Swords and sorcery, immortal warriors, medieval Scotland and Queen music. There was no way a combo like this would ever become anything other than a cult-classic for generations to come. Yes, I said generations – plural – because now, thirty years later that’s exactly what Highlander is. Despite a mild performance at the box office, Highlander, and its timeless story, has sprung an enormous cult franchise of two videogames, three TV series, five movies so far and a remake in the works.
To commemorate the three-decade anniversary of Highlander, HeyUGuys talked to none other than Connor MacLeod himself, actor Christopher Lambert. Lambert, immortalized by the role, has a pretty interesting take on why Highlander has been able to stay alive all these years.
“I think people see the different layers in the film exactly in the same way as I felt when I read the script. I didn’t do it for the action, I did it because it was dealing with immortality. How do you cope with that? How do you survive inside? It’s difficult living through one life but to see all the people around you dying over and over. How do you cope with that pain? How do you have he strength to keep on walking, to keep being positive and optimistic? To be capable of falling in love again when you know the pain it creates when you lose them.”
Newcomers or late-bloomers to the Highlander franchise (like myself) may find the wardrobe or special effects of the film particularly dated – it is a 1986 movie after all – but the story and the themes imbued in it are as captivating now as they were thirty years ago. Here are five reasons why!
"Who Wants To Live Forever"
The Highlander catch phrase, living forever on its own in the classic Queen's song, is everything Connor MacLeod symbolizes. He is an immortal warrior, cursed to live through eternity, forever losing the ones he loves and with the sole purpose of defeating the other immortals. He's banished from his village because he survives a deadly wound, his wife is raped by the Kurgan – another immortal – and he watches as she grows old and dies in his arms, while he doesn’t age another day.
At a first glance, immortality looks more like a gift than a curse, but the struggle with loss and pain in a never-ending loop will make any warrior eventually wish for death's embrace. As a contemporary reference, take any vampire movie or book and you’re bound to find some existentialist debate on immortality in it. Vampire Bill Compton, from Charlaine Harris' True Blood, is an excellent example of the downside of immortality. After living over 173 years, losing his wife and children, fighting many wars and having a full life, he decides eternity is way too long for him and opts for the true death.
"There Can Be Only One"
The whole purpose of the immortal warriors in Highlander is to survive – keeping a very low-key profile – until the 'Gathering'. That’s when the remaining warriors will meet to fight to the death, and the winner will collect the Prize'. Since there’s only one prize, there may only be one warrior to survive. Therefore, MacLeod knows he'll eventually have to kill the Kurgan if he has any hope of winning the 'Prize' and saving the mortals from a Dark Age - which will happen should the Kurgan win.
This is exactly the premise followed in every battle for power and leadership. Whenever two people have power, none will have it absolutely and, thence one player must try and eliminate the other. There are several instances where this proves true in cinematic – and real life - history, but let’s take the Game of Thrones phenomenon, for instance. We all knew how twisted and perverted Ramsey Bolton was and still it took us by the guts when he fed his newborn brother – and rightful heir to the Bolton name – to his hounds. His saying “I’ve always preferred being an only child” brilliantly illustrates the Highlander “there can be only one” punchline.
"With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility"
Let's take a moment to talk about that 'Prize' the Highlander warriors fight for, which is – partly - the gift of omniscience. Upon defeating the Kurgan and becoming the only immortal warrior left, Connor MacLeod becomes aware of every person's thoughts around the world. As Highlander closes, MacLeod intends to use this knowledge to help humanity's leaders better understand one another. That’s a heavy mantle to wear – being privy to everyone’s secrets – but it’s not the only great power to be had.
Superheroes are all about powers. Whether it’s Superman and his alien heritage, Batman with his intellectual – and monetary – abilities or Spider-Man and his accidental DNA modification. After being bitten by a radioactive spider in a science exhibition, Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man. He initially struggles with his newly acquired powers, but his Uncle Ben's wisdom in saying that “with great power there must also come great responsibility” forces Peter to step into the superhero role he’s been given.
"Jacket On, Jacket Off"
Christopher Lambert may have had six weeks of sword training before he took on Highlander, but Connor MacLeod went to his first battle when he met the Kurgan for the first time. In order to understand what he is and for him to be able to fight his nemesis, MacLeod gets help from Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez (played by none other than the great Sean Connery). Ramírez, an immortal as well, walks MacLeod through his 'Quickening' – the onset of his abilities – and becomes not only a friend, but a mentor to MacLeod.
The idea that no one can take on the world alone is what’s kept the mentor/pupil symbiosis alive in so many movies and series to date. Karate Kid is a prime example of this and, although the original will always be epic, the recent remake – featuring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith – has definitely proven how much audiences still enjoy seeing the underdog learning to defeat his foes by simply putting a jacket on (and taking it off, of course).
"There's No Time For Us"
I don't wish to go full romantic-mode-on here, but ultimately, all Connor MacLeod wishes for is to be able to love someone to the fullest, growing old and having children with his beloved. He falls in love early on in his life (in the 1530s) with his bonnie Heather, after he is forced to leave his village and his people. In a very loving scene, Heather tells Connor that he can love her forever, not knowing then that his forever was longer than she'd imagined. And love her forever he does, continuing to do so even after her death – lighting a candle for Heather on the anniversary of her birth day. After receiving 'the Prize', MacLeod realizes that it also makes him mortal and he goes on enjoying life and mortality with his new-found love Brenda.
Needless to say, love - more specifically the search for its true form - has been the focal point in a myriad of modern media. From the medieval Shakespeare to the modern Nicholas Sparks, authors have strived to depict what every single one of us experience in our own quests for our soulmates. In honor of the Highlander Scottish background – and of this week's heartbreaking finale – Outlander will serve as the example here. In the show, Claire Randall touches some magical stones in Craigh na Dun and travels back in time (from 1945 to 1745). There, she lives the adventure of a lifetime and, of course, finds love in the form of – also Scotsman from the Highlands – James Fraser.
Highlander packs all the elements to make its story as immortal as its warriors. Now, three decades after its original release, it’s more contemporary than ever and – should the remake actually come to life, with Tom Hardy as Connor MacLeod – it’s guaranteed to not only be another piece in the cult franchise, but also to do much better at the box office, bringing even more fans to an already much loved timeless story.
Being born in the '80s myself, I only watched Highlander much later (thanks to my husband who's a die-hard fan), but I’ve re-watched it a couple times since and each time I feel Highlander gets deeper and deeper under my skin. It’s really nice to know that thirty years later, Highlander continues to live forever.