CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Highlander (1986)

A visually-dazzling cinematic example of Joseph Campbell’s mono myth, “the Heroic Journey,” Russell Mulcahy’s 1986 fantasy Highlander spawned three movie sequels, a popular TV series, and a generation of devoted fans.

Yet today, what remains most memorable about this fast-moving, epic adventure is that it derives tremendous energy from its historical context; from both the prevailing “apocalypse mentality” of the 1980s and the connected fin-de-siecle movement, which a careful viewer can also detect in other genre pieces of the age.

In short, Mulcahy’s film proposes the idea of a secret society living amongst us, so-called “princes of the universe” (according to the amazing soundtrack lyrics by Queen) who — for good or evil — will proves the”rulers” of us all.

Highlander stars Christopher Lambert as Connor MacLeod, an apparently normal Scottish man living in 1536 when he learns, simply, that he cannot be killed so long as his head remains lodged atop his neck. He is immortal.

Some years later, after Connor has been banished from his clan for being “in league with the devil,” the bewildered immortal finds love with an innocent maiden named Heather (Beatie Edney). His peaceful sanctuary is soon shattered by the arrival of a mentor named Ramirez (Sean Connery), who explains to him the ways of the world. The so-called “Highlander” (MacLeod) is one of a small band of immortals fated to clash in an upcoming competition called “The Gathering.” Because there “can be only one,” the last surviving immortal will be given a great gift after decapitating his final competitor. When “the Gathering” will actually occur is anyone’s best guess; and the exact nature of the “gift” is also undetermined.

Across the centuries, Connor adopts new identities so as not to arouse the suspicion of society at-large, occasionally battling other immortals and, upon their decapitation, absorbing their energy. Among the immortals is a Russian devil called “The Kurgan” (Clancy Brown), a giant brute also known as “The Black Knight” and rumored to be the strongest of all immortals. If The Kurgan should claim the prize at the conclusion of the Gathering, mankind will suffer for all eternity under his dominion.

In 1985 New York City, Connor (under the alias Russell Nash) is apprehended by the police at Madison Square Garden, after a decapitated body is discovered there. A lovely police investigator — and expert in ancient metallurgy — Brenda J. Wyatt (Roxanne Hart), begins to suspect that there is more to Connor than meets the eye. And finally, the Gathering looms…

An Irresistible Pull to a Faraway Land, Or Tonight You Sleep in Hell: New York as The Battleground of the Apocalypse

“The Gathering” of Highlander occurs in The Big Apple of 1985, smack dab in the Death Metal movement in rock music, and the punk aesthetic and resurgence in popular fashion.

In terms of the latter, think combat boots, studded belts, mohawk hair-cuts, and body art (or self-mutilation?) in the shape of tattoos and piercings.

In terms of the former, middle-class American parents worried about their troubled 1980s teens listening to Death Metal music and gleaning Satanic messages out of it (consider the suicide of two teens in 1985 after purportedly hearing subliminal Satanic messages in a Judas Priest album played backwards…)

What was the source of the tremendous nihilism and cynicism in the American culture that gave rise to this particular branch of pop-culture? Well, even people in authority apparently felt that the end of the world was nigh. America in the early span of the 1980s was enmeshed in a deep economic recession, locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, and our elected government saw Armageddon around every corner.

On the campaign trail in 1980, candidate Ronald Reagan had noted (to televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Baker) that ours “might be the generation” that sees the Biblical Judgment Day. His belief was reinforced in a People Magazine interview in December 1983 when the Gipper noted that the eighties were “the first time in history” that so many Biblical prophecies were coming true. Even President Reagan’s appointed Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, didn’t believe the world was going to last. On February 5, 981, he said that America’s natural resources didn’t necessarily have to be safeguarded by government because he did not know “how many more future generations” could be counted on before “the Lord Returns.”

Again, these were elected government officials making claims about the pending end of the world. So throw in TV movies such as The Day After (1984), Reagan’s joke about bombing Russia in “five minutes” and it is no wonder that America’s pop culture (especially genre films) became virtually-obsessed with the End of Life as We Know it. It wasn’t the Millennium yet, but the year 1999 wasn’t that far away either, and many people wondered if humanity was going to make it to the next century. As a culture, we obsessed on death, on the end of civilization, on self-destruction.

Highlander deals with the idea of an apocalypse rendered personal. Two warriors clash, and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. The Kurgan, remember, hails from Reagan’s “Evil Empire,” Russia, and battles the West, as represented by Connor. The Highlander may not be American by birth, but he’s close enough, and he certainly shares our values (– even rescuing an endangered Jewish child from evil Nazis, during one scene set in World War II.)

Moreover, the Kurgan has embraced the “death” culture he sees around him in New York City of 1985, reveling in contemporary music, black leather, and other forms of the day. A wound on his neck is highlighted by a ring of metallic clothes-pins, an affectation to make ugliness not merely noticeable, but perhaps even beautiful, at least in the 1980s configuration of that concept.

Outside the 1980s configuration, and in direct opposition to the Kurgan, Connor is a man not of the 1980s. As a man of a different age, a man of wisdom who has lived a dozen life-times, he is associated not with popular fads or trends of the times, but, in fact, with art itself; with a kind of timeless quality. In one seamless scene transition, we see Connor’s face dissolve into the face of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, a signifier that this protagonist represents what is best — and lasting — in human nature.

As “The Gathering” nears, the human race has reached a point of decay and self-destruction. It was primitive and superstitious when Connor’s clan banished him from home in 1536, but the New York of 1985 as depicted in the film is positively “one step beyond,” to quote a police detective (John Polito). It’s a culture that has, literally, embraced death. Graffiti dots almost every wall and surface you’ll see in the film (from the parking garage in Madison Square Garden to the avenue where the Kurgan ambushes Connor and Brenda, pictured-above), and punks and armed survivalists seem to roam the streets by night.

Look closely at the film, and you’ll see that Mulcahy adopts a low-angle perspective for many important sequences too. Oftentimes, a low-angle viewpoint makes a figure in frame seem menacing or over sized (and indeed, we often see the Kurgan in this fashion). However, low-angles can achieve something else too. They render visible the ceilings above characters, essentially “boxing” characters into their worlds . This is also a technique David Fincher utilized heavily in Alien 3 (1992) as well, showing us the limit of the sky, so-to-speak, generating claustrophobia.

In Highlander, we get low-angle views of decaying police station interiors, over-stuffed hospitals, parking garages, and more. The idea is that the characters in the drama are literally “boxed in” by urban blight; by a rotting infrastructure that is no longer being updated, tended to, or fortified. And, indeed, that was a hallmark of Reagan’s 1980s era too: his “shining city” was actually falling apart (especially after a 40% cut in the Department of Housing and Urban Development during his second term.)

In the rain-swept back-alleys, fluorescent subterranean parking decks and sleazy motels of Highlander, the battle for mankind’s future is being waged, almost unnoticed by the affluent “ruling class.” The Gathering (and a new dawn) can’t come a moment to soon.

It’s important to note that Highlander isn’t the only film of this vintage to suggest that the displaced, the disenfranchised will fight against forces of darkness in these anonymous places, unnoticed by society at large. Consider Kyle Reese of The Terminator (1984), hiding out in motels, wandering dark alleys, battling an over-sized nemesis to protect mankind’s very future. Like Connor MacLeod, Kyle Reese is a 1980s-styled knight, his suit of armor, a trench-coat. Other films, such as John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987) also put the future on the line in out-of-the-way, unseen places, with the homeless, the street people involved in the war in some important capacity. The same director’s They Live (1988) covers some of the same territory as well.

Why did this idea have so much currency in mid-1980s science fiction and fantasy cinema? I’ve written about it here before, but perhaps it was because the ranks of the homeless grew so dramatically in the 1980s. There were 35 million more homeless in 1983 than when Reagan took office in 1981, for example. And the gap between the rich and the poor widened to its greatest level since the Great Depression under Reagan’s “new federalism.” And by 1984, 13 million American children lived below the poverty line.

More simply, perhaps the battle for the future often fell to outsiders in 1980s genre films because Americans had lost faith in once-respected institutions, and felt that those who were materially-wealthy (yuppies) were not going to be the ones to champion a change in the status quo. That job would fall on the disenfranchised, those with a stake in change. Those above ground (in Madison Square Garden, for instance, to get back to Highlander) were too busy being distracted by bread & circuses, by the fake combat of entertainment such as professional wrestling.

But a close viewing of Highlander reveals that it is indeed a film about a cycle coming to an end. The outcome of the Gathering stops mankind’s long slide into self-destruction, and starts a new day. It is no accident that the final scene of the film finds Connor in a pastoral, natural setting…far from the city where the last battle was fought. Or that Connor’s gift is that he can gaze into the minds of “leaders” and see “what they are thinking.” That the Gathering has given him the capacity to forge a new world peace between warring countries. Since Connor has won the “prize,” he will save humanity from itself; from the destruction the world feared was coming within this “last generation.”

Why Does The Sun Come Up? The Heroic Journey in Highlander

Writing about the human experience, Joseph Campbell identified several aspects of the hero’s journey, a mono-myth found in virtually all cultures.

Not unlike Star Wars, Highlander fits that template perfectly. For instance, Campbell wrote about the “call to adventure” and the “refusal of the call,” and we see that dynamic played out dramatically in this Mulcahy film. Connor refuses to believe that he is special (an immortal), and must be booted out of his life, out of his routine, for his journey to begin. More so, when Ramirez trains him, Connor still refuses to join the battle. He is in love with Heather, and would rather build a life with her than fight the Kurgan and join the immortals. Connor does not join the battle in earnest until after Heather passes away. Only then is the call heeded.

Campbell also identified “supernatural aid” as the device by which a fledgling hero learns of his role in a great, important struggle, and trains for the fight or quest. In simple terms, Sean Connery’s Ramirez is Connor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi equivalent, the wise elder who reveals to him the “rules” of being a hero. For example, Connor learns from Ramirez there is no fighting permitted on Holy Ground. He also learns of the “Quickening,” a feeling of being at one with nature and other life-forms (and a key to the nature of the prize at the end of the quest). And, as in all such heroic stories, the mentor must sacrifice his life so that the hero steps forward; so that the hero grows up and becomes, well, the hero.

Campbell’s “road of trials” is also depicted in Highlander’s narrative. Connor fights Nazis, rescues children, decapitates enemies and keeps his real nature hidden from mankind at large as he prepares to fight for Campbell’s “ultimate boon” — the very purpose of the hero’s quest. The Gathering is the source of that ultimate boon, gifting Connor with the power to heal the world, to bring it back from the precipice of destruction.

Finally, Connor emerges from the Gathering as “the Master of Two Worlds” (he has conquered his personal demons, and is now fully human, able to have children; plus he will use his gift to forge peace as a world leader). And also, free of the “Gathering” Connor experiences (at least until the unnecessary sequel…) Campbell’s “Freedom to Live,” to be his own man. His life need no longer be consumed with violence and death. With Brenda, we are led to believe, he will live a life of “love,” a life of growing old; a life with children.

By mirroring the Campbell-style heroic journey, Highlander presents the audience a classic champion; one who is not concerned with petty, material things, but who takes the long-view of history. Connor has known the loss of a loved one, and the loss of entire Ages of Mankind, and is thus not concerned with the distractions of the moment. By making him a classic hero in the mold of Campbell, Highlander makes the immortal indeed feel “timeless,” and bigger than the small thinking of the 1980s.

More Than One Short Moment: The Visuals of Highlander

Beyond its context, beyond its heroic structure, Highlander succeeds on the basis of its canny, artistic visuals. Late in the film, for instance, there’s a wonderfully-staged shot during which The Kurgan — the Specter of Destruction — stands behind Connor and Brenda, unnoticed, as they converse. (See photo on the left…).

The Kurgan here is literally a shadow of death, a silhouette, stalking them (and all mankind). This is a perfect choice of visualization for the Beast: he’s our own shadow of self-destruction, peering over our shoulders, threatening, if he should be victorious, to plunge us into his brand of perpetual darkness.

I’ve written here as well about the depiction of New York as a kind of hell on Earth in Highlander, but it’s more than just the ubiquitous graffiti. It’s the fact that steam seems to belch and hiss from the Earth at every opportunity; that signs of industry (like the neon SILVERCUP sign) dwarf the characters and suggest a de-personalized world; and that fluorescent lights cast a deathly, ghoulish pallor the players in the drama. Everyone walking these streets seems a ghost.

I appreciate too Mulcahy’s conceit that every moment in the “now” sparks a memory from within Connor of his long past. A flashing red police siren gives way to a crimson sunset on the eve of his long-ago funeral in Scotland, for example. Or look at the early transition in the film during which we move from the Hades-like underworld of the present day Madison Square Garden parking garage — up through the soil of the Earth itself — into the sunshine, natural vista of Scotland in 1536. It’s a return to nature, but also a return to Connor’s age of innocence and naivete about the way the world works.

Even when the visuals aren’t this artistically-rendered, they’re still pretty damned memorable. Consider the breakaway castle walls during the explosive duel between The Kurgan and Ramirez, or the epic-nature of the scenes in which Connor and Ramirez cross steel blades atop mountaintops. And the final battle is both gorgeous and wonderfully minimalist. The Kurgan and Connor battle in an empty warehouse of vast proportions, the light from the cityscape outside behind them, pouring through an entire wall of windows. Mulcahy’s camera has so much room to navigate here that he can pull back, race forward, and pan back and forth as if he’s still ensconced on some natural vista. It’s gorgeous camera-work, exciting choreography, and, in many ways, the film’s moment of highest impact.

Highlander endures for all the reasons enumerated here. Watching it today, it does not seem to have aged, at least in terms of technique and efficiency in story-telling. There are some missteps in the film, particularly in a police investigation subplot that goes nowhere and brings little of importance to the narrative. But the overall impact of the film is still strong.

As for the sequels? Well, there should have been only one Highlander.

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3 responses to “CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Highlander (1986)

  1. Thanks for this film review. For me this was one of those instances where the television version based on the film was better than the cinematic original, much like with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Television's Duncan McCloud was a better character, and the length of the series allowed for interesting developments of the characters and ethics of the ongoing narrative. But it all had to start somewhere.

  2. >"It's important to note that Highlander isn't the only film of this vintage to suggest that the displaced, the disenfranchised will fight against forces of darkness in these anonymous places, unnoticed by society at large. Consider Kyle Reese of The Terminator (1984), hiding out in motels, wandering dark alleys, battling an over-sized nemesis to protect mankind's very future. Like Connor MacLeod, Kyle Reese is a 1980s-styled knight, his suit of armor, a trench-coat."This is a very insightful analogy that I would like to expand upon, if you don’t mind. The connection is so thematically sound, in fact, that I’m going to, at the very least, propose the idea that The Terminator is better married to Highlander than it is to its own sequel. They’re almost perfect mirrors. As you’ve pointed out, both films convey apocalyptic horizons through contemporary urban settings. But I think it further interesting that Highlander takes place in New York while The Terminator takes place in Los Angeles. The former is an overcast metropolis born from the early colonies, clustered together cathedral-like and raining down with certain European gothic overtones interwoven with art deco designs, but now plagued with a punk anarchy decay that is spreading from the streets up. New York is place from the past, the old world that is now on the verge of damnation. Alternately, sunny Los Angeles is a desert located metropolis on the opposite coastline with a purely modern day, valley sprawled neo aesthetics in place of old world classical skyscrapers. Both cities are present set and both veer towards an oncoming apocalypse. But while the New York in Highlander does so forwardly from the past, the Los Angeles in The Terminator oddly (and figuratively) extends backwards from the future.

  3. >…from above…Now consider how perfectly Connor and Kyle reflect these atmospheres. Both are, as you say, trench-coated knights of the present who don’t belong, who come from different times to determine the fate of mankind. Connor is, quite literally, a Renaissance Man. His private chambers are a 500 year museum, yet Connor himself is a walking museum within. He’s a sophisticate who holds on to the accumulative values of history, he speaks of it romantically; when breathing in bottled brandy from 1783: “–was a very good year. Mozart wrote his great mass. The Montgolfier Brothers went up in their first balloon… and England recognized the independence of the United States.” Connor’s flashbacks, particularly with Heather and Ramirez, are spirited and heartfelt – they bring a smile to his face. Kyle, however, has nightmares of his past (our future) and speaks coldly of it to Sarah, accompanied by flashbacks (eh…forwards) that are dark and frightening. Connor descends from the highlands of Scotland, and later from his ornate city loft. Kyle crawls up from a decrepit underground refuge, then later (earlier) naked from a dingy back alley. Connor is a charming man full of life and history, who has loved and lost, and grins with a devilish sense of humor. Kyle is man reduced to an empty vessel that knows only the shell-shocked existence of Skynet war; he never smiles nor laughs, and has never even been with a woman. Both men are defined by their mirroring time origins, and carry said origins with them into the present. It also makes perfect sense that Highlander comes from the past as a fantasy film that speaks of faith and magical forces while The Terminator comes from the future as science fiction that deals in forces purely technological. Highlander ends optimistically with Connor alive and with his love Brenda amidst a real Scottish locale. The Terminator ends pessimistically with Kyle dead and Sarah, alone, driving off into matte-painted uncertainty. Michael Kamen’s fully orchestrated score is lush and classical in nature, beautifully tied with Freddie Mercury’s sentimental vocals. Brad Fiedel’s one-man electronic score is sparse and rudiment and foreboding. When viewed as a film in the conventional sense, I think Highlander clunkers along rather awkwardly. Mulcahy’s direction is no doubt inspired but likewise never fully honed in and controlled, as much of the camera work, editing and pacing feels wildly off kilter. It bears all the traits of filmmaker who had yet to fully mature from his MTV roots to the medium of feature-length storytelling. But then it hit me: Highlander should not be viewed as a conventional film at all. I’ve come to better enjoy it as a Queen themed, extended rock video fantasy epic, where scenes of dialogue are merely bridges between musical action, transitions and montages. It’s interesting to note that a year prior Mulcahy had directed Duran Duran’s ‘Sing Blue Silver’ North American tour into a fictional storylined concert move called Arena (An Absurd Notion) that came complete with fantastical villains, sci-fi set pieces and special effects. So perhaps Highlander was simply the next logical step.

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