Monday, May 23, 2011

Highlander & Ghost Warrior

Over the weekend I revisited two Sword & Sorcery films from 1986 that have a twist to them which is common within the genre at large: the intersection between ancient warriors and the modern world.  The two films were Highlander (1986), directed by Russell Mulcahy, and Ghost Warrior (1986), directed by J. Larry Carroll.

Most fans of the Sword & Sorcery genre are familiar with Highlander: Connor MacLeod, an ancient warrior from the highlands of Scottland, belongs to an elite group of immortal warriors from across history who are drawn together at the time of "the gathering" when they must battle one another to release the power of the "the quickening." In the end, there can be only one remaining who has all the power of the others.

The relationship between the symbolic forces of "sword" and "sorcery" in Highlander is challenging because they are complementary.  When one immortal defeats another, the magical power of the quickening is unleashed, bestowing upon the victorious the former powers of the vanquished.  This is different from most sword and sorcery in the respect that it is not a direct confrontation between the "stalwart warrior" and the "supernatural forces of evil" (1).  Rather, to the extent that sorcery is a basic condition to the life of every immortal, it cannot be neatly seperated and confronted in battle.  This fact notwithstanding, MacLeod, our protagonist, must ultimately face the evil Kurgan, a Russian warrior who is the most powerful of the immortals.  When he asks,  "how do you fight such a savage?" he is is told by Ramirez (his mentor) "with heart, faith and steel. In the end there can be only one."  In this statement and in the culmination of the film, the values of the Sword & Sorcery film are reaffirmed.  Though Kurgan has been made very powerful through the quickening, he can still be defeated by the courage of a lone warrior.

Another standard theme of Sword & Sorcery that's explored in Highlander is that of initiation.  Ramirez (played by Sean Connery) guides the young Conner MacLeod in the life of an immortal after he is explelled from his village for suspicion of being "in league with the devil" (after he comes back to life from a mortal wound in battle).  In classic fashion, the mentor is killed and MacLeod must go on to surpass his teacher by defeating Kurgan.

Perhaps most of all, though, Highlander is a film that centers around the Sword & Sorcery theme of "reincorporation" which is defined by the warrior succeeding in his quest and rejoining society through marriage and parenthood.  At the conclusion of the film, MacLeod discovers that the "prize" the immortals have been battling for is nothing other than... mortality.  As an immortal he was doomed to outlive every woman he was close to and to never have offspring, but as a mortal man he could settle down, grow old and pass on his legacy to his children.  According to the moral logic of the film, immortality is a curse and the prize is mortality.  In this sense, I suppose, the immortal warriors were doing battle against sorcery because they were seeking escape from it.

Ghost Warrior is less noteworthy as a film, but plays on the same basic concept of an ancient warrior alive in modern society.  In this film, a samurai (Yoshi) is discocovered frozen in a block of ice and brought back to life through chryogenics as part of modern biomedical research.  Unlike Highlander's MacLeod, however, Yoshi has been dead for the past five centuries and is unable to understand or adapt to the modern world where he now finds himself.  He ultimately plays out a destiny in his new life that is identical to the one from his past: sacrificing himself for a woman he loves.

Similar to many other Sword & Sorcery films, Ghost Warrior substitutes modern science for sorcery.  But in this case, the warrior's ultimate destiny is death because he is alienated from his surroundings and cannot adapt to the complexities of modern life.

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