Six Things Writers Can Learn from Highlander (1986)

Highlander is a terrible movie.

I wanted to get that out of the way early, because it’s the films sequel that famously earns the franchise the vast majority of its grief. People remember the second Highlander film as this massively disappointing experience, an incoherent mess compared to its predecessor, and truthfully it is all those things, but to lay all the blame on the various sequels of the film is a little unfair.

You see, the first Highlander is godawful as well. Actually painful to watch, when you force yourself to sit down and pay attention to everything, rather than just tuning in for the bits you remember fondly.

This truly surprised me when we re-watched the film as part of the Trashy Tuesday movie series. Like most gents of a geeky persuasion, both my flatmate and I had seen the film when we were teenagers and remembered it being all kinds of awesome. There were sword fights. There was Queen. There were mother-fucking katanas of doom. We were actually looking forward to it, when it came up on the Trashy Tuesday list, ’cause we’d watched all kind of rubbish in the lead-up and needed a break.

Then the film started and…oh god. Oh, dear fucking god. MAKE THE FUCKING STUPID STOP.

And yet, I couldn’t quite look away. There are some things Highlander does pretty well, some things it does pretty poorly, and there’s an interesting tension running through a film that you once loved and now find yourself hating. Which is why I came back to it a third time, taking a closer look, in order to figure out what’s really going on.

ONE: THE GOLDEN AGE OF HIGHLANDER IS THIRTEEN

Lets be honest: I demanded far less of films when I was thirteen than I do at thirty-six. Back then, Highlander could have some well-choreographed sword fights, a Queen soundtrack, and a moderately compelling villain and it’d rate up there as one of the greatest cinematic experiences ever. “THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!” didn’t make much sense, but it rated up there with “THIS IS SPARTA” as a cinematic line that everyone remembered and quoted at appropriate moments.

And, hell, lets be honest: it didn’t even need the well-choreographed sword fights or the compelling villain. Getting Queen to do the soundtrack was probably enough for my thirteen year old self (thirteen isn’t just the age where you’re willing to overlook certain flaws in a movie, it’s also the age when Bohemian Rhapsody becomes the most awesome song ever).

There’s a reason the suck fairy seems to visit many of your favourite films from childhood and your teenage years. Partially its because you’ve grown more sophisticated in terms of what you’re looking for in a narrative. Partially it’s because the themes that resonated with you when you were young don’t hold much meaning now.

(And there are some films, if you don’t see them at the right age, you’re never going to get. The Goonies is one of them – I saw it for the first time as a thirty-three year old and it never resonated with me like it did for people who claim it as one of their favourite childhood films).

Your taste in movies change, is what I’m saying. The more stories you engage with, the more you learn about how they work, the more you demand from the things you really enjoy and the harder it is for nostalgia to carry you over the roughs pots.While the adult Peter watches the film and gets bothered by everything – the lack of plot, the terrible acting, the fact that swords seem to make cars and rocks explode every time they make contact – thirteen year old Peter would have been distracted by the music and figuring out the D&D stats for the Kurgan.

TWO: PEOPLE WILL FORGIVE A LOT IF YOU START STRONG AND END STRONG

The beginning of Highlander is pretty well thought out. Strong opening soundtrack; strong opening visuals with the wrestling set-up; quick cuts; minimal flashbacks; a fight scene that hints at the overall mystery at the core of the film, even if there are a couple of elements that are kind of laughable.

The ending of Highlander is pretty solid as well. A nice fight scene with the lives of MacLeod’s girlfriend at stake, with choreography spread across changing terrain, leading into a triumphant win for the protagonist and a big SFX lightshow and exploding windows. Basically, it feels like something meaningful happens, even if you’re not entirely sure what.

The middle? The middle is flashbacks and montages and flashbacks within a flashbacks; this endless succession of infodumping that most films would shudder to attempt, delivering swathes of back story in the least interesting way possible, breaking it up with the occasional sword fight.

Basically, the middle of this film is a fucking mess, but it’s bookended by scenes strong enough that you forgive it the slow parts. Start strong. Finish strong. Even if the middle of your story is pretty average, it’s these two parts that people remember the most.

THREE: HIGHLANDER IS A MYSTERY STORY

I mentioned last week that the narrative impulse behind Tokyo Drift is basically a coming-of-age tale; when you strip away the cars and the narrative trappings, it’s got the same narrative drive as The Karate Kid or, hell, films like Whip It.

When I sat down to re-watch Highlander for this post, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out two things: a) why is MacLeod the least-interesting character in the goddamn film, and b) what’s the narrative impulse behind the film?

Turns out the answer to both these questions is much the same: at it’s core, Highlander is essentially a mystery story (or a whydunnit, if you’re playing along with Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat). It’s just not terribly good at telling the kind of story it’s trying to tell.

How does this relate to MacLeod being dull? Bare with me. For starters, this isn’t entirely Lambert’s fault. All evidence in this film to the contrary, he can actually hold his own as an actor when required,  but it’s never actually required of him by the script. Highlander is just one of those rare films where the protagonist doesn’t have a narrative arc; he doesn’t really change, as a character, in a meaningful way. He doesn’t make the moral choices I keep banging on about that make climax scenes effective.

In this respect, he’s much like the classic Film Noir detective, where the Sam Spades, JJ Gittes,  and Phil Marlowe’s of the story are largely observers who sit at the heart of an unravelling mystery. The protagonist job is to be our stand-in, realising the ways in which social norms have been violated as the mystery unravels. They’re required to be cool and calm, effective at their job, but their not fundamentally changed by their experiences. They’re characters who already know that the world is a grim and grimy place, and the events in their stories merely confirm that.

The main thing that keeps the narrative moving forward in Highlander is much the same: it’s peeling away layer upon layer of mystery surrounding the immortals and the Quickening and the Gathering. We see secret upon secret revealed. The film tries to dress this up by having the bits that aren’t flash-back revolve around a police investigation of MacLeod’s initial kill – but that’s not the mystery we’re really interested in. The mystery at the heart of Highlander isn’t  a murder or a missing girl – it’s the question of who are the immortals and what happens after the gathering?

And this is why the middle of the film is rough, because instead of an investigation, we get an interminable number of fucking flashbacks that reveal little bits and pieces of how Connor MacLeod became an immortal and yet understands very little about what all this means. In a detective story these scenes would be the result of our protagonist proactively investigating what’s going on; in Highlander they’re just…there.

What separates the mystery of Highlander from its narrative cousins like The Big Sleep, All the Presidents Men, Blade Runner, and Chinatown is the nature of the mystery and the way it unfolds, and make no mistake, it’s a pale shadow of those films in terms of its revelations. The way it unpacks information is clumsy, at best, and on-the-nose, at worse.

All of which requires Connor MacLeod to be a moderately dull character, because he’s the guy whose serving as the stand-in for the audience. The guy who needs to seem as normal as possible, who needs to dream small, to feel the pain of living forever in very human ways, so that the possibility of dying actually seems like a win when he finally wins it.

This isn’t an easy thing to pull off, but it’s because Connor MacLeod is so bland that the film gets away with the flamboyant mentor figure, Ramirez, and the cartoonishly evil villainy of The Kurgan. They are the most-definitely-not everymen that counterbalance the audience stand-in MacLeod, showing us what could happen if the mystery shakes out in a different way.

And yet, I constantly find myself wondering how much better this film would have been if the flashbacks revolved around Connor seeking these motherfuckers out in order to find answers, rather than patiently waiting in his Highland home for more experienced immortals to come drop some fucking knowledge on him to advance the whydunnit plot.

FOUR: “HAVING FUN” TRUMPS “RULE THE WORLD” IN BADGUYVILLE

You can get away with a lot if you’ve got a strong and memorable antagonist, and Highlander gets away with a lot: bad acting; bad dialogue; bad world-building; terrible FX; swords that ’cause things to blow up. But we forgive it because the Kurgan, despite his thread-bare motivation, has a distinctive look and the temerity to actually have fun with his immortality, and this makes him remarkably effective as an antagonist.

One of the most common pieces of advice writers get is the antagonist must believe they’re the protagonist of their own story, but there far more to a good villain than that. The Kurgan becomes a great villain, not because he’s convinced that he’s really a good guy, but because he’s so focused in his villainy. He’s not running around talking about how he’ll be the last man standing and take over the world; he’s doing this shit ’cause there’s no-one to stop him.

In short, he’s the guy most people probably would be if granted immortality, which is why we’re rather glad he’s not going to win. This makes him far more memorable than he’d be if he were psychotic for its own sake, or firmly convinced of a grand destiny, and keeps him on par with MacLeod in terms of his long-term planning ability.

Believing in themselves is a great trait for an antagonist. Having fun with their role is decidedly underrated, and few writers seem embrace that particular trait.

FIVE: IF YOU HAVE A SECRET CULTURE RUNNING LIVING THROUGH CENTURIES, MAKE THEM A LITTLE SUBTLE

I have no fucking idea how the immortals of Highlander have survived hundreds of years without being discovered. Going by their actions in this film, they’re remarkably shit-house at hiding their presence from people, particularly in the modern age where there is law enforcement and forensics.

These are the kind of people who stab one-another and leave the weapons beside the body, who get into duels and forget to die, and who pick up women by stabbing themselves in the chest and not dying.

They have magic, rock-exploding swords. They kill one-another and blow out every fuse in a three-block radius.Even the way MacLeod interacts with cops is belligerent and designed to attract attention.

For people who live in secret, they’re remarkably lacking in subtlety. And somehow no-one ever notices. This is one of those things that I’m willing to overlook at thirteen, but actually distracts me as an adult. It’s one of those world-building elements that distracts me fro the story.

SIX: TRUST YOUR AUDIENCE

For all its fault – and there’s a few – Highlander does one thing exceptionally well: it trusts the audience to “get it.”

There’s all manner of weirdness thrown at people through the film, from the immortals to the Quickening to The Gathering, stuff that’s thrown out there and given just enough context for people know that there’s something happening without ever giving a detailed explanation. It trusts you to interpret, rather than explains, which invites the audience into the process of constructing the world.

Writers and film-makers alike tend to get very caught up in their creations, forgetting that story is an inherently collaborative process. It’s one of the reasons phrases like show, don’t tell become part of the advice that gets dolled out to writers, even if it’s rarely put in context. It’s also an art that’s lost in contemporary Hollywood, where films get focused grouped into explaining everything to the lowest common denominator.

Highlander isn’t perfect in this respect – pretty much every time Sean Connery opens his mouth, he’s telling us some background detail – but it still gives away remarkably little, focusing on just enough information to give the action meaning. It’s a delicate balance, but one that’s worth studying and learning how to deploy.

  1 comment for “Six Things Writers Can Learn from Highlander (1986)

  1. fictionmachine
    12/08/2014 at 2:41 PM

    Yet I still love it so.

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