By Art Marcum & Matt Holloway
Draft dated January 21, 2009
If ever there was a franchise in need of a reboot, it may just be the Highlander series, especially as it was never intended to be a franchise to begin with. The original 1986 film ended with such finality to its story of immortals battling for a vaguely-defined prize for the sole survivor that fans of the film were surprised and a bit perplexed when a sequel was announced. But the second film’s hamfisted attempt to retrofit an extra terrestrial origin on to the immortals was met with such derision that the producers saw fit to disregard the film when they went back to the well for a third installment. Although a spinoff television series featuring the equally immortal cousin of the film franchise’s main hero ran for six years, producers were never able to cross that popularity over to the movies when they tried to add the television character into the cinematic mix. The series finally ground to an ignoble halt in 2007 with Highlander: The Source. Originally intended as the first film of a new theatrical trilogy that would re-energize the franchise, it instead premiered on the Sci-Fi Channel before heading to home video. Fans’ negative reaction to the film was nearly at the same level as Highlander II, thus providing the last nail in the franchise’s coffin.
But despite the films that came after it, fans still hold the original Highlander in some regard, and when producers announced their intentions in following the James Bond and Star Trek franchises in starting over from scratch for Summit Entertainment, many thought it was entirely unnecessary and doubted that such an endeavor could bring anything new of worth to the material.
However, a read of Art Marcum and Matt Holloway’s January 21, 2009 dated draft of the proposed remake’s script actually shows the benefit of two decades worth of hindsight. The basic premise remains intact, though some tweaks have been made to them, nearly all the better. Certain aspects about the characters’ immortality have been expanded upon and the scope of the story has been opened up a bit. And best of all, no mention of other planets are to be found. (Although I have to admit that it would have been fun to see someone confronted with the facts of Connor MacLeod’s immortality ask him “What are you, some kind of alien?” only to have him roll his eyes and reply “Don’t be stupid.”)
But for all its new and positive spin placed on the material, the screenplay does make a couple of missteps, the first of which is its opening eight pages. The original film opened in modern times (the 1980s) with two men sword fighting in Madison Square Garden’s parking garage, one beheading the other before fleeing. We then flashback to the 1500s and the Highlands of Scotland where we see one of the two sword fighters just seen five centuries in the future! We learn his name is Connor MacLeod and on this day in battle with his clan’s enemies he will discover that he is immortal.
Rather than open with the exciting and mysterious hook of two men crossing swords in modern day New York City, Marcum and Holloway’s screenplay opens in 1503 Scotland with Connor and the rest of clan MacLeod readying to raid the nearby village of Clan MacDonald. However, when they arrive at the MacDonald’s village, they find that they have already been slaughtered. The only person left alive is a Russian warrior we will learn is called simply the Kurgan, and when Connor first sees him, his ears are filled with a pounding he can’t explain. The Kurgan attacks Connor, slashing his way through his fellow clansmen. The Kurgan manages to impale Connor with his sword, but before he can administer a decapitating, killing stroke, he is overpowered by members of Clan MacLeod, and forced to retreat.
As the mortally wounded Connor is placed into a boat to be returned to his village, we get the script’s only stylized transition from flashback to the main story’s modern day setting, a style that director Russell Mulcahy made a hallmark of the original film. Over this we get a quick explanation of the immortals via voice over. In a move that carries more than a faint whiff of desperately wanting to appeal to fans of the original film, the screenplay notes that the lines should be spoken by original film co-star Sean Connery, and are a direct lift from the opening title card in the original Highlander explaining how immortals have lived among us for centuries.
In 2009, we find Connor living under the name of Russell Nash, chair of the History Department at Fordham University, a Jesuit-run university. Anyone already familiar with the Highlander mythology knows that immortals are forbidden from attacking each other on holy ground. (This is a rule that will play an important role in the third act of this screenplay.) The fact that Connor has taken on an identity that gives him protection from his fellow immortals for a majority of his day is the script’s first hint that it has recast Connor not as a warrior grimly resigned to his fate so much as a man wearied by his immortality but still a wary and cunning warrior. This impression is immediately reinforced through a discussion he has with his students over the justification for a country to go to war in which he tells them-
“Do I have a choice?” That is the question. Is there another way? Because if there is and you don’t take it, sooner or later you lose everything you thought you were fighting for…
But Connor’s class discussion is interrupted by a man Connor recognizes, and a flashback fills us in that he was an officer in Napoleon’s army, in which Connor served. Things did not end on a friendly note between the two and the Officer is looking to settle the score. That evening, once he has left the campus grounds, Connor is attacked by the French Officer. It is here where we see the first major change to the standard Highlander mythology. Before, immortals only battled each other with bladed weapons, most typically swords. Here, however, the French Officer first attempts to ambush Connor with a gun. This is not a one-off aberration, either. Later in the script, the Kurgan uses a rocket launcher to blow up the home of an immortal, though he does enter the burning rubble to administer the coupe de grace beheading with a sword.
Through skill and an interesting piece of business involving a previous duel he was in during the 1980s, Connor manages to defeat the French Officer, and we are (re-) introduced to the concept of the Quickening- the transfer of all the defeated immortal’s power and knowledge to the winner in a flash of lightening. Although Connor disposes of the French Officer’s body in the Hudson River, but since it has been a long time since he fought another immortal, his body disposal skills are not what they once were and he soon finds himself the target of a police investigation after the headless corpse is discovered. Meanwhile, the Kurgan is just being released from a five decade incarceration in solitary confinement in San Quentin prison and is looking to finish what he started with MacLeod five centuries earlier.
It is from here that the screenplay follows the original film’s storyline, at least in broad strokes. The main conflict is still Connor’s and the Kurgan’s showdown, as immortals convene for the Gathering. Flashbacks are used to fill-in Connor’s backstory. Connor is schooled in the ways of the immortals – including the rules for the combat that they euphemistically call The Game – by another immortal named Ramirez. Connor still falls in love with a young woman named Brenda Wyatt. The police investigation comes close to discovering Connor’s secret, only stopped by their skeptical nature. But the devil is in the details and the screenwriters have changed things enough to keep it fresh without straying too far from the original. It is a tough mix to get right, but Marcum and Holloway manage it.
Instead of being part of the police investigation against Conner, modern day love interest Brenda Hyatt is now a dealer in antique jewelry. The two meet when Connor discovers that she has in her store a silver pin his wife Heather gave him back in the 1500s. It definitely changes the dynamic between the two, moving away from the cat-and-mouse relationship they share for the first half of the original film.
The reappearance of the pin some four and a half centuries after he lost it helps to reinforce Connor’s sense of loss at having lived so long. In addition to Connor, we see how virtual immortality has weighed on others. The script hints of weariness in Ramirez, who has seen centuries turn to eons. This tiredness adds additional fuel to his warnings to Connor about the dangers of relationships with mortals, driving a more solid wedge between the two characters.
Perhaps taking a cue from the television series, the writers have expanded a bit on the secret society of the immortals. Mention is made of how forensic sciences and computerized record keeping has made it that much more difficult for them to pass through the world undetected. To that end, there is one immortal who, in return for immunity from the Game until the time of the Gathering, supplies top notch forged identities.
The scope of the Gathering has been expanded as well. In the original film, we only saw two other immortals in modern times besides Connor and the Kurgan. Here, nearly twenty converge on New York City. And as the Game appears to be drawing to its conclusion, their adherence to the rules goes right out the window. When at the film’s midpoint, Connor and the Kurgan are battling it out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, several immortals show up, hoping to interfere with the duel and claim a head or two for their own.
But the strongest change that the writers have brought to the material is the fleshing out of the Kurgan. Before, he was just a brute force sweeping through the movie, wrecking havoc. Here, he is given intelligence and cunning, making him all the more dangerous and unpredictable. The old Kurgan would never have laid the diabolical trap the new one sets for several of his adversaries in the pages leading up to the film’s climax.
In spite of all the solid work the writers have done in the body of the script, they trip right at the finish line. The screenplay’s last four pages serve as a coda, coming after the Kurgan’s defeat from Connor’s blade. (That’s not really a spoiler, is it?) In it, a secret is revealed that at once sets up the possibility for a sequel and undercuts the finale of the film. While it is understandable that the producers are hoping and planning on this film being the launch of a new (and hopefully more coherent) Highlander series, it does jerk the rug out from everything that the audience was lead to believe about Connor’s struggles through the film. And that’s the problem. By sticking so close to the original’s model, the new screenplay leaves the exact same quandary that confronted producers when they decided to make the original film’s first sequel. And shouldn’t the point of a remake/reboot of a franchise like this be to avoid making the same mistakes the second time around? A more honest way would be to pull back on the finality of the Gathering, stating that it was just beginning. The real story here isn’t Connor winning the Game, it is Connor accepting his immortal heritage and that can still be accomplished without him being the last one standing. A judicial rewrite should be able to set this right.
But hey, at least there isn’t an alien from the planet Zeist to be found.