Original Highlander More Relevant Today
By Kristin Battestella
Originally Posted with Flames Rising
Although it spawned three sequels and two spin off television series-to date, 1986’s original Highlander film is regarded as merely a simple cult classic. Russell Mulachy's little film, however, has matured in the last 20 years. Highlander is just the right vintage for today’s audiences.
The movie gets right to it with an action packed wrestling match and swordfight. Antique dealer Russell Nash (Christopher Lambert) lives a quiet life in modern-day New York. Unbeknownst to the world, The Gathering of Immortals has come, and Nash is really Connor MacLeod, a five hundred year-old highlander who must fight for The Prize. Connor and the other remaining immortals must battle to the death. The victor cuts off his enemy’s head and absorbs his lifeforce, called the Quickening. Clancy Brown plays the evil and powerful Viktor Kurgan, an ancient Immortal who has a history with the Highlander.
The original release is just fine, but of course, the Director’s Cut of the original Highlander adds character development and serious insights. Extra footage between Nash and his secretary Rachel (Sheila Gish-who died in 2005 after a bout with cancer) showcases their lifelong relationship. Nash rescued the young Rachel during World War II, and now that Rachel is an old woman their parent-child relationship seems to have switched. Subtle hints also suggest a prior romantic relationship between the two. Observant fans will also hear the “It’s a kind of magic” line drop, which of course is a title from the Queen soundtrack.
The movie alternates between the New York scene and a flashback storyline explaining how Connor came to immortal. After his death in battle, the young MacLeod rises as immortal. He is outcast by his clan and taken in by a wise immortal named Ramirez (Sean Connery), who teaches Connor all the rules of immortality. You can’t fight on holy ground, and the only way an immortal can die is by losing his head. I’m not a big Connery fan, but he embraces his Scottish roots here (Ironically he plays an Immortal from Egypt via Spain.) The fun he has playing the character shows.
In the me 80s decade, immortality and big sword fights must have been Cool! Rad! Rock! On the contrary, Lambert’s heartbreaking performance presents the faults of living forever. He’s become a still and quiet man, a powerful immortal contrastingly clad in jeans, keds, and a trench coat. Lambert is tops in only his second English language film, and again, the Queen tunes for the film are on form. The hauntingly eerie ballad Who Wants to Live Forever? perfectly scores Connor’s scenes with his first wife Heather-a mortal Scotswoman doomed to grow old while Connor remains eternally young. Even lover of women Ramirez suggests Connor leave Heather rather than witness her mortality. The relationship brought much happiness, and Lambert conveys the joy wonderfully.
In the movie’s present, however, Russell Nash is bitter, unhappy, yet drawn to forensic investigator and sword enthusiast Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart). Can he love again? Why should he? As Rachel tells him, “You refuse to let anyone love you.” Russell blunts, “Love is for poets.” Brenda investigates all the heads rolling in the city and discovers Nash is really Connor MacLeod. They have little romantic time together, since Connor must battle Kurgan for the prize. Clancy Brown is masterful, despite his medical trouble with the makeup and prosthetics. Extra footage of his offensive behavior is restored in the Director’s Cut, including the licking of a Priest’s hand, and a “Happy Halloween, Ladies!” to a pair of nuns.
I still love my VHS 10th Anniversary Letterbox Director’s Cut copy of Highlander. The final battle of the film is a bit out of date, but some of the Quickening scenes in Highlander are still impressive, even after nearly 10 years of television Quickenings from the in some ways superior Highlander: The Series and the inferior in many ways Highlander: The Raven. Widescreen is a must, and the restored sound is exceptional. Mulachy also makes swift and sometimes breathtaking use of both New York and Scottish locations for battles and smooth transitions between the past and the present. The Scottish battles are excellent and authentic, if small by today’s scale. After the feature, the behind-the-scenes extras and commentary with Mulachy and Producers Bill Panzer and John Davis add insights to Highlander’s vision and attention to detail.
The movie is based on a story by Gregory Widen, and the questions raised by him and Mulachy are questions today’s audience needs to ask. The script has many smart lines, but my favorite has to be Nash’s confession, “I’ve been alive for four and a half centuries. I cannot die.” In response, Brenda blushes, “Everybody’s got their problems.” This exchange sums up exactly what Highlander is about. Some immortals revel in their power, others like Connor hate what they’ve become, yet they fight for their heads. Ramirez made a full life for himself, but he dies after 3,000 years and only three wives. Young and impatient Brenda tells Russell Nash she wants answers, and he counters, “Your life is short. If you value it, go home.” Later, Nash tells her, “What you want? Do you ever think about anything except what you want?” Our problems seem so trivial compared to McLeod’s. After nearly five hundred years of love and war, he can’t decided what he wants, and he can never really go home. The British Isles? Sure. 16th century Scotland? No.
Highlander doesn’t preach its lesson, nor is it explaining the meaning of life. For post-September 11th audiences, however, the contemplations are refreshing. Today’s films beat you over the head with morals or bombard you with fast and furious imagery. The Director’s Cut of Highlander is a small film from a simpler time. A timeless time capsule of innocence lost and regained, Highlander is the perfect modern fantasy allegory. Both you and I should check our favorite retailer for the DVD upgrade.