Everyone has fond memories of a lot of films from their childhood that raise those films above and beyond everything they see afterwards. For many, those films are products from the masterminds at Disney, or the work of directors like Spielberg. Then there are the more obscure titles that just happened to be in the cinemas or on television that one special time you were there to see them. You could find those films that stay with you forever just about everywhere and at any time, because back then everything was a wonder.
When I was eight years old, in the year of our Lord 1999, I found ‘my’ film that beats anything that’s ever made. I was looking for my uncle’s VHS-recording of Star Wars, and instead found Highlander. My uncle had recorded a number of films on VHS, but he had never written titles on any of the tapes. There was only a row of tapes and I took the one on the far left, put it in the machine and rolled it. Picture the scene:
The film was a recording from a Belgian broadcast, and there was still a little segment of a newscast from 1994 or 1995 – it was already an old tape. It was my ninth year on the planet, so I didn’t have a lot of patience with things that were supposed to provide me with fun. I fast-forwarded the tape a little, because, well, who cares about old news? And who cares about Belgian news? When the screen turned black, I stopped the tape and played it. Red letters. A voice that sounds familiar. SEAN CONNERY! I already know James Bond, so this is cool. Then music from a band that also sounds familiar. QUEEN! I love their music. All we hear is Radio Ga Ga! Now, I must watch this film and love it forever! Two hours later I was overwhelmed by sheer joy and excitement. I had just seen arguably the best film ever.
See Queen performing Princes of the Universe alongside Highlander himself.
Highlander tells the riveting story of Connor MacLeod, a 450-year-old immortal fighting for a fabled prize that, if fallen into the hands of the wrong immortal, could condemn the human race to an eternity of darkness. We first meet him in 1985, and then the plot switches to his time in sixteenth century Scotland, where he learns about his immortality and task from an Egyptian immortal called Ramírez, portrayed by Sean Connery, came to him and trained him. He teaches Connor how to survive, accompanied by the best and most beautiful music ever used in a film. The ‘training theme’ has haunted me for fifteen years now, and it is still as striking as the first time I heard it.
Mysterious, warm, exciting, sweet, soothing: music doesn’t get better than this.
We follow Connor through the ages, cutting from one century to the next, and between all the amazing battle scenes and suave dialogue, the film has some quiet moments in which it ponders whether it is possible to love someone forever. Connor, even after more than 400 years, mourns his wife Heather, and Ramírez, who was 2437 years old at the time Connor met him, had had three wives, whose deaths all shattered him – there is great sadness at the heart of the film. Then again, there are few films that bring so much joy and craziness to the screen as Highlander.
The ridiculous story, for instance, is brought to life with great visual style and wonderful acting. Russel Mulcahy, who mostly directed music videos in the 1980s has an eye for great cutting, which is clearest in the cuts between present and past. My favourite is a shot of sixteenth century Connor lying wounded in bed, seemingly dying. Suddenly camera flashes illuminate the scene, and the next shot is that of a decapitated corpse in 1985. It’s subtle and it’s playful. Another great example is of the camera moving through a fish tank in New York into a Scottish loch. You don’t get that much creativity in shot switches nowadays.
Also, most of the action is just wonderfully ludicrous. When two immortals fight and one cuts of the head of the other – that’s the only way they can be killed – the body of the fallen warrior starts to float and glow, and great explosions occur all over the place. Windows shatter, manhole covers shoot into the air and cars start revving and getting excited. It’s wacky, but it’s cool, especially at the end, when Connor first says the iconic line “there can be only one” before his surroundings go ‘boom’.
Christopher Lambert, who played Connor, is a French actor who had never really acted in English at the time. He played Tarzan, but that character didn’t have that much dialogue… His accent in Highlander is all over the place, which works perfectly for his character, as Connor has travelled the world over quite a long period of time. Also, and this makes his performance even more awesome than it is, he had to act virtually blind because of severe myopia and not being able to wear glasses during the shooting. That explains his moody, pondering gaze, which also works perfectly for his character. Lambert is charismatic, and he is believable as a man who has seen many ages.
Sean Connery gave one of his finest performances as Ramírez, giving the viewer sheer timeless wisdom, charm and grandeur. Clancy Brown filled the giant boots of The Kurgan, the antagonist of the film, and truly portrays one of the greatest villains in the history of film. He is dark and evil to his core, and enjoys that stygian character to the fullest. Add to that his amazingly low and raspy voice, and you have a perfect villain. Just have a look at the following scene, and afterwards remind yourself that the guy who plays The Kurgan also voices Mr Krabs in SpongeBob SquarePants.
That laugh at the end is just the most wonderfully evil laugh in cinema history. By the way: Brown adlibbed most of his dialogue in this scene, and many of the people inside the church at the time of filming were shocked by what he was saying and doing.
All in all, Highlander is a fantastic film. There’s a cool concept for a story, great and fun acting, strong action sequences and wonderful, epic and beautiful music. It is beyond me that the film was not recognised for its greatness back in the day, but I understand and support its current status as a cult classic. Its abysmal sequels tarnished the greatness of the original, but they have not tainted its quality. Highlander remains a film that I can watch as often as I like without it ever becoming tedious or annoying. It is a great film, and to me, it is the one: “there can be only one.”