RE:View HighlanderThe Dark Herald
The sword fighting is T-E-R-R-I-B-L-E!
After the first five minutes of this movie and I was wondering if I’d made a mistake. Some things just play better in the halls of memory.
Henry Cavil’s commitment to the Highlander has instantly injected a lot of interest into what has been a dead franchise since the early 2000s. On the face of it, he is perfect for the role. Consequently, I decided to watch it for the first time since I was dating my wife, and back then I was concentrating on her instead of the movie. I was wondering how much I was going to regret watching this.
Highlander started life in 1977 as a UCLA writing project by Greggory Widen (The Prophecy). His teacher said it was good enough to be produced and that he should find an agent. He actually got it sold for $200,000. That does not happen anymore. It has to be at least a comic book first these days.
“Widen’s original draft of the script differed significantly from the film. The initial story was darker and more violent. Connor is born in 1408 rather than 1518. He lives with his mother and father. Heather does not exist; Connor is promised to a girl named Mara, who rejects him when she learns that he is immortal. Connor willingly leaves his village, instead of being banished. His alias is Richard Tupin and his weapon is a custom broadsword Ramírez is a Spaniard born in 1100, instead of an ancient Egyptian born more than two thousand years earlier. The Kurgan is known as the Knight, using the alias Carl William Smith. He is not a savage, but a cold-blooded killer. Brenda is Brenna Cartwright.
Other elements were changed during the rewrite. Initially, immortals could have children; in the draft Connor is said to have had 37. In a flashback in the first draft, Connor attends the funeral of one of his sons. His wife (in her 70s) and his two sons, who are in their mid 50s, see him revealed as an immortal. In the early draft, there is no release of energy when an immortal kills another nor is there any mention of the Prize. Immortals can still sense each other and when Connor finally kills the Knight, he feels a sharp burning pain. As he senses another immortal nearby, the ending implies this is simply one of many battles the Game continues.”
The Kurgan character was a bit more nuanced in the original version. He was simply an immortal that had lost absolutely everything that he ever loved and the only thing that kept him going was his duel with the Highlander. It was the only reason he had left to get up in the morning.
The script bounced around Hollywood for nine years until it was finally bought by Thorn EMI and was fast-tracked into production.
This film has one of the weirdest arrays of stars ever seen. A Frenchman playing a Scotsman, a Scotsman playing a Spaniard, Mister Krabs playing a 3000-year-old psychopathic biker.
The film starts with Sean Connery reading some text that tells the audience that Immortals have been living in secret among them since the dawn of time. But now it’s over because it is the time of the Gathering. The Immortals must meet and fight until there is only one remaining. In the end, there can be only one.
The first thing that sets this urban fantasy apart is Queen playing Princes of the Universe. Star Wars has John Williams and Highlander has Freddie Mercury. It would not have been the same film without this song setting the tone.
The music is the only thing setting the mood at first. The opening credits are against a blank screen. I laughed when I saw the Canon Films logo. This was a Golan Globus production? I didn’t think it was that cheap of a movie. It turns out I was wrong it was. The producers tried to get away with not feeding the Scottish extras breakfast until Connery asked if they wanted him on set or not? If they did then they better cough up craft services for the extras.
The first scene shows some pro wrestlers that no one had ever heard of entering the ring. There was an eww gross moment I’d forgotten about where one of the wrestlers slowly strips out of his robe and there is a quick cut to a twelve-year-old girl curling her tongue. I searched my memory and recalled thinking that scene was funny in 1986. Times have changed. Anyway, the camera does a very impressive swooping shot that flies past the ring and comes to rest on Connor in the stands. The show in the ring triggers a memory of battle in the highlands. It was an effective bit of imagery.
This movie’s two strongest points, the things that made it memorable are the music and the cinematography. That and the concept of eternal warriors fighting forever.
Connor senses something. Leaves the stands and heads to the garage and runs into Iman Fasil, who doesn’t look at all like an Iman Fasil. Anyway, Iman attacks Connor and the fight is on. And it is a BAD fight. I was shocked by the poor quality of the swordsmanship.
I understand some of it. By the 1980s movie swordfights were a thing of the past. The days when an actor had to have dancer, singer, horseman, and swordsman on his resume were long over. Besides, fencing wasn’t going to work in a film where you have to decapitate an opponent. A rapier wasn’t going to do the job unless you had a LOT of time on your hands. The problem was, the Royal Armouries weren’t interpreting the medieval broadsword manuals yet and while the audiences wanted to see Kendo, there wasn’t a working knowledge base in Hollywood for Japanese sword fighting yet.
Consequently, the sword choreography was extremely weak. There were a number of camera tricks being employed to try and paper this over and they largely worked… In 1986. Today, it’s obvious what the director was trying to do. But ultimately the actors were swinging their swords very slowly and inelegantly. Also, there was nothing that approached common sense. Fasil knocks down Macleod and then skitters away from him instead of killing him. Then there were Fasil’s backflips. Doing the one off the hood of the car and recovering his dropped sword, that was acceptable but then he started doing backflips all the way to the end of the garage had me laughing. He kept flipping and flipping. I mean running is a bit more efficient as a means of locomotion.
After Fasil is killed and we get our first real flashback I started to remember why this movie had caught hold of my imagination. Everybody is so wrapped around the axle about Queen that they forget about the rest of the soundtrack. The horns of the orchestra mixed with the pipes of highlanders marching off to their clan war carried the sense of a young man seeking adventure for the first time. The fear and the glory of the coming battle were complemented by the soaring camera angles. The music that isn’t by Queen is big, dramatic, and romantic and absolutely sets the period.
Then the movie snaps back to the present and Connor is arrested trying to get out of the parking garage. NYPD’s response time must have instantaneous in those days. The cop gets rough cuffing him and Connor slugs him, but he is quickly subdued.
The film flashes back to his first battle and we meet the guy that really sold this show; The Kurgan. Clancy Brown looks enough like Frankenstein to play the role… (googling now) … Okay, he did play Frankenstein. The Kurgan was more monster than man. A creature of a very angry id. The only immortal that loves being an immortal because he can kill so many more people in the course of 3000 years than he ever could have in a mortal’s three score and ten. His armor is not exactly functional but then I suppose it doesn’t need to be. Only his neck needs to be protected and you would think he’d have kept better track of that fact.
The production had a lucky accident in that it started raining when they shot the battle scene. It gave the Kurgan’s entrance an appropriate menacing ambiance. Brown’s voice was fantastic for this role. Again, the sword choreography was awful but that was what it was at this point.
Connor is struck down and we are back at the crime scene.
I chuckled when I saw the chalk outline around Fasil’s body. Cops don’t do that. Never did. The Chalk Outline is a movie invention. It was created to meet the Hay’s Office’s requirement that dead bodies not be shown on screen. The funny part is that art used to imitate life. Now and then a mint green rookie cop was the first on a murder scene and got out some chalk then outlined the body with it, to the fury of the investigating detective, who now had a contaminated crime scene.
We meet the girl from the crime lab who will be the love interest.
Then it’s back to the 1500s, where we see Connor dying for the first (but not the last) time.
Back to the present and an amazingly clumsy police interrogation. Connor slugs the same uniformed cop a second time and then stomps out declaring the cops have nothing on him, despite the undeniable fact that they’ve got him cold for two counts of Assaulting an Officer.
The motif of an A storyline in the present with a B storyline in the past is continued throughout second act of the film. The third act is entirely in the present.
I’ll concentrate on the B-story since the A-Story is just the love-interest playing detective until she discovers the truth of Russel Nash (Connor). We already know it.
We join Connor living in a conveniently abandoned castle with his new wife and the love of his centuries-long life, Heather (Beatie Edney). His first love decided she wanted him burned for witchcraft, so he missed a bullet there. It’s five years after he fell in battle and rose again. They have an ideal life and then his immortal mentor Ramirez shows up.
Ramirez fills him on the rules of Immortality and trains him in more advanced swordsmanship in a montage sequence. Although, this reveals a fairly big problem for the newly minted immortal; the 10,000 Hour Theory. That it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a craft. Assuming you work at it for 3 hours every day you’ll be able to reach 10,000 hours in about 10 years.
How good will you be if you could that for a hundred years?
Or a thousand years?
Possibly there is a limit to the cumulative effect but more than likely the newly minted immortal is meat on the table for anyone older than a century. And you can just forget about having a chance against someone who has been at this since bronze axes were the pinnacle of weapon technology.
Casting Sean Connery for the part of a Spaniard was just plain weird. I mean he was in Scotland playing a Spanish aristocrat (who is secretly Egyptian).
He absolutely could not do any accent except Scots and Oxbridge. So why Sean Connery? It is rather obvious that they went with the most famous actor who wanted the part. Sean Connery was 55 when this was shot and still in pretty good shape, he had put Bond behind him and had been able to get work in a variety of roles for years. He was only available for a week for this film. So, he couldn’t have taken the job for the money. I think he just wanted to play a swashbuckler because he had never been able to play one in his thirty-year career.
He was the only actor in the film who could handle the swordsmanship. His duel with the Kurgan is the best fight in the film (not that that is saying much) largely because he could carry Clancy Brown’s sword work.
After the mentor is killed the rest of Connor’s time in the past is spent watching his wife grow old before his eyes as he stays young forever. This was the part where Christopher Lambert really earned his paycheck. He had a great glower but watching Connor, as his wife slipped away from him was the point where Lambert proved he could act. The loneliness of a man who was condemned to watch everyone he loved age and perish was what he had to convey and he did. But what gave the character an unexpected depth was that Connor kept his humor and compassion throughout the centuries.
We saw that when he adopted Rachel in WWII. That was a new scene to me, I hadn’t known what his relationship to the middle-aged blond in his antique store was until I saw it. The scene must have been put back in somewhere along the line.
The final battle between the Kurgan and the Highlander was more an Eighties music video than a sword fight but in 1986 it was a decent climax that I remember loving the hell out of.
The Prize he won by being the Last, kind of sucked. Being able to help scientists and grow old then die? Hard pass if I had the gift of eternal life. It was clear they hadn’t been able to figure out what The Prize was during the rewrites. As far as I can tell the Prize was inserted as a MacGuffin after the original duel for its own sake was abandoned in development and they just couldn’t come with anything.
Does it hold up?
Surprisingly, yes. True, the sword fights were what pulled me into the theater in 1986 and they are beyond awful by modern standards. But the music, the eighties video cinematography, and the over-the-top performances by Sean Connery and Clancy Brown continue to carry the movie.
Not a great film but I can honestly say that I enjoyed it.
If you want good sword fights, watch Highlander the Series.
Both of which are currently available on Tubi with commercials. The movie is available on Amazon Prime.
Okay, I’m done here.