Directed by Russell Mulcahy
Line that stays with me: “If your head comes away from your neck, it's over! ”
Essay Warning: There are no spoilers or story details. I want to offer the emotion that a film can access within us. Plus I think the best way to watch a film is by not knowing anything about it. Just Go In…So if you haven’t watched this film yet please don’t read this essay. Read it afterwards so we can enjoy the “feeling” together.
“Highlander” was the first DVD I ever bought. I did not purchase the DVD because I was a huge fan. I bought it because it was $5.99 and since I just purchased my first DVD player that’s all I could afford at the time. Everything happens for a reason I guess, as “Highlander” became one of those films my friends and I would crack jokes about, and the more I watched the film the more I connected with it in some strange funny way. The film is not perfect, but there is a kind of magic in it. Now that I am older and know the true horrors of making any feature film, my respect and fondness for this film has only grown. The film is surely a film conceived with the hopes of cashing in on the MTV generation, which explains why Queen was hired to do most of the soundtrack. You get lots of flashy cuts and sometimes the lighting changes dramatically to utilize bright neon reds and greens, very much like a music video. At the end of the day all this adds to a very fantastical look. I recently watched the film for first time on HD and it was major difference over that $5.99 cheap bare bones DVD I still have somewhere. Watching the film on HD you begin to notice how calculated the film is. The excellent framing and shot selections burst through with epic intentions, all driven by a soundtrack that does not care if it is over the top. Many films love to talk, talk, and talk about legends boring you half way through. “Highlander” wowed you with a legend and all its ridiculous glory.
Not being self-conscious helps movies. Filmmakers, who understand that they cannot please everybody, make special films. I believe “Highlander” comes from that sort of mindset. The idea is very silly and adding a Queen soundtrack brings a whole other layer of high intensity to the film which is felt right from the opening credits. “I am immortal; I have inside me blood of kings!” Those are lyrics from the opening song “Princes of the Universe” very bold over the top lyrics and if you are into movies that are proud to deliver new experiences no matter how silly or outrageous, than like me you were probably hooked at that moment. The film knows its main audience, BOYS. The film never truly deals with our reality but focuses all its strength on making us enjoy its fantasy. These are thoughts every boy has had, what if I could live forever? Plus the idea of living forever is very much a young man’s mindset. As you get older and your bones begin to ache in ways you never thought possible, living forever no longer sounds pleasant. At this point in my life I rather die before I can no longer control my bodily functions. “Highlander” is not concerned with these truths, it rather entertain you with a great fun MOVIE. They even casted Sean Connery to ham it up, and deliver lines that could only be bought if Sir Connery is selling them.
It is very important for any film to quickly separate itself from the pack. A movie has to quickly hit you over the head like a caveman before you begin to think things like “I’ve seen this before”. Not many films do that but when they do, you find yourself involved in the film, not merely watching it. “Highlander” does this in a very fascinating way. We meet our hero Conner Macleod of the Clan MacLeod in a wrestling event. Now what’s hilarious and interesting to me about that scene is the fact that you have to question why this New Yorker is having flashbacks of some 16th Century battle while he is watching modern wrestling. That moment instantly makes you say “What’s going on here?” Next thing you know Conner MacLeod heads to the parking lot and ends up in a sword fight. Great opening which leads to an excellent flashback transition leaving the audience in catch up mode. As silly as the film is, it was thoroughly thought out to entertain you in a very fast paced way filled with grandiose moments and blockbuster like sheen. Of course the purpose was to get young boys all over the world to fall for this. (it worked) Even as an adult you can feel the film call out the boy in you, the quickening if you will, to just have a good time, and enjoy a classic story of good and evil. Macleod is the light; The Kurgan is pure darkness that stomps on every scene with the force of the dark ages. Throughout the film we witness this clear battle. In one of my favorite scenes, Conner Macleod takes out a Nazi, again cementing our hero as a beacon of light in the darkest of times.
It is hard for anybody that admires this film to put in one sentence why it is great. That’s due to the fact that the film never plays it straight. This is not “Lord of the Rings”, but somehow it feels like that every time you watch it. It has a majestic score; shots of stuntmen dangerously sparring with swords high on a mountain top, and great flashbacks that add depth in a short amount of time. Simultaneously, the film has a boy’s attitude. Heads are being cut off and mean jokes are cracked throughout by police officers. The strangest scene is when Nash is being interrogated and Officer Garfield calls him a faggot. Harsh words but the scene works because of its honest ridiculousness. I love that scene, my friends and I use to crack up at that scene. It plays out like a school yard fight. I love how Nash defends himself and declares to his enemies that he won’t be pushed around. That’s how a great film showcases its hero’s attributes by showing us not just talking about them. I know these days’ people like to shun their children away from such scenes, which I do not understand. When I went to school, I heard all sorts of terrible name calling. It is part of life, no matter how old you get. Nowadays kids are being told not to stand up for themselves but to go tell the teacher. How is that plan going to work when that kid enters the workforce? Sure, he won’t be defending himself physically but the workforce is filled with verbal abuse. In life it is very important to LEARN how to defend yourself. This film always brings to mind Darwinism and that we must fight for whatever position you want in life, there can be only one remember. It is a brilliant message quietly told throughout the film.
“Highlander” also has heart. Our hero must suffer the death of the woman he loved. With the help of Queen, that scene with MacLeod speaking to Heather on her death bed becomes one of most tender heart breaking scenes I’ve ever watched, filled with grandness, and the final devastation that comes with forbidden love. I catch myself singing each time I watch it. “Who wants to live forever, who dares to love forever?” Epic, over the top and fantastic! We also get to enjoy MacLeod’s and Ramirez’s bonding. The classic approach of montages and training works well here. Especially since it is a blast to watch Sir Sean Connery say lines like “He’s blood coursing…feel?!” MacLeod and Ramirez running off a cliff, with the sweeping score driving it home and you dreaming you could jump off that cliff too. The film understands young people’s desire to learn or to discover new powers within us. That’s why movies like this or the “The Karate Kid” (when done right) always work. Everyday life quickly makes you forget about your imagination, potential and replaces it with fear. Along comes a movie that says what if you had these powers, what if you trained and became a badass. We love those scenes in movies because they offer hope. Unfortunately, in real life we don’t usually meet people who want to help us and ask for nothing in return but this isn’t real life, “Highlander” is a movie. In movies the standard training montage cliché works like a charm, “Highlander” has my favorite standard training cliché moments, fun yet mesmerizing.
Yes, “Highlander” has it all for the BOY in you. Intense sword fights, a great villain, damsels in distress, and an interesting hero. The film has amazing production design, outlandish sets and props galore. The cinematography is spontaneous and restless. Yet, very though out, many shots planned to accentuate landscapes or modern architecture. This is not pedestrian directing at all; this director was out to wow us with beautiful vistas and moments filled with sparks. Perfect example is in the The Kurgan VS Ramirez battle scene where The Kurgan destroys MacLeod’s castle like home with his sword. I don’t understand how that’s possible, but that scene lifts the film into great fantasy as it reminds us of classic Universal horror movies with its intense wind and lightning effects. Great performances also save this film from mediocrity. Christopher Lambert is perfectly sly as Conner MacLeod. Sir Sean Connery has all the best lines and makes you believe the legend. Clancy Brown steals almost every scene he’s in just like he always does when given a great role. (Just think Shawshank) He is nasty, vile, and funny with a very intimidating visual presence, everything a great villain should be. The special effects are weird and fun instead of plain and lame. One of the biggest reasons I think this film will continue to find new fans is its amazing ending. The problem with most “Blockbusters” is that many of them are anti-climactic. They don’t live up to the hype. You’re all pumped up after watching the trailer 100 times; you get to the moment of truth and BLAH. Not in “Highlander”! Don’t you love it when a movie goes all the way and delivers the goods? MacLeod and The Kurgan sword slashing to the death on top of the bright red neon signs of Silvercup Studios, as our damsel in distress screams for her life. Sparks flying, MacLeod and The Kurgan waist deep in water, glass shattering all over the place, neon signs crashing down and the final decapitation, now that’s a climax. To me “Highlander” proves that if a filmmaker focuses on his film’s strengths it will cloud the film’s weakness. Along the way you had some gripes, but by the end you can’t remember them. Howard Hawks once said a good film is three great scenes and no bad ones; yeah that sounds like “Highlander”.
ABOUT RCM: RUTZ Classic Movies is dedicated on writing film essays for films that in Rutz's opinion, have not gotten the credit they deserve. Next Essay: Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line"