This year will cap a full three decades of one of the hardest-to-explain franchises in recent film history. Highlander (1986), is one of the most bizarrely specific sort of stories I think I’ve ever consumed, but it never fails to bring a smile to a fantasy movie buff above a certain age. It’s a great deal like Ghostbusters (all furor over the recent reboot aside) in the way that its completeness and the feeling of satisfaction at the end of it seems to preclude any reason for a sequel.
Of course, I might feel such unchecked nostalgia for the original because nearly every attempt at following up Highlander has been a new failure. Those that have not been failures have either never been followed up or have themselves been trashed by future missteps. It has led me to ask—each time, anew—just how much deadweight a venerable film can support before it sinks below the metaphorical surface of critical acclaim or nostalgia-inflated orbit.
A Kind of B-Movie Magic
The first Highlander film is not a masterpiece. The sets are dingy, the effects haven’t aged that well, and there’s nothing particularly special about the performances (apart from Clancy Brown’s unforgettable Kurgan). It is, however, a damn fine film that evokes for me the mean and dirty action and fantasy films of the ’80s. The premise is so delightfully bananas—and delivered with so straight a face—that you can’t help but be drawn into it. In this world, a small group of people who are immortal wander the Earth in competition for a vague “Prize.” Unable to have children, they regenerate all bodily harm unless decapitated—whereupon some weird electromagnetic life force is transferred to the victor of the duel in an explosive phenomenon known as “The Quickening.”
With each Quickening, an immortal gains the knowledge and power of his defeated foe. The last non-headless man left standing at the end of “The Game” claims “The Prize.” Immortals have a weird ability to sense one another when they get closer—probably because there would be no other way to easily identify one another otherwise. The only specific prohibition on their bloody bouts seems to be that fighting on holy ground of any kind is forbidden. (Why? Who enforces it if somebody violates the rule, the Immortal Police? I would sarcastically ask if this includes the holy grounds of long-forgotten indigenous peoples, but there is no reason to be facetious about it because the seven-season television show already answered that question in the affirmative.)
This seems pretty promising: Fighters who grow in strength and power, exponentially, with each successive victory, until only the two absolute baddest remain. They’d probably be throwing Kamehameha waves and kicking over buildings after thousands of years of accumulated power, right?
In reality though, nope, it just comes down to two dudes with swords clanging away at one another in a poorly lit, abandoned, vaguely industrial setting. Despite this, the film has endured in my memory because of how boldly it strides forward with what it’s got: A gritty story, Sean Connery goofing around, an unforgettably crass and vile villain, and Queen rocking the soundtrack. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Australian director Russell Mulcahy’s background was in music videos. The whole movie has that same kind of stylized, operatic quality at times.
The film begins in gritty ’80s present day as our eponymous Scotsman, Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) feels his Immortal sense tingling while taking in a boxing match at Madison Square Garden. He enters into a fight with another immortal in the parking garage and beheads him, launching a police investigation that never really goes anywhere, but does bring into his orbit an attractive forensic scientist who apparently knows about medieval metallurgy.
Meanwhile, the hulking brute known as The Kurgan is heading to New York City, feeling the pull of The Gathering (which is what happens when the immortals have reached the semi-finals in their millennia-long sword fighting tournament). The film is intercut with flashbacks of MacLeod’s life, including his induction into the ranks of immortals by the beneficent and cultured immortal Ramirez (Sean Connery—who, we should note, is a Scottish man—playing an Egyptian who carries a Japanese sword and has adopted a Spanish name but speaks in a thick Scottish accent).
The individual campy details should have all added up to the film being a notorious B movie, but it all came together to be an enthusiastically beloved classic. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Lambert and Connery’s chemistry shines through in their scenes together. Lambert’s turn as a Byronic hero in a long coat with an elegant samurai sword cuts a stark silhouette that the sequels have all tried to replicate. His character is terse, but that doesn’t mean he’s shallow. His determination to keep fighting on is more than just an attempt to avenge his slain master. He’s fighting to keep the Prize out of the hands of a feral nihilist—a ’roided out asshole who treats the world like a 14-year-old treats a stolen car. MacLeod is physically outmatched by The Kurgan, but his principle and perseverance wins out over his enemy’s size and brutality.
The premise, the hero, the rock ‘n’ roll and heavy metal album fantasy trappings: All of it flipped a switch in millions of teenage brains, mine included. Maybe I feel nostalgia for it because there’s really nothing else like it.
We learn the Prize is some weird mind-reading, perfect-empathy kind of power that MacLeod will use to unite humanity. He is rendered mortal and can age and have a family, something we know he’s longed to do for centuries. Swords clash, sparks fly, the world is saved and there’s a happy ending and Freddie Mercury stuck in your head.
And there it might have ended.
Tonguing the Zeist-geist
It didn’t, of course.
Before the creators of Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) asked how they could possibly follow up their weird little gem, they really ought to have sat down and asked why. I can’t conceive of them ever having pondered either question from an artistic standpoint. The end product is the ultimate cinematic non-sequitur.
Is anti-nostalgia—the hatred of a bygone thing, rather than the yearning for it—a thing? I can’t even imagine how to describe what audiences felt after sitting through this movie, especially considering the pedigree: Mulcahy back in the director’s chair, Lambert and Connery both reprising their roles, and villain Michael Ironside fresh off his turn in Total Recall the previous year. What could possibly go wrong?
Everything, apparently. The problem with the entire Highlander series has always been that the first movie painted the writers into a corner. Remember, it ended with the last immortal achieving the Prize and sallying forth on a quest of peace after a lifetime of battle. The film acknowledges all of these things, then runs them over with a John Deere tractor. In the distant future of 1999, MacLeod uses his ultimate knowledge to save the world from global warming by … putting up an energy shield that blocks out sunlight? Stay with the film, though, and you’ll find out that MacLeod comes from the planet Zeist, where he and Ramirez were rebels against a cruel dictatorship. Ironside plays the enforcer of this regime, General Katana. The two are captured and sentenced to exile on Earth, which will make them immortal for some reason. This is evidently why immortals are the way they are, and is the entire impetus for their competition.
Summarizing this film is an exercise in futility. Every line, every detail, raises questions that cannot possibly be answered. It was an absolute flop, with Ebert calling it “the most hilariously incomprehensible movie I’ve seen in many a long day—a movie almost awesome in its badness.” Mulcahy cut together the film a different way in 1995, removing all references to Zeist and dubbing it the “Renegade Version.” It doesn’t really help.
No iteration of the series has ever referenced this film again, even ironically.
Salvation on the Small Screen
The prospects for Highlander must have seemed better back in 1992 despite the face-plant of the first sequel. For those born just a bit too late to have seen the original film in theaters, the television show served as an entry into the Highlander mythos. It actually introduced me to the franchise, and is one of the reasons I feel a sort of hole in my heart where the franchise used to be.
Following the life and times of Duncan MacLeod, clansman to Connor, it was a flashback-heavy soap with a villain of the week and the occasional beheading of Joan Jett. It wasn’t a great show, but in seven seasons it deepened the world, answered pesky lore questions and introduced distinctive characters. The series is definitely richer for having the shadowy Watchers (a secret society of mortals who observe and chronicle but never intervene in the ongoing conflict of the immortals) and the immortal Methos (modern day friend of Duncan who was born in the Bronze Age, when his bloody exploits alongside three murderous companions sparked the legends of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse). Really, it’s some better-than-okay melodrama.
Continuity was still inscrutable, of course. Lambert graciously reprised his role in the pilot to hand off Highlanding duties to series lead Adrian Paul, but it’s set in the present-day ’90s. So has Connor defeated The Kurgan? The Game is most decidedly still afoot—this series is loaded to the gunwales with immortals of every shape and size. How much of the film happened and how much didn’t? The world may never know.
This was a redemptive bright spot, a comprehensive part of the mythos that a lot of fans loved watching for a long stretch. But, as we’ll see, that nostalgia has been trampled on, too.
Final Dimension, Same as the First
With the television series going on, 1994 brought another big screen sequel, Highlander: The Sorcerer (Subtitled The Final Dimension in the States). Right from the get-go, it’s clear that this installment seeks to completely bury Highlander II, and it does so by plucking the nostalgia heartstrings for the first film with a vengeance. In the first few minutes, there are callbacks to several iconic scenes in the first film.
For that reason alone it starts off pretty promisingly. Lambert is back as MacLeod and under the tutelage of an immortal Japanese guru (played by freakin’ Mako). MacLeod again faces a hulking brute with a raspy voice and a name that starts with K (Kane, played by Mario Van Peebles) who, again, slays his master in the past and hunts him in the present day. The film even made an honest attempt at explaining how there can be more immortals even though MacLeod won The Prize earlier. (Van Peebles and his flunkies were frozen under a mountain for 400 years, you see. Hopefully global warming won’t reveal any trapped Neanderthal immortals….)
Sadly, the film has nothing much to add of its own. Van Peebles’ villain follows the same beats, right down to some rough play with a sex worker. The effects are low rent. The soundtrack is a snooze. The movie must have spent quite a sum on a helicopter for a day, because the sweeping vistas of Connor getting his groove back by posing and jogging and going through his kenjutsu kata amid the gorgeous vistas of Scotland go on several beats too long. The final battle has none of the gritty, tactile quality of the original. It is an attempt to bank on nostalgia for the first film that falls conspicuously flat.
The best that can be said for the movie is that it didn’t really do much to damage the series. Unlike the films that would follow.
Oh, and that Cartoon Series
No, I can’t explain why in the world anybody thought it was a good idea to animate burly men decapitating each other and market it to kids. Fully explaining the post-apocalyptic premise of this 1994 Gaumont production would require another 1,000 words. Improbably, this French-Canadian produced cartoon is actually so bonkers it’s fun. I was also the right age to watch it on Saturday mornings, and yes, a part of me feels the same nostalgia for it that I feel for camp like Thundercats. If you have the lung capacity to go for a wiki dive, I dare you to read about it, but you needn’t bother: Aside from a poorly made video game adaptation, this one-season detour was never examined again.
Another one-season wonder in the franchise was Highlander: The Raven, a 1998 live-action spinoff show following Amanda, a 1,000-year-old thief who regularly crossed paths with Duncan MacLeod in the original television series. This show’s badness was entirely mundane and so resolutely ’90s that it might inspire a drinking game. The title sequence recalls those tacky wolf-and-moon T-shirts. The concept sees Amanda trying to reform her felonious ways at the behest of a mortal (until the last episode) cop. There’s very little to recommend this for anybody, fan or no fan. It doesn’t scratch any of the nostalgic itches a Highlander story usually does. (Hulu subscribers can binge all 22 episodes of it as of this writing, though.)
Unfortunately not the Endgame
By 2000, the good television series was off the air and into syndication. The franchise decided to go the route of Star Trek: Generations and do a big screen adaptation that featured both beloved series heroes (and that kills off the older one, naturally). What better way to bank on nostalgia for the old film and the popular TV show than by pairing the two leads for the first time in nearly a decade?
It goes poorly. Highlander: Endgame pits the MacLeod boys against the immortal Kell. (Seriously, being a bad guy with the initial “K” is the most consistent aspect of this franchise.) Kell, whom Duncan has never mentioned in seven seasons of television, has a tortured past with the hero. Having slain hundreds more immortals than either of the MacLeods through dirty tricks, he can’t be stopped by either Highlander alone. (Who enforces these unwritten rules? What consequences are there for breaking them?)
The MacLeods aren’t going to let the fact their opponent is a dirty damn cheater be an excuse to sully their own inviolable honor, so Connor forces Duncan to decapitate him and take his quickening, thus allowing him to achieve Super Scotsman 2 and defeat Kell. I always assumed that immortals who learned you’d violated the rules of The Game would just declare open season and gang up on you, but evidently not. Duncan buries Connor on a green screen set with Scotland projected onto it.
There are a variety of reasons the film is just straight up bad: Poor effects, Lambert looking tired, very little use of the show’s deep bench of supporting cast members. But the move that ruins it for fans of the franchise—that sends it spinning back into anti-nostalgia territory—was icing Connor. It feels like a slap in the face to fans who were content to view the original film as its own separate phenomenon.
Yet, the final shattering of the franchise was yet to come.
The Source of All My Sorrows
Explaining Highlander: The Source (2007) is basically to catalogue every last way in which it tramples on the franchise. Low-rent Sci Fi Channel production released straight to video? Check. Opening exposition written in Papyrus font? Check. Obviously filmed in some back lot in Eastern Europe to save money? Check. Yet another post-apocalyptic, ashes-of-humanity setting? Check. Another love of Duncan’s life whom we’ve never heard mentioned in seven seasons of television? Check. Killing or disgracing beloved characters and breaking Duncan’s dragon-hilt katana? Checkmate.
The most wrongheaded thing, though, is the nonsensical plot, which tasks Duncan with finding “The Source,” some unexplained wellspring of power that the immortals have supposedly been seeking for ages, yet which has never been mentioned in 21 years of series continuity up to that point. To reach it, Duncan does battle with the Guardian, a villain so hammy he must be seen to be believed.
Duncan’s prize for winning their slapstick battle and then sparing his deeply obnoxious foe at the end? Mortality and fertility. Yes, he gets to have a baby with some woman we’ve never met before—the exact opposite of anything awesome. It’s like winning the Congressional Medal of Honor and finding out it’s just a minivan and $100,000 of student loan debt.
What are fans of the series who care at all about the continuity supposed to do with any of that? How can you have nostalgia for a series that has shown such little regard for its own quality?
There have been rumors for years of some new installment in the series. In this climate of relentless unnecessary reboots aimed at the foreign market, I can honestly say I hope it never happens even though part of me considers it inevitable. And I hate feeling this way, really. Highlander may trash its continuity and shoehorn in contradictory nonsense every single time it comes back, but the one thing that remains more or less constant underneath the swordfights and hookers and apocalypses and rock ’n’ roll is a surprisingly sane argument about what it means to be a good guy. In this current maelstrom of morally compromised super-“heroism” at the box office, maybe I’m really nostalgic for that: A good guy.
Connor and Duncan are both compassionate men who use their power to protect instead of dominate. They go into battle with crazed bullies, filled with the fear of knowing full well that they might actually die this time. These movies ask you to side with the guy who seeks tranquility and family, who upholds honorable rules, who views power as a sad burden he wishes he could just lay aside, but who fiercely fights against the brutes who embody the terrible and wrong idea that might should ever make right. I might be reading too much into it, but I don’t think it’s a small detail that the MacLeods are both collectors of fine art, either. They’re the gatekeepers of the light, the guys who would’ve saved the Library of Alexandria if only they’d been there. This is civilization vs. tyranny, settled in a trial by combat.
I yearn for that badass, rock ’n’ roll righteousness. And I hope they never let Zack Snyder anywhere near it.
Kenneth Lowe is a media relations coordinator for state government in Illinois. His work has appeared in Colombia Reports, Illinois Issues magazine, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.