By Steve Vivona
For me in 1986 the process for choosing what movies to see in the theater mainly involved whether or not the trailer or commercials made it look good. "Highlander" had a great trailer so I saw it with a friend, oblivious to the terrible reviews it received. My friend and I sat captivated (in an empty theater) by this movie, and to this day I pride myself on being one of "Highlander's" few fans from day one.
"Highlander" told the story of Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) an immortal born in the Scottish highlands in the year 1518. Connor receives a mortal wound during a battle with a rival clan, but he does not die. Fearing he is possessed by the devil his clansmen banish him from their midst. Five years later he is approached by Juan Ramirez (Sean Connery), another immortal who explains to Connor what he is. It's here that we hear the "rules" for the first time.
Connor learns he can only be killed if he is decapitated. He will not age and he has a vague understanding and connection with all living things known as The Quickening, which is a source of great strength for the immortals. Ramirez speaks of The Gathering, a time in the far future when all the remaining immortals will be drawn to a faraway place to battle to the last and claim The Prize.
The film switches back and forth between Connor's adventures in the past and his life in present day New York City. After dispatching another immortal in a parking garage under Madison Square Garden, Connor becomes the chief suspect in that murder. At the same time his greatest enemy, The Kurgan (Clancy Brown), arrives in NYC, and we learn the Gathering is here.
Connor must prepare for this final battle while evading the police and a beautiful metallurgy expert (Roxanne Hart) who unravels the mystery that surrounds him. He realizes that time has finally run out for him and he must face the Kurgan and win the Prize, or lose his head!
Thanks to video and cable "Highlander" developed quite a cult following -- enough that a disastrous sequel was produced in 1991 totally destroying the myth of the Immortals. Another lame sequel followed in 1994, as well as a popular syndicated TV series starring Adrian Paul.
The first thing critics jumped on when "Highlander" was released was the inter-cutting between past and present. Director Russell Mulcahy cut his teeth on music videos with such 80s bands as Duran Duran, and he employed a number of nice visual transitions that were criticized as showy and ridiculous, not to mention confusing. For anyone who hasn't seen the film let me say this: it's not that hard to follow!
"Highlander" also benefits from a terrific score by Michael Kamen and additional songs by Queen, which are dropped into the film at very appropriate moments. It's great to hear the vocal strains of Freddy Mercury and their music for "Highlander" rivals that of "Flash Gordon."
Christopher Lambert had just come off his successful debut in "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan" in 1984. Although I'm biased I believe Connor MacLeod is his finest role. Lambert believably brings to the screen a character who is weary of watching all his loved ones die, a man who is tired of all the endless battles. He's also a character with a lusty sense of humor, often breaking out into that trademark laugh.
Sean Connery had taken three years off from acting after his return to Bond in "Never Say Never Again." The following year he would create his Oscar-winning perfomance in "The Untouchables." As Ramirez Connery is the Obi-Wan Kenobi character, the older, wiser mentor, and he essays the role beautifully. He makes the most of about 20 minutes of screen time and gives an air of legitimacy and credibility to a story many think is ridiculous.
Producers have never been able to top Clancy Brown as the evil Kurgan with their villains in the sequels. Brown obviously relishes portraying this vile character with absolutely no redeeming qualities. More importantly he brings with him a sense of dread. He is someone who will cloak the world in darkness if he wins The Prize, and defeating him will be Connor's greatest challenge.
The ambiguity of the story of the Immortals annoyed some but it left them with an air of mystery better left unexplained. When the producers did explain their origins in "Highlander 2" (they were aliens) even fans of the first one laughed them out of town, so they removed all references to it in the "Renegade Version" of "H2."
"Highlander: The Final Dimension" ignored "H2" and tried to get back to the roots of the first. However all it did was ape everything from the original and do it badly. Mario Van Peebles embarrassed himself as a poor Kurgan knockoff, but Lambert squeezed out a decent performance.
Fans of Highlander always knew there was a slightly longer international version that explained the relationship between Connor and his secretary, as well as several other ancillary scenes. Thankfully the producers used the longer version for this DVD to the delight of many fans.
On Sept. 1 hope springs eternal as "Highlander: Endgame," pairing Lambert with Adrian Paul, will be released. It too sports an impressive trailer and probably owing to my loyalty to the first film I'll see it opening day.
Republic's DVD of "Highlander" is problematic. The original source print has been remastered nicely, and after years of watching poor transfers on video and laser this version was a revelation. However the DVD has major compression problems and artifacting, especially in the black areas of the screen which pixelate wildly.
Artisan (which controls all of Republic's titles) recently repriced Highlander to $9.95 which makes it a real bargain despite the lackluster transfer. The DVD includes a commentary from director Mulcahy and producers Peter Davis and William Panzer. Also included are hundreds of stills and production photos, the trailer and a still-frame slide show detailing the film's production history.
Anchor Bay recently acquired the rights to this title and we should see it again sometime in 2001 or 2002. Hopefully they can improve the transfer while keeping all the great supplements.
"Crude and slow clansman!"
The final battle