and has become a cult classic that has captured the hearts of many. In the end, there can be only one.
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