Highlander (fight 5 of 5)

5) Connor MacLeod vs. The Kurgan (final round)

OMG YOU GUYS

The Fighters: Connor and the Kurgan, aka Good vs Evil. Special appearance by Brenda Wyatt, damsel in distress/interference-runner.

The Setup: The Kurgan, wise to Connor having consummated his attraction (wink wink nudge nudge) to plucky metallurgist Brenda, has kidnapped the fair maiden and locked her up in a tower. Well, not quite so medieval, but the nearest possible modern thing: he tied her up in the structure behind a giant “SilverCup” electronic billboard on top of a building.

Apparently it’s a real place.

The Kurgan wants MacLeod unnerved & distracted during this fight– this villain doesn’t play fair if he doesn’t have to.

The Fight: Connor is immediately attacked as he tries to free Brenda and the action begins briskly, the two combatants clashing swords while also dodging amongst the surprisingly intricate infrastructure behind the billboard. MacLeod sends his opponent tumbling several feet to the ground but, as he tries to free Brenda, the Kurgan retaliates by wantonly destroying everything in sight, sending showers of sparks and breaking the heck out of the entire thing. Connor gets out of the collapsing structure by gripping a support cable and sliding down it like Errol Flynn.

Soon enough an inexplicably nearby water tower also breaks, flooding the immediate area and creating a temporary pool for Connor to hide in while he tries to assist Brenda. The Kurgan swings around looking for the hidden hero and soon decides to search for him by going underwater himself, but rather than blandly diving or falling into the temporary pool, he spins around slowly while gradually lowering himself. The strangely graceful movements make the villain seem like a predatory animal– a rather nice touch, there.

Soon the two participants fall through a skylight into an empty warehouse. MacLeod, separated from his sword, is at the mercy of the Kurgan, and is only saved by some desperate interference from Brenda (being too mortally fragile to survive the skylight fall, she apparently opted for the stairs), wielding one of the movie’s many lead pipes. The inconvenience only seems to irritate the Kurgan, but before he can cut her down she is in turn saved by Connor, who, having recovered his sword and his composure, is ready to seriously throw down– he’s even balanced enough to snark/flirt with the relieved Brenda, giving her a faux-irritated “what kept you?”. Now it’s on like Immortal Donkey Kong.

Pictured: AWESOMENESS

From here, everything about the fight, and the movie, kicks into high gear and doesn’t let up. This is what the entire story has been building up to and it does not in any way disappoint.

As you can see from the picture above, everything is saturated in dark blues. The lighting from the huge bay windows (and, obviously, the film crew) is just right: when the camera’s in close or medium shots we can see enough to make out the combatants’ faces, and as it gets farther out they become stark, iconic silhouettes. Speaking of the camera, it moves smoothly back & forth, sweeping across the room as the combatants circle about in this dance of death (according to the commentary track, this was accomplished by strapping the camera to a chair on wheels and kicking it across the set). The music, which kicks in immediately after Connor’s smirking line to Brenda, is unapologetically and unselfconsciously strident. It all comes together to match the epic tone of what we’re seeing happen. There is no dialogue between the two at this point, and there doesn’t need to be. The swords do the talkin’.

The fencing choreography is never better in the movie than it is here, as the opponents push back & forth, circle each other, and exchange strikes with yet more flying sparks and loud whooshes. It’s not too long (but not too short) before the Kurgan begins to lose. He is pushed back and kept on the defensive by the smaller man’s aggressive skill, and even suffers an escalating series of surface slashes. The music swells in triumph to signal what we already know: Connor MacLeod, finally given an open space and no distractions, is just better.

And the Kurgan knows it. His initial confusion is soon replaced by something else. For the first time in his long, long life, the Kurgan is confronted by the possibility that he might actually lose, and he seems… intrigued by it. As he circles around Connor for the final time, he stares at his opponent like a scientist beholding a new alien species. The look on Clancy Brown’s face is some strange mix of fascination and rapturous joy. The man has lived on destruction & thrills for thousands of years, and while he has not displayed nihilistic traits before, he finds the prospect of his own destruction the most thrilling of all. This is noteworthy, because many a movie bad guy has been known to mentally unravel when facing defeat at the hands of a determined hero– reduced from grand villainous scheming to childish temper tantrums– but not this one. This one faces his doom like a man. The Kurgan may be a dishonorable barbaric raping murderer, but he is NOT a chump.

Not pictured: a chump.

The villain lunges ahead with one final charge, and MacLeod takes the opportunity to move in with one well-aimed slice. The Kurgan takes a few steps, pauses, smiles, and, well… Connor has pulled off one of those “yank the table cloth without disturbing the plates” moves, but with the Kurgan’s head. It rolls right the heck off, and Connor receives the mother of all Quickenings, followed by the glass-shattering light show that is The Prize.

ERMAGHERD

The film’s climax is a marvel of staging, construction and choreography. Notably, it can really be broken down into two parts: the part outside by the SilverCup sign, and the part inside the empty building. The first half is all frantic, with lots of elements at play: protecting/freeing Brenda, dodging amongst the sign structure, the water, the Kurgan smashing stuff to bits– it’s really a mini-action sequence that includes a bunch of sword-fighting. The second half, in contrast, is all focused intensity, bombastic filmmaking capturing an epic duel. It is pure.

Watching the whole thing at once, the first half is certainly less interesting than the second, but it’s the opening segment that provides necessary buildup to the last. If the whole thing has been nothing but a straight sword fight from beginning to end, it would have gotten boring and repetitive after a while. As it is, the part of the second half of the climax where they’re actually fighting clocks in at under two minutes, which is just about the perfect amount of time. Breaking down extended fight sequences into distinct chunks is actually an important part of making them both watchable and memorable.

The whole thing really is damn near perfect, actually. I will deduct a very slight amount of points for the final shot of the Kurgan before his head lolls off, as the sub-par effects work make it comically obvious (in a bad way) that the villain is about to get a lot shorter. But oh well.

Grade: A+

Recommended reading:

  • The Highlander Wikia page, whose extra information and pictures have been invaluable to me for this series.
  • The whole last half of the fight on YouTube

On another note, you may have noticed I started to write this post in more of a templated format, with sub-headings for each part of the entry. I think this streamlines the writing process a bit and helps keep me from wandering, I’ll be trying to stick to it from now on, though I may refine it as necessary. It’s an ongoing process.

Coming soon: Am I really going to do two sword-fighting movies in a row?!

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2 comments on “Highlander (fight 5 of 5)

  1. Hodge says:

    Great Summary. It’s such a great performance by Clancy Brown that you both can’t take your eyes off him but also by this point in the film so want him to get his arse kicked.

    The camera sweep and Michael Kamen’s music kicking in still sends tingles down my spine.

  2. Michael Kamen! Really should have name-checked him in the post. Truly great work in this scene. The music is unapologetically heroic. For all the (deserved) love Queen gets about this movie’s soundtrack, Kamen’s contributions are a bit overlooked.

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