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SYFY WIRE Highlander

Highlander rules because of Queen's rip-roaring soundtrack

By Noah Berlatsky

A camera dramatically pans over the night-time New York cityscape. A car radio blares with the voice of a news announcer, and we see the car itself — a big, tacky, clunky '80s sedan — driving toward us: “It also left a man's decapitated body lying on the floor next to his own severed head. The head, which of this time, has no name.” Inside the car, a throaty, ominous voice whispers, “I know his name,” as a hand puts a cassette into the car, cutting off the announcer. The soundtrack's power chord riffage is suddenly coming from the car stereo itself.

As we pull back to see the leather-clad, looming bruiser bad dude in the car, Freddie Mercury’s inimitable voice blasts out in a full-on, heavy metal, throat-tearing squall:

Here I am!
I'm the master of your destinyyyyyyy. Hah!

I am the one, the only one,
I am the god of kingdom come.
Gimme the prizzzzze!
Just gimme the prize!

The leather-clad tough guy, whose hideous throat scar is held closed by safety pins, has a Queen tape in his car — because tough guys listen to Queen!

One of the many awesome things about Russell Mulcahy’s Highlander, 35 years old today, is that it is set in a fantasy world where not just tough guys, but noble heroes in the middle ages, couples having sex, and the populace of New York City all listen to Queen. Everyone listens to Queen! They are the master of your destinyyyyy, whoever you are! They get the prize!

These days it’s rare for action films to use a single contemporary recording artist for the soundtrack. Generally, productions rely on a mix of new orchestral dramatic music. If they want to use an actual pop song they choose some nostalgic classics, such as “The Immigrant Song” in Thor: Ragnarok or ‘70s pop radio hits in Guardians of the Galaxy

But the Queening of Highlander was a brilliant choice. The band had already done one soundtrack for 1980's Flash Gordon, a film that incorporated the dramatic over-the-top Queenness into its general aesthetic of winking parody. But Highlander was a straighter endeavor, telling the story of a Scottish highland warrior, Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), who discovers that he’s an immortal after being stabbed in the stomach. Tutored by ancient-Egyptian-turned-Spanish-courtier Ramirez (Sean Connery), MacLeod learns he is one of a group of immortals who must try to decapitate each other through the centuries because “there can be only one.” 

Queen’s songs take the preposterous, bloated concept and elevate it into ever-more-preposterous, ever-more-bloated grandeur. Connor watches his lover age in their craggy Highland home and buries her as Freddie Mercury operatically blasts the heather with the stentorian operatic anguish of “Who Wants to Live Forever” — bolstered by string arrangements from soundtrack collaborator Michael Kamen. The proggy, heavy “Princes of the Universe” gives even the text of the opening credits a surging drama. “Here we are, born to be kings/We’re the princes of the universe!” The chords continue into the opening scene, where Connor sits in contemporary Madison Square Garden, watching hairy, bear-chested, spandex-clad wrestlers wriggle their fingers and hips flirtatiously before they bash together in sweaty struggle. 

The soundtrack and that wrestling opening set the camp tone of the film. “Camp” here means trashy fun of the so-bad-it’s-good variety. But it also means theatrical, flamboyant, and hyperbolically joyful queer-signaling. 

Yes, Connor has a heterosexual romance arc in the middle ages with Heather (Beatie Edney) and in the modern-day with forensic expert Brenda (Roxanne Hart). But those pale beside the central set pieces, in which manly men clash swords. At the end of each battle, one immortal decapitates the other; energy pours from the neck, and the survivor experiences the quickening — an intense orgasmic rush of power that starts car ignitions and makes electric lines shower sparks. When Ramirez, who first appears dressed in peacock feathers and a purple hat, tells Connor not to pursue his relationship with Heather, it’s ostensibly because he doesn’t want his friend to experience the pain of separation when she grows old and dies. But you could also read it as a kind of jealousy. Don’t go with her! Smash swords with me! 

Even with the peacock feathers and the hat and weird Scottish accent though he’s supposed to be playing an ancient Egyptian Spaniard while Connor has a French accent even though he’s playing a Scot — even with all that, I say, Sean Connery is not the campiest head-hunter in Highlander. That honor goes to the aforementioned leather-clad tough guy, the Kurgan, played by Clancy Brown. Brown swaggers across the film chewing giant hunks of scenery, spewing them out, then stuffing the spewed bits right back into his mouth. 

In one iconic scene, he assembles his mighty two-handed sword in his seedy hotel room, clicking each piece of his tool into place until it is fully erect. Then the door swings open, and we see the spandex-clad rear of trashy ‘80s Page-Six girl Corinne Russell. “Hi, I’m Candy,” she says. We see an extreme Morricone close-up of the Korgan’s sweaty eye-socket taking up the right half of the screen, with Candy’s cleavage centered in the background on the left. “Of course you are,” he growls evilly. And she swings the door shut on the camera. That’s modesty for you.  

Whatever the Korgan may or may not do with Candy, though, he flirts even more outrageously with MacLeod. When the two meet in a church (no fighting on holy ground!) the Korgan makes suggestive tongue motions at nuns and priests alike. He also talks with MacLeod about personal grooming. 

MacLeod: Nice to see you, Korgan. Who cuts your hair?

Korgan: I am in disguise. [Rolls eyes endearingly towards his newly shaved head.]  This way no one will recognize me.

Not long after that, the Korgan kidnaps MacLeod’s girlfriend, Brenda, in order to attract the Highlander’s attention. The bad guy drags her into another boat of a car and careens through the streets of New York, deliberately driving recklessly to terrify her. He mugs and shrieks to mock her fear and also apparently because it is fun. The soundtrack plays the instrumental portion of “Don’t Lose Your Head,” a song in which Queen does New Wave/industrial, with electronic industrial pounding that still somehow projects the band’s theatrical oomph. Korgan launches into a chorus of “New York, New York,” rumbling with gleeful gravelly menace about how he wants to wake up in a city that never sleeps. And then Freddie Mercury on the soundtrack picks it up and takes it to the next stage. “If I can make it theeeere, I’ll make it anywhere!” Korgan’s performing for Brenda, and through her for MacLeod; and Mercury is performing for Korgan, and for you. It’s an eternal fantasy battle as showbiz glitz. You half expect women in sequins and feathers to pop up in the backseat and start doing cramped choreography.

The song “A Kind of Magic” plays over Highlander‘s end credits, complete with preposterous New Age-y lyrics. “This flame that burns inside of me/I'm hearing secret harmonies/It's a kind of magic.” Yes, those secret harmonies between epic fantasy heroism and proggy operatic rock heroism still flourish their weapons together at the strutting centuries. Thirty-five years later, the tight pants and peacock feathers look as good as ever. There is still only one — and that one is Queen!

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.