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DVD Reminiscing: Highlander

Highlander was a near-perfect film for me when it came out in 1986, when I was a teenager: it was set in New York, a city that had (and has) great allure for me; it was about an immortal man who was good with a samurai sword; it was wonderfully violent, with heads being cut off with swords throughout; and there was sex in it. If it wasn’t for the bloody Queen soundtrack …

I must have watched the film quite a lot when I was younger for all of the above reasons, but also because it was one of the first films where I became aware of the transitions of scenes through the movement of cameras (such as the change from a fish tank to a lake), which was one of the aspects in my development of my love of film. (This is strange because Russell Mulcahy isn’t on the list of great directors: a former in-demand music video maker, his career didn’t develop much after, his biggest film after this being The Shadow.) There was also the story idea, which I think is a great one: immortals exist and have lived for many years throughout history. However, I hadn’t watched the film in a while, so these are some thoughts after watching it again on DVD.

First off, the version I’ve got is quite a weak transfer – the quality is only a little above a VHS tape. My memory of the film is better than the DVD. Also, despite being a film that shouldn’t date itself by setting half of the film in different time periods of the past, Highlander is very much a film of its time: it couldn’t be more 1980s if it had Madonna in leg warmers doing aerobics in it. The special effects are wonderfully cheesy as well (the computer program that matches up individual letters of separate signatures to prove that the same man has signed the different signatures throughout the years is hilarious), but that’s part of the charm. I’d forgotten how much of the film I remembered – I’m sure I annoyed my girlfriend by inadvertently saying some of the lines out loud from memory before they were spoken on screen – but I even remembered various camera moves and even moves of some of the actors in various scenes (which is a bit scary).

There are many famous aspects to the film, which is why it went on to generate cinematic sequels, a television series, books and even a comic, but the one thing I always remembered was the worst foreplay in history: Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) is showing forensic expert Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart) an old knife, then tells her, ‘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’. [An aside: the dialogue is definitely NOT one of the strengths of the film.] Then he forces her to stick in the knife in his stomach. And then they have sex. Seriously. It’s ludicrous.

But it does bring up an aspect of the film that I had forgotten about: the use of women in the film. Highlander doesn’t treat women with a lot of respect. MacLeod’s first girlfriend wants to burn him when he doesn’t die. Heather, his next love (and perhaps greatest), is raped by the Kurgan (Tom Clancy, overacting in a great way and having a ball), an incident that is only used later on as a taunt by the Kurgan to make MacLeod want to kill him – because now it’s personal. Admittedly, Highlander wasn’t alone in this regard – action films of the time only used women as a damsel in distress or an excuse for the hero to kill the villain – but it doesn’t excuse it. Highlander ends up using Wyatt as a damsel in distress, which doesn’t make any sense in terms of plot, and just weakens it.

Apart from the notorious Queen soundtrack (which sounds so eighties), there was still a lot to enjoy about the film. I think the central idea is one of the main reasons it keeps up; I love the sense of history it has via the use of immortals. Accent aside, having Sean Connery as Ramirez linking even further into the past was a great touch, and I loved the small duel scene set in France in the 17th century to highlight the idea of the immortals living throughout the ages. It made me wonder why, if I loved the idea so much, I hadn’t watched the television series or the later films; but then I remembered why. I saw Highlander II: The Quickening. That film was so awful, it soured me on the whole Highlander concept for ever. It’s one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, and I wish I hadn’t seen it. However, fortunately, it didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the first film; Highlander continues to be a film that has a soft spot in my heart, and I was glad that I was able to watch it now without it losing its magic (apology for the pun), even though I know that it isn’t the greatest film in the world.

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