Thirty-five years ago, a new phrase first entered the pop culture lexicon: “There can be only one.” It’s from Highlander, a 1986 sci-fi fantasy from director Russell Mulcahy. The film stars Christopher Lambert as Connor MacLeod, a Scottish warrior who learns he’s an immortal being destined to battle across the centuries. Sean Connery co-stars along with Clancy Brown and Roxanne Hart.
Though the film—written by Gregory Widen, Peter Bellwood, and Larry Ferguson—is celebrating its 35th anniversary on March 7, Highlander is a movie I thought I had never seen. That is, until I rewatched it recently when it became available on Amazon Prime. I realized I actually had seen it before, it had just been so long, I didn’t remember much. It slowly came back though and I began to formulate why the film, and the franchise it spawned, still remains a fan-favorite to this day.
In a phrase? World-building. The film, created and co-written by Gregory Widen, weaves a story and mythology that’s bigger than the screen can hold. We discover a world in which an ongoing battle has been taking place between immortal warriors through centuries. They have the knowledge that one day they’ll join for an event called the Gathering where any remaining immortals will battle to the death until only one remains, and that person will be gifted a mysterious power.
In the Highlander film, though, only a tiny sliver of that story is seen. And even in that sliver, it still leaves a ton to the imagination.
The movie is very much about this one man, Connor MacLeod. Upon realizing he’s immortal, he must come to grips with it and his purpose, followed by the Gathering in which he shows down with the villainous Kurgan (Brown). The story spans centuries but is told through flashbacks, all of which are focused on MacLeod—100% the right choice, because his story is the perfect keyhole into this larger world. Especially when, spoiler alert, he defeats Kurgan and gains the prize, which is a near-infinite knowledge and ability to read thoughts, as well as his mortality.
Highlander basically follows the eventual victor of this God-level quest. But there’s so much more to that story than we see, which in turn gives everything happening in the film that much more gravitas. We never (at least in this movie, I haven’t seen the sequels or TV series) find out how this all began, how many immortals there were, if it was only men, why it ended where it did, and what MacLeod did with the prize he won. Surely much of that is dealt with in the sequels but taking the original movie on its own, it’s a story bursting at the seams with potential.
Nowhere is that better illustrated than the fight scenes. Think about it. The movie’s first action scene takes place in a dark, underground parking lot. Another is in a smokey back alley. The finale is on a water-soaked rooftop. None of these are particularly epic locations (though the rooftop with the falling Silvercup Studios sign comes close). And yet this story, these immortals, with all their infinite experience and wisdom, are truly epic. We just see them in situations that are less than that.
To further illustrate, arguably the most epic fight scene happens without the main character. It’s when Kurgan fights Juan Sánchez-Villalobos Ramírez (Connery) inside an old castle. This makes perfect sense because Ramírez is the main link to what the film could be, but isn’t. First of all, it’s through him that we learn most of the mythology and rules crucial to the plot. Plus, it’s been delivered by the guy who played James Bond in this outrageous outfit with jewels and silk and huge hats—it’s absolutely wild. Ramírez is everything the rest of Highlander is not and in all of his scenes, all you’re thinking is “I wish this movie was about him.”
Which is exactly the beauty of Highlander. While the story on screen is interesting, it always feels like what’s happening off could be even better. It makes you want more.
Other pieces of the movie follow this pattern too. There are the multiple Queen songs throughout, all of which feel much grander and verbose than the movie at hand. Brown’s early-career performance as Kurgan feels rather fortuitous since he’s become such an amazing character actor in the decades since (including playing Burg in The Mandalorian). And though it surely wasn’t the first film to do so, I couldn’t help imagine Mel Gibson drawing on Highlander for inspiration for the period-battles in his Oscar-winning film, Braveheart.
All of which is to say, Highlander is a good movie in a great package. The main story is interesting. The camera work is insanely impressive (seriously: there are some movements in the film that almost feel beyond the capabilities of 1986 technology. Also what the hell was up with that amazing long take at the wrestling match? It’s so out of place and wild. I digress). The music is excellent and the action is incredibly cool. But what makes it all come together is that it only scratches the surface on a world you’d love to know more about. It plants the seeds and lets them grow in your imagination. And those seeds continue to grow 35 years later.
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