Friday, March 05, 2010

classic film : Highlander

I was reminded of the 1986 film Highlander after a recent conversation with my parents. My Mum commented that a horse called “Connor MacLeod” had romped home at a generous 25-1. when I pointed out the origin of the name, my Dad said “that’s the one we saw being filmed in Scotland, isn’t it?”. He was right, it was something that had slipped my mind.

As a “cult film” I had always assumed that just about everyone and their dog had seen this film, an assumption that has often been shown to be incorrect. I therefore urge you to consider that there are *** POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD *** if you are in the category of “haven’t seen it”.





Plot-wise, Highlander centres on a centuries old battle going on between the immortals that walk amongst us. Over the course of time they have battled each other, for only an immortal can kill another, and even then only via means of decapitation with a sword. The film focuses on “the gathering”, a time of the final battles (or rather duels) between the immortals, at the end of which only one will remain alive and thus claim “the prize”.

A plot that I consider to be fairly original and novel was certainly matched by some novel, if not unusual, casting decisions. The central immortal, Scottish Highlander Connor MacLeod, was played by Christopher Lambert, a renowned French actor who at the time could barely speak a word of English. As if to compound some sort of inside joke, they opted to cast the distinctly Scottish Sean Connery as his Spanish / Egyptian mentor, Ramirez. The latter was perhaps the boldest piece of casting – in 1985/86, Sean Connery was far away from being considered a “national treasure”. He had made a succession of money losing films, irrespective of their merits, and wasn’t considered a box office draw as such.





As it turns out, these were ingenious slices of casting. Lambert, with his broken English, gives an undeterminable accent to a character you are never really supposed to be sure of where and when he came – although it does fall flat a bit when he’s supposed to be in his native Scotland. Connery was a revelation in the role, and it’s little wonder than he went on from this rejuvenating role to other “mentor” parts in The Untouchables, The Rock and Rising Sun.

The most inspired slice of casting, however, has to be the then unknown Clancy Brown as the nemesis of the piece, The Kurgan. A much quoted character he has become over the years for a start, but in the film he is truly a terrifying being. Whatever merits there are in the “buddy buddy” relationship between MacLeod and Ramirez, it’s the shadow cast by The Kurgan you remember.





Going back to the plot as such and one of the many wonders of the film is how it embraces other literary ideas around the concept of immortals. To a large extent the immortals here are reminiscent of those in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where, having experienced everything, all they want to do is seek the chance to die. The world, in particular in 1986, is an easy enough place to hide away in if you didn’t wish to lose your immortal head, one would assume. Bravo to the makers of Highlander for not making it all some sort of ridiculous, “enforced” tournament of the immortals; the voluntary seeking of ‘the prize’ makes it all far more fascinating.

As for the film-maker, Mr Russell Mulcahy, the flair, pace and visuals he clearly picked up from making some of Duran Duran’s better known videos are well and truly on display here. He never really made another big film as such after Highlander – I seem to recall some story of him being “difficult” in and around the making of the inevitable, implausible Highlander II. Well, whatever the reason for him going off to work mostly on TV, give or take the occasional and average Kim Basinger movie, at least he made sure all the eggs were in this basket.

Rounding all of this off, of course, is the dynamic, dazzling soundtrack. Whereas the official soundtrack only appeared much later and was hard to find (ahem, legally), Queen provided most of the onscreen music and made it available in the form of the splendid A Kind Of Magic album.





Queen were approached to do one song for the film but, having seen a rough cut, were inspired to compose several more, as well as twisting one or two rough demos to fit the film. Of the album, A Kind Of Magic and Who Wants To Live Forever proved to be bit hits, and who doesn’t turn the volume up to 11 when Princes Of The Universe is on?


If you are of a mind to nitpick, there are massive gaps in the logic that the film creates which you can with some ease drive a bus through. There’s never, for instance, any hint of why these men (and they are all men) are immortal, or how they manage to identify each other. Another oddity would be that they are, apparently, forbidden from fighting on holy ground, whereas you would suspect that being immortal is a distinctly unholy phenomenon. Well, the film seems intent on being a slice of entertainment rather than a serious philosophical work on the theory of immortality – pick away at those if you want, but ignoring such folly in the film makes it all the more entertaining.





Speaking of ignoring things, one is well advised to avoid any and all follow on Highlander ventures, be they the ever-increasingly cheaply made “sequels” or the rather horrid TV show featuring – get this – Connor MacLeod’s brother who also happens to be immortal. If ever a film didn’t need a sequel it was Highlander, but I suppose the box office returns, not to mention the presumed built in cult audience, made making more inevitable.

In regards of recommending that you either watch it again or watch it for the first time, well, this is a bit tricky. I have in my time had my hands on 3 different DVD issues of the film, and all of them suffer from appalling transfers. I am no expert, but I know wonky sound when I hear it, and all of them have it. Unless the original negatives have been damaged beyond all repair it really is criminal that this film has not yet had a proper DVD release.

A word of warning – a remake is apparently underway, with the producers having the brilliant idea of dispensing with swords and having the immortals fight with “the weapons of the era they are in.”. fans of the film hardly need me to tell them just how much this will suck. They won’t, try as they might, ever be able to re-cast the three actors mentioned above to a level of success achieved in the original; dispensing with the last possible means of making it a decent remake hardly helps their plight.





As for our holiday in Scotland and us seeing some of it being filmed, well, our car was stopped so we would not be in shot, and all we could see was some sort of battle in the distance. The crew members who stopped us told us that “nobody famous” was on set today. As it was a classical muggy Scottish afternoon I dare say Sean Connery would have been in a hotel somewhere, and in fairness if Christopher Lambert and/or Clancy Brown were filming that day it’s not like they were well known at the time!

Well, there you go. I might just dig out the latest DVD I have picked up of the film and try and get through the odd sound on it, give it a try yourself!


Be excellent to each other!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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