Highlander at 30: The Beginning – Threat of the Future

Highlander at 30

There can be… Many futures…

The original Highlander film has reached its 30 year milestone on the road to immortality!

Despite its obsession with The Rules, it’s been three decades of contradictory, legacy-obsessed complication. To celebrate the anniversary, Jokerside looks at the lesser seen and most fascinating part of the franchise’s convoluted saga. Not the past Highlands of Scotland, or the presents New York of The Gathering, but the unmistakably dark future awaiting humanity no matter who wins The Prize

IF THERE’S ONE THING ABOUT BEING IMMORTAL, YOU’RE GOING TO SEE A LOT OF THE FUTURE. JUST AS LONG AS YOU KEEP YOUR HEAD. But if there’s another thing, it’s that the complicated franchise that sprung from 1986’s Highlander is all about avoiding that future. On one hand, each Immortal is trapped in The Game, the ultimate Darwinian whittling process that reduces their number in one-one-one sword combat according to The Rules. Down until the last Immortal standing, the One has blocked every other immortal from seeing that future by default. And their reward is The Prize.

But for a franchise every bit about time as very old men (usually) decapitating each other, it’s the future that casts the most ominous shadow. Yes, even compared to the desperate times of the past, present and Kurgan. As it’s all about time, it’s hardly a surprise that Highlander has struggled with internal consistency from its beginning.

Crucial to the mix is that past of course. Everything’s built on it, and that’s especially pulled out in the rolling soap of the 1990s series that followed that other younger MacLeod, Duncan. Letting grudges and loss scar every immortal, with a wry poetic justice ready to play out in the present, that’s crucial ingredient. That contemporary time has moved since the 1986 of the original film. Onto the presumed 1994 of the third film or the rolling final decade of the 20th century during the television series and first spin-off film. But it remains a small window considering the incidents that built to it. The present is the audience’s window into a hidden world of course. It amounts to fascinating scraps that for all their faux complexity never rise above the simple concept of an archaic fight to the death unravelling in the shadows. It’s the interactions with mortals and skewered police procedurals that make for the intrigue around it. Mortals remain crucial to the plot, but seldom seem affected by the outcome…

Because then there’s the future.

A little bit of asking around the fans, slightly familiar and couldn’t care less of Highlander doesn’t feedback ‘The future’ as a big patch in Highlander’s broad tartan. But for Jokerside that’s the most fascinating part. And typically, there’s more than one aspect of it in the saga’s different continuities. There’s a future post-Immortals where the final player has claimed The Prize, but also alternate futures where immortals are still awaiting The Gathering.

What’s intriguing is that either way, it never pans out too well.  For any of us.

The Threat of the Future

Of course, while Immortals may have long lives of various lengths, packed with memories and presumably great brain power to store it, but most Immortal existences are focussed on surviving to the future. An interesting side effect of knowing far more about the past than any mortal.

Highlander (1986)

Madison Square Garden, 1986. The posturing, melodrama and frankly confounding rules of a wrestling bout in the great arena is just a cover. In the car park below a shout of “MacLeod” pulls us into The Game. The challenger soon dispatched, and with that kill we’re at a step closer to the end of The Gathering.

In 1986’s Highlander Connor MacLeod has been lodged in New York for a considerable time, the pre-destined place of The Gathering. Later in the film MacLeod’s mentor Ramirez eloquently describes it as “An irresistible pull towards a far away land. To fight for The Prize.”

In that first film the last handful of Immortals have assembled for a finite Gathering, despite some ambiguity in what the friendly Kastagir says to MacLeod halfway through. Those Immortals have been whittled down to a handful come the start of the film after centuries of undercover warfare. MacLeod’s opening kill is a scrappy affair which the Highlander finishes with a decapitating strike so strong he embeds his sword in a concrete pillar. When he does he doesn’t utter a word. The first utterance of that famous line falls to his nemesis, The Kurgan.

 “There can be only one”

Of course, that first film makes a classic franchise mistake. Not only does it start in the very final days of The Game, even worse it links the hero’s victory right back to his origin. It’s the same mistake bigger and better received films have made. 1989’s Batman is a prime example. There, slotting the Joker back into the Batman’s creation just as the Dark Knight later aids the Joker’s emergence may look great on paper, but villain takes the twisted superhero’s motivation with him at the end. That was something the DC franchise struggled to move on from… Highlander gave up pretty much instantly.

Expanded lives

“I have something to say. It’s better to burn out than to fade away”

We first see The Kurgan in highland battle, aware of MacLeod as a pre-Immortal and responsible for his first death before emerging as the only other real contender at the end of The Game. The extended Highlander universe would tackle the Kurgan’s background later. A retcon filled in the Quickening centuries before that granted him visions, particularly of the tartan clad warrior who would cost him The Prize. And while the sparseness and set-piece approach is attractive in what’s essentially an unravelling mystery, that first film is ripe for plundered background as it’s far too neat.

And while the franchise that sprung from that first film’s cult success would struggle with The Game’s early finish, the Kurgan in his death, remained the villain to beat. His shadow falls over every evil immortal we’ve subsequently met, a reputation and a prolonged fade from memory that many have struggled with.

 Highlander: The Series (1992-1998)

But that’s the thing. Come the television series, a format in desperate need of separating from the second film’s bodged attempt to craft a franchise from a one-off film, The Game was expanded. Fortunately, in taking a turn decidedly greater than a tangent, that second film had managed to contradict its way into a parallel universe leaving a clear precedent for another reality where the Gathering was yet to happen and many players remained in The Game. Not that it’s explicit. Of course. Over six seasons, other theories the TV show threw up included the suggestion of constant sprints of pruning Gatherings. While that explained the continuing occurrence of Immortal births, it also made way for Conner’s fight with the Kurgan to remain in 1986 as a historic fact. In dispatching a distinctly horrific player, Conner didn’t gain The Prize but enjoyed a bloody brilliant Quickening. That doesn’t quite explain The Prize as it’s presented in that first film, but it does reinforce a crucial theme. Conner had motivation to stop an evil immortal claiming the Prize, even if it wasn’t so imminent in the television universe. Later comic stories would expand on the concept, pulling out the idea that Conner had in-fact experienced a Dark Quickening, overwhelming his with the Kurgan’s evil until he was saved. But thinking about Quickenings too much doesn’t seem to be good for anyone.

As Conner states in the series, during helpful cooking time exposition for Duncan’s mortal girlfriend Tessa, The Gathering is a battle of good and evil. The Prize grants the combined power of all Immortals, enough to rule the world. It’s explicit then that The Prize is not merely a fight for individual survival with the goal of unlimited power, but a mission for the safety of the world safety where the good immortals must stop evil immortals claiming The Prize for the sake of a blissfully unaware humanity. The series would do much to explore those notions of good and evil, even throwing up some interesting demonic theories on the origin of The Game later on.

Russian steps

“The endless killing’s driven him mad”

Clancy Brown’s Kurgan is a compelling and outrageous villain, cruising around town, taking a room and tracking the whereabouts of his prey much like Schwarzenegger’s Terminator had on the big screen two years before. Not all immortals try to live a life, especially those evil ones – how could they? Presenting the closing days of the long, long Game, Highlander is a true underdog story. And MacLeod rightly miserable and low-key for the most part, except when that marvellous Christopher Lambert snigger bursts out. It’s quite inexplicable how the slight Conner MacLeod survived to the final pair. The Kurgan is utterly immense. But then the stakes are incredibly high. For all the secrecy of The Game, that is continually interrupted by the mortals who have everything to lose, the Highlander must beat the Kurgan who promises terror for all humanity should he win the prize.

“Most people are afraid to die. But that’s not your problem. You’re afraid to live.”

That line’s a fine slice of analysis of the battered Highlander, and the film takes pain to explain how he became that way. It’s mildly disappointing, but not unexpected, that the end of The Game bottles down to a damsel in distress story. That would become a crucial part of the franchise’s fabric, difficult and redemptive love affairs are picked up in every subsequent instalment. In fact, it’s embedded in the brand as much as Russell Mulcahy’s directoral flourishes in that first film. From his evident joy at pulling a music video from the Kurgan’s car dash to the backing of Queen’s New York New York to the impressive final fight under the Silvercup sign, where electricity foreshadows the ultimate Quickening, the visual reputation can’t be dismissed as an MTV film.

Come the end, when a last vengeful slice reopens the wound that Ramirez had cut centuries before, the undeniably final act of The Game is unleashed. MacLeod, the Highlander, undeniably opens an ark-like, demonic Pandora’s Box and claims The Prize. That mystical gift that escaped trade descriptions for centuries is categorically bestowed on the Highlander.  And it turns out to be an odd kind of benevolent autocracy. If he concentrates he can hear all of humanity’s thoughts and dreams. The trick, the saving grace, is that MacLeod claimed it and the main reward is a new-found morality.

It’s all the better as the journey to The Prize is so vague. The Game’s a wonderfully opt-in arrangement where each freshly rejuvenated and confused Immortal is tutored in the Rules, although no one knows quite why they play it. As Highlander: Endgame puts it, “Our true origins are unknown. We simply are”. Well in most continuities…

The end of that long fight does bring MacLeod peace and an investment in the future as he is “at one with all living things”. As the (at the time) deceased Ramirez puts it in his final word, “Use it well my friend, don’t lose your head”. Unfortunately, from that incredibly terrestrial ending, the producers did.

What second Highlander film? (1991)

“The world is watching”

Highlander II: the Quickening is a disaster on many levels, not least the way it purposefully contradicts the events of the first film. Mulcahy’s later Renegade Cut doesn’t help much, playing fast and loose with human history as it pulls Immortals from a civilisation in the distant past rather than laughably casting them as alien exiles of the planet Zeist as the cinematic release did. The sting of lemon zest, the daylight robbery of a good, or terrible, heist. Yes, that’s a planet well named.

It’s pure Krypton lore of course. Slotting the characters into something resembling the Superman myth and casting MacLeod as a planetary orphan. That is perhaps a natural extension of the hope and alienation carried from the first film. However, it’s in the second film that the franchise tackles the future. And it’s not panned out well.

The post-Prize future

“I always wanted to meet the guy who turned the world to shit”

This is the post-Prize future, where Conner has used his little acknowledged gift to save humanity from self-inflicted destruction. His solution, an electromagnetic shield switched on 13 years after he claimed The Prize, is an ambitious scientific endeavour designed block the dangerous radiation filtering through the Earth’s depleted ozone layer. But by blocking out the sun and stars as well, it’s reduced humanity to base despair and the world to ruin by 2024. As Conner says, the cure was worse than the disease. The Immortals, no matter their origin, have proved to be of no use whatsoever. As the soon to be rejuvenated Ramirez points out, at least Noah’s flood served a purpose. Although it’s also true that by 1999, when MacLeod and his fellow scientist thought they’d set a legacy that would last a thousand years, humanity had already doomed themselves with very little involvement from Immortals.

“Until you honour your obligations here”

Falling away from the police procedural backdrop of the first film, the second wrenches the franchise into the sphere of the corporate science fiction, a light attempt at the films Paul Verhoeven was making at the time. MacLeod is pitted against corporate sabotage and corporate terrorism as much as capitalist negligence and Michael Ironside’s alien riff on the Kurgan. Even for this creation, the name General Katana is improbable.

“What happened to the McLeod that everyone believed in?”

The Quickening is aptly named, in spite of the ambiguity around the phenomena laid out by the first film. That includes Ramirez explaining to the Highlander, “That’s the Quickening” when he’s struck by lightning. In the second film it’s retconned as ancient, linking power. It’s also indirectly helped the creation of the universe blocking misery shield through MacLeod, as well as engineering its later destruction while managing to resurrect Ramirez on the way. MacLeod’s rightly surprised when his old friend turns up (“must not say Kurgan, must not say Kurgan,” he no doubt thought as he chose an odd time to summon back his mentor with his first Quickening boost in decades). But he’s not as surprised as Ramirez. The future setting allows time for fish out of water comedy as the old Immortal discovers the modern world. And the term “shit head”. That MacLeod chose that moment to call Ramirez back and not any other time during the previous 400 years or even the fact that the aged, debilitated and depressed MacLeod wants to stay alive at all are just two long strands to tug at in an unpolished and perverse film.

In these more morbid surroundings the sequel stoops into some horrific exploration of immortality, a trait freshly reawakened the minute other exiles from Zeist, clearly having just brushed up on their Kurgan-aping, turn up. The bullet-sprayed ram raid that MacLeod and Ramirez take into the electromagnetic shield complex is dark, let alone apt for accidental decapitation (especially with a mortal female in the trunk). Later there’s the dramatically drawn out lift crash where Conner has to reset his mangled bones. Come the end MacLeod step into the shield beam and let Earth experience its first star field in decades. The intervening years have allowed the natural ozone to replenish. And the Highlander promptly leaves humans to it as he returns to  Zeist.

The script co-written by Brian Clemens, legendary creator of The Avengers and various television classics but never so successful on the big screen, is pure science fiction. But it’s a jolting shift from the first film that defies much of what Highlander was and leaves it sorely, and ironically, lacking in Quickening. Before he leaves, MacLeod is once again the final immortal on Earth, his Prize to have returned things to the state he inherited them.

The Highlander is never destined for a great time in the future,  that’s something that second film that nobody likes to mention manages to establish very well. And it’s all the more ironic as it’s someone of that clan name who’s destined to claim The Prize…

NEXT TIME: From Highlander II’s return to the threat of the future to the post-apocalypse the televisions series is destined for…

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