There’s been a lot of chatter lately about a Highlander reboot starring Henry Cavill. That’s fantastic news, and fans of the film will certainly hope that this is enough star-power to get this oft-teased reboot into true production. More importantly, though, who’s going to play apex predator bad guy The Kurgan?
I was a young 14 when Highlander premiered in theaters and it instantly became my favorite movie. I know it’s difficult to imagine a 14-year-old without a cell phone and an Instagram account, but in the 1980s we had none of that. No internet. No groupthink. No on-demand anything. Four channels of television and maybe five if you had decent rabbit ears and were good at tuning the UHF dial on your TV. We didn’t even know the kids in the next town, forget having “followers.”
So my friends and I didn’t have the benefit of hot takes or film criticism or deconstruction. We saw Highlander on a Friday night at the local one-screen cinema, and then we spent the rest of the weekend in the snow, looking for cool sticks to pretend were swords and reprising the Highlander characters in the woods behind our home.
Seems awfully immature, but those were the days. We rode bikes, we found cool sticks and we had sword fights. Sometimes the sticks were guns.
Who knows why Highlander made such an impact on us at the time? Maybe there’s something about the closeness of the fighting that flew in the face of other 1986 releases, Top Gun and Iron Eagle. Maybe it was the mano y mano nature of Highlander’s “gathering,” which was different than the 1986 crowd killing shoot-em-ups Raw Deal and Cobra.
It could be as simple as a brilliant one-line concept: Immortals have walked among us since the dawn of time and they have to compete with swords until only one remains.
Hot damn, that was an exciting idea!
Sometimes, it’s as simple as that. Gregory Widen, the creator and writer, reportedly saw a Highlander outfit in a museum display and thought “I wonder what would happen if the man who wore that was alive today.” That’s it. That’s how it all began, and it made a huge impression on me and my friends. We saw it every Friday night for three straight weeks because you’d have to wait what felt like forever for a movie to come out on video cassette and it would cost you $2.99 to rent it, plus inevitable late fees of $2.99 per day. Seeing it in the theater was only $5 and the screens were big.
But we weren’t the only people who were into it. The legendary band Queen was contracted to write a song for the film, but they loved it so much they wrote two more, plus an unreleased version of Freddie Mercury singing “New York, New York.”
And the special effects? Whoooooweeee! Cutting edge! Effects that you wouldn’t stoop to use in a TikTok video in 2021 felt edgy and badass in 1986.
I learned a lot from Highlander. Lessons which I (mostly) carry with me to this day.
1. People will believe a simple premise well told
Highlander opens with an echo-y monologue from Sean Connery, which was later revealed he recorded in his bathroom. But it worked. It took seconds, featured some mocked up red lettering that the producers reportedly intended to change, but it set the stage so well that they just left it in, and with that, we were on our way.
2. Highlanders are cool
I had never seen a Highlander before. Hell, I’d never heard of a Highlander before. The word is so cool. The look of them was so cool. I hadn’t studied them in school or seen them in books. They were just this thing that appeared in the movie. Hard as nails. Fearless. I was hooked.
3. You can kiss girls on the chin
Christopher Lambert’s kissing style resembled a grouper kind of mouth-groping for a lure. At one point he migrates down to the chin of Roxanne Hart and she returns the favor and I was like OHHH! YOU CAN DO THAT? A week later, after the Saturday night dance at my school, once the final slow dance of “Stairway to Heaven” was done, I tried it on my then-girlfriend in the bushes behind the science building, and she, thinking I knew more than her and following my lead, tried it on me.
Haven’t done it since. It’s pretty dumb. Chins are best avoided.
4. It’s okay to demand better transitions
I was blown away by the match cuts in Highlander and it got me wondering how other films can just be so okay with hard cuts and graceless, artless dissolves. Here are a few of the better ones.
And this one, that they missed in the first video, where Connor’s face morphs into the Mona Lisa.
5. There’s no lightning bolt from an insulted god
Holy Ground is the only place that’s sacred in Highlander. My friends and I were all raised in fairly strict Christian households where we had a deep and abiding respect for church, and by that I mean that we were all terrified of it. So when The Kurgan, played by the great Clancy Brown, wags his tongue at nuns in church and says “Nuns. No sense of humor.” We found ourselves conflicted.
First of all, because that’s funny. How could a bad guy murderer scumbag be funny? Bad guys were supposed to twist mustaches and say only evil, unfunny things. Then it’s the good guy, the hero, Connor, who almost breaks the no fighting on Holy Ground rule, not the bad guy. We weren’t ready to process that nuance. We liked things the way we were raised: binary. Snidely Whiplash. Lex Luthor. Darth Vader. Bad guys who stayed bad and weren’t funny. When the Kurgan licked the priest’s hand instead of kissing it and then twisted his arm? We waited for the lightning bolt from the heavens to fry him on the spot.
But then he just yells some Neil Young lyrics, laughs and leaves.
No instant punishment. No nothing. He leaves, scot free. It made us think that maybe our parents had been exaggerating the instant karma deterrent of organized religion.
6. If you have money, you can have a pointless circle room
I don’t think I had ever seen an industrial loft like the one Connor MacLoed had in New York. I was like, you can have this? People have living spaces like this, that aren’t little boxes with plaid couches wedged between paneled walls? What even is this?
But the coup de grace was the circle room. I was in love. Highlander was basically the first HGTV room porn of my life. I was like WHAT IS THIS AMAZING THING?
A circular, windowless room, filled with cool historical artifacts, with a circular sunken couch in the center? Not gonna lie, I still want this room.
7. Men can be beautiful
All of the stuff with bonny Heather slays me. Like, to this day, as dated as the film is, I still get misty when Connor’s lovely young wife raises her head to the Queen lyric “and love must die” and she’s got grey hair.
Then there’s a scene with her dying in bed and she addresses Connor “My beautiful man” and that hit me so hard. Because where I was from, the rough and tumble suburbs of Boston, men were handsome, not beautiful. I was really smitten by the choice of words and it made me rethink those gender labels and who they really served.
8. The ultimate hook up table-setter is to stab yourself
I don’t love the scene where Connor puts Brenda’s hand on a dagger and then knife’s himself in the breadbasket with it. I do absolutely ADORE the quote he says before he does it though, a quote which I can still recite word for word to this day:
“I am Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. I was born in 1518 in the village of Glenfinnan on the shores of Loch Shiel. And I am immortal.”
Then he sticks himself in the gut and Brenda is so moved that she kisses him on the chin before they get it on. Just weird.
9. Noting very good years is a noble tradition
When Connor visits Brenda’s house he cracks open a brandy from 1783 and does a little speech about how 1783 was a very good year. It’s awesome. And for years, whenever we’d remember, my friends would open up a Fresca or a Diet Coke and close their eyes and smell it and say “2021. 2021 was a very good year.”
10. You can be adversaries with someone and still like them
One of my favorite moments is when Connor approaches a fellow immortal named Kastagir on a bridge. Both men have their hands tucked into their clothes where their sword would be. Connor pulls it out and his hand is empty. Kastagir pulls his out and it has a flask in it.
Goddamn did we all love Kastagir. We loved that these men, destined to be adversaries by fate, still adored each other and got together every hundred years or so just to party. Who can truly understand the plight of an immortal but another immortal? Kastagir had like 30 seconds of total screen time and was somehow one of the most beloved characters. People still use versions of the name Kastagir as a gamertag, years later. There are no small parts, only small actors.
11. Computers are going to make it impossible to do crimes
When we saw what the computer did to identify all of Russell Nash’s aliases we were like, computers are going to solve everything! No one will ever be able to pull off a crime with computers on the job! I wonder if crime will end for good this year or by like 1990?
12. There are lots of drunks in Boston
The funniest scene in Highlander has Connor dueling on Boston Common. One of my friends was obsessed with the scene. Our town is about 30 minutes outside Boston proper, but he couldn’t get over the fact that Boston was in the movie.
“You guys! Connor was in Boston! Like an immortal, here! He could have come out here! He might have been in these very woods!”
Yeah we told him, but like, it’s fiction.
“But it could be based on a real story! We don’t know!”
We didn’t know. It was the ‘80s. Urban myths were as close to hard facts as science was.
“If he could have been here, then maybe any one of us could be an immortal.”
Maybe, we shrugged, giving each other side eye in case one of us was The Kurgan. And maybe that’s where the magic of Highlander lies. Because we were certain that we would each be the one. That we, and not our friends, were the immortal in the group. A simple story, well told, which can bring you hope enough to live forever.
Highlander may look cheesier than a Velveeta ad these days, but once upon a time it stirred the senses and lit the hearth fires of imagination in a generation of young Gen X’ers, and one hopes that whatever they do with the reboot, they don’t lose the core of that magic: the belief that good will always triumph over evil and that if the stars align, any one of us could live forever.