Highlander: A Retrospective

When the opening moments of a film see Sean Connery explain through voiceover that he is part of a band...

Toby Neilson

Contributor

highlander

When the opening moments of a film see Sean Connery explain through voiceover that he is part of a band of immortals born at the dawn of time, immortals that are locked in battle with one another until only one remains, you know that you’re in for something special. When this opening monologue is followed immediately by a title sequence to the tune of Queen’s ‘Princes of the Universe’ and an opening sequence that cross-cuts between a contemporary wrestling match and a Medieval Scottish battle one begins to sense the sort of cinematic lunacy that is to follow.

You’re watching Highlander, the tale of the immortal Connor ‘The Highlander’ MacLeod’s present and past lives. Rarely are films able to assume plots of such bafflingly Metal proportions; the fact that these immortals can only die through being beheaded reinforces the distinct possibility that the film’s plot could, or indeed should, have served as abstract inspiration for an Iron Maiden album cover.

Highlander packs a lot into its narrative space and cuts surprisingly competently back and forth in time, detailing MacLeod’s past life in 1500’s Scotland, his contemporary set up in New York as an antique dealer (being an immortal this is basically the easiest job he could have hope for) and his battles along the way, both physical and emotional. While parts of Highlander’s plot, such as MacLeod’s romance with a police investigator come metallurgical sword historian are as beguiling as they sound the rest of the film assumes all the idiosyncratic and fun nuances that one expects of a cult classic. Be they the Queen soundtrack, really old blokes getting beheaded with alarming regularity, Sean Connery briefly doing an impression of a stag or the immeasurably appropriate rule of having to shout “THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!” before decapitating your opponent. Oh, and Nick Griffin from Holby City is in it.

Fortunately Highlander extends above and beyond such notes of bawdy entertainment, you really do develop a strong sympathetic bond with the character of MacLeod which helps drive the film out of the realms of detached “so bad it’s good” viewing. Christopher Lambert is perfect in the role of The Highlander, imbuing his character with a detached and haunted quality which suggests a depth to the film you wouldn’t expect from its narrative framework.

highlander-2-1991-05-g-1024x673

When now cult legend Christopher Lambert was cast as protagonist Connor MacLeod he practically couldn’t speak a word of English, let alone English in the thick Scottish accent clearly required for the role of a Scottish clansman warrior of the 1500s. What Lambert manufactures in his attempts to give the character some degree of authenticity results in an accent which in no way could accurately be described as Scottish, or any other recognisable nationality for that matter. However Lambert’s mongrel voice bizarrely operates as a huge boost to the film’s entertainment value, as well as its artistic integrity; lending his character with both an endearing uniqueness and sense of misplacement as well as further contributing to the camp silliness of the movie.

In another casting decision which, at face value, seems ridiculous we have Sean Connery playing the part of MacLeod’s immortal friend and mentor, Juan Sanchez Villa-Loboz Ramirez. In spite of his character’s decidedly Spanish name and purported Egyptian heritage Connery makes absolutely no attempt to speak in a way which could be described as anything other than his own voice. While disastrously discontinuous with his character’s background this seems to make perfect sense since nobody in their right minds would want to hear a noise come from Connery’s mouth which is anything other than his own.

Nobody likes anything more than a montage and Highlander takes them to the next level. The vocally irregular MacLeod and Ramirez run through the beautiful Scottish highlands together and sword fight on mountain tops shot by way of the most extravagant helicopter/crane tracks you could imagine. While these montages do effectively chart MacLeod’s increasing levels of skill with his sword they also look like really testosterone fueled adverts for Scotland. It’s almost as if the Scottish Minister of Tourism was placed on set simply to ensure sufficient levels of Scottish-ness were being achieved, and by god were they. Said tourist board montages reach their logical conclusion in Highlander 3: The Sorcerer when MacLeod forges a sword on the top of a mountain and then smooches a lady immediately afterwards; cinematic perfection.

Highlander

From the opening immortal showdown where MacLeod’s opponent inexplicably takes to back flipping around an entire car park to the deliriously extravagant climax Highlander doesn’t disappoint in terms of the action and deluded spectacle suggested by Connery’s opening monologue. The film oscillates charmingly between some really quite impressive cinematic flair and some less impressive and decidedly dated elements. However the less ostensibly well executed moments of the film in no way detract from the experience, as suggested by the beguiling effectiveness of Lambert and Connery’s decidedly imperfect accents, it is in Highlander’s incompetent eccentricities that the film’s strengths and status as a cult classic derive.

Highlander’s enduring fan base resulted in 4 film sequels and a TV series, all of which reciprocate fairly evenly between the bottom ends of mediocre to the peaks of the not particularly great. By MacLeod’s own stipulation “THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!” and in this instance perhaps Highlander should have been it. With a re-boot of the series in the pipe line all we can do is ruminate about how it will turn out. The recent announcement that Ryan Reynolds has been cast in the lead role is a bewildering and frankly quite worrying one. One can’t help but picture a Deadpool-esque performance from Reynolds, filled to the brim with snappy, smart aleck one liners which could drag an otherwise engaging lead character down.  Although, if his Scottish accent is anywhere near as bad as Lambert’s it could be a fairly fun ride, we’ll just have to wait and see. One thing’s for sure though, if Christopher Lambert has at the very least a cameo in the film it can’t be all bad.