When I was a kid, we had pirated cable. We had a wacky box with about a thousand buttons that meant we got all kinds of channels for free– the long defunct Z Channel, Cinemax, HBO. I was an only child and a latchkey kid. I watched A LOT of tv with very little discrimination and I was happy to settle for whatever was in heavy rotation. For better or worse, I saw the same films again and again and again.
Occasionally, the results were edifying. (I remember repeated viewings of Bernadette Peters in a delightful production of Sunday in the Park with George.) But at some pivotal stage of my development, I subsisted on a steady diet of Ralph Bakshi’s Rock & Rule, Helena Bonham Carter in Lady Jane, and the staple starch of my nerdpop cuisine, Highlander.
Highlander tells the tale of a race of immortals destined to battle it out for the future of humanity. It’s a century-hopping, epic battle between good and evil with a soundtrack by Queen and, really, that’s all you need know. For many, Highlander comes down to Christopher Lambert in a kilt, Sean Connery as a red-velvet dandy, and the famous phrase, “There can be only one.”
For those of you who don’t know, that’s Clancy Brown as the Kurgan, the eeeevil warrior who will pursue the hero across time until they battle it out for The Prize. LATER, we’ll learn that the Kurgan is a rapist and a murderer and he’ll spend the rest of the movie as a gross, sweaty skinhead who wears atrocious leather vests.
In this moment, he is something spectacular. I used to wait for this shot– the lightning strike that first reveals the Kurgan in that mad armor and gruesome helm. Honestly, everything after was a bit of a letdown.
The Kurgan makes a great first impression. Tricked out in truly wicked style, he is an EPIC adversary, a perfect foil to Connor MacLeod’s initial oafishness. Sadly, as the heroic Connor becomes more dour and brooding, the Kurgan just gets goofier and, by film’s end, he’s a silly, sleazy bit of caricature. (To be fair, not even the hero escapes 80s styling unscathed; Christopher Lambert looks suspiciously like a highbrow flasher in his London Fog overcoat and white sneaks.)
When people ask me how I got interested in fantasy, I should probably start with Tolkien or Tamora Pierce or Idylls of the King. All of those more reputable answers are true– to an extent. But my lifelong love of fantasy really began on that rocky hilltop with a mysterious figure on horseback, part monster, part man, broadsword in hand.
The Kurgan never lived up to the potential of those few storm-lit seconds, but in the end, I owe him. He was my first dark knight.