For those of you unfamiliar with Highlander, it’s the story of a five hundred year old Scotsman drawn into a deadly contest that’s raged for centuries. Connor MacLeod and immortals like him, fight for a prize some believe to be godhood. He is a reluctant participant in this game. Seeking the protection of holy ground, MacLeod fights for survival. Claiming the heads of those who try to take his own, MacLeod grows stronger through a merging of souls called “the quickening.” He’s done this ever since his mentor, Ramirez, taught him that in the end there can be only one.
Duncan MacLeod is Connor’s kinsman. While Connor represented the franchise on the silver screen his distant relative became one of the most enduring characters to dominate Saturday afternoon television. While the film series lost it’s way, claiming the immortals were reincarnated fugitives from the planet Zeist, the TV show kept the mystery interesting. When Connor and Duncan were reunited in Highlander: Endgame, fan favorite Duncan was put in a situation (MAJOR SPOILERS) that forced him to claim Connor’s head. This gave him the strength he needed to face a bigger foe. The series collapsed after that (stumbling back into Zeist-like planetary alignment territory in Highlander: The Source).
The problem with the currently proposed reboot: The screenwriters are stuck on retelling the story of Connor’s battle with the Kurgan, the strongest of the immortals. They want to bring back Ramirez, and give us an updated clone of the first adventure. Their additions have Connor swapping his iconic katana for a sniper rifle. They have the Kurgan exploiting a bureaucratic loophole to deconsecrate a church in order to fight on holy ground. Apart from Connor taking on one of his opponent’s physical ticks, after a claiming his head, it felt like this interpretation had nothing to add.
Controversial Fix: Keep the concept ditch the hero.
Connor MacLeod is not without his charm, but he’s no Indiana Jones. Connor was upstaged by his television counterpart Duncan, the romance novel cover model of the series. Both characters have established histories that come with a lot of baggage. I think the premise has more staying power than the protagonists. If we want to modernize the franchise, we’ll need a new MacLeod, one whose past, present, and future are mysteries to us.
The story will borrow many of the familiar beats from Connor’s origin, but it will tweak them to play with audience expectations.
This will be a little longer than your average treatment, with fully realized scenes to illustrate the kind of story I’d like to see. I’m going to spend more time on the setup, treating this like an origin story, then I’ll give you a flavor of where it’s going.
The story begins in the late sixteenth century, in the highlands of Scotland. Members of the clan MacDonald morn the loss of their brethren at the hands of the MacLeods. They find guidance in a persuasive outsider. A titan of a man, he claims his name is Tavish MacDonald. Few doubt his right to kinship, especially when he proposes a campaign of vengeance against the MacLeods.
Leading the MacDonalds through Ardmore Bay, Tavish sets out to purge the land of holy ground. He instructs his men to set churches ablaze with the parishioners trapped inside.
Kendrick MacLeod is a shepherd, who strays from his herd to write romantic poetry. Abandoning his chores, he reads his compositions to his fiancé Jonet. When news of the atrocity of Ardmore Bay reaches the clan, Kendrick is enlisted to fight by his father Graham MacLeod. Promising his fiancé he’ll return, Kendrick follows his kinsmen into battle.
The clan’s scouts report the sighting of a camp sight in the valley of Glendale.
The MacLeod’s arrive to find campfires raging. Surrounding the camp, the chief orders Graham and Kendrick, to take out the guards. Driving his blade through a sentry’s back, Graham finds his victim’s garments stuffed with hay. The men advance on the camp before Graham can shout “It’s a trap.”
A terrible nausea comes over Kendrick. He falls before the arrows strike the men beside him. Crawling into the shrubs, Kendrick watches logs roll down the hills to flatten his kinsmen. A warrior on horse back, cuts the last of the Macleods down, like he was reaping wheat. This is Tavish in blood red war paint.
Writhing in the underbrush, Kendrick watches the horsemen leap off his steed. Tavish closes his eyes to feel the wind between his fingers. Waving his sword, Tavish follows a magnetic pull toward Kendrick’s hiding spot. Terrified, Kendrick freezes long enough for Tavish to close the distance between them. The blood drenched warrior drives his sword through the poet’s chest. Kendrick doubles over, Tavish raises his blade to claim his target’s head.
Up on the hill, Graham slices a rope, turning one of Tavish’s log traps against him. Buried for but a moment, the warrior discards the pile of logs with the ease of a bed sheet. Wrenching himself off the ground, Tavish rises into Kendrick’s blade. It separates the warrior’s head from his body.
Clutching his wound, Kendrick falls to the valley floor. Little does he know he’s beheaded the oldest and most powerful immortal ever to walk the earth.
A lightning bolt lifts young MacLeod into the air, hurling his kinsmen’s bodies across the camp. Electricity chars Kendrick’s kilt to cinders, singes his locks down to his scalp. Mortified, Graham watches his son get sucked up into the clouds.
Kendrick wakes to the sound of his bones collapsing back into his body. Flecks of ash blow away, revealing a clean layer of skin beneath.
When Kendrick staggers back into the village, naked and confused, his family is convinced that he’s not the same man. Though his flesh has healed, his hair is a patchwork of loose ends. His eyes have gone dark, and his face has lost its kindness.
Graham is convinced his son is possessed by the warrior he killed. “We’ve all heard the legends of Connor and Duncan, how the devil swayed them in the heat of battle. Now I fear he’s made a similar pact with my son.”
Kendrick doesn’t believe his father’s theory, until he wakes in the forrest, with a storm raging overhead.
Following her fiancé’s footprints, Jonet tracks him into the woods. Graham follows close behind, careful to stay out of sight. Jonet calls out for Kendrick. She spots him wandering barefoot. Turning to the sound of her voice, he’s struck by lightning. Running to put out Kendrick’s smoking garments, Jonet is surprised to find him unfazed, muttering about an elk.
“I can feel its hearts beating. Its scared.”
Jonet thinks her fiancé has gone mad, until they discover an elk in a clearing, its hoof trapped beneath a downed tree. Kendrick lifts the trunk, with the same ease that Tavish had with the logs. Graham MacLeod watches from his perch in the trees, horrified to find his suspicions confirmed.
Men come to shackle Kendrick in his sleep. Even with his head in the stocks, it takes half of the clan to drag him into the dungeon. When a witchfinder arrives from the lowlands, the hairs on Kendrick’s arms stand up straight. The queasy sensation from the battlefield returns.
The witchfinder has Kendrick burnt at the stake. The fires cook off several layers of skin only to reveal a fresh one beneath.
Kendrick’s screams turn to laughter. “It tickles. It tickles real bad.”
The witchfinder convinces Graham that Kendrick must be beheaded. Graham volunteers to be the one to deliver the merciful blow. The witchfinder insists he carry out the task himself, for it’s the lord’s command and he is the lord’s instrument.
Taking advantage of the argument, Jonet breaks Kendrick out of the dungeons. The witchfinder corners them on the way out. Defenseless, Kendrick counters the mad monk’s attacks with new found speed and agility. Disarming his opponent, Kendrick compels him to yield. The witchfinder lunges at him with a hidden blade, ignoring the sword piercing his heart. With the man of God’s blood on his hands, Jonet urges Kendrick to flee. Neither of them stay to see the witchfinder pull the sword from his chest.
Jonet knows of an abandon castle in the lowlands. The pair sneak into the village to steal supplies, when the witchfinder rings the bells. He corners the lovers, instructing Kendrick’s kinsman to bind their wrists and ankles.
Kendrick pleads with his father to spare Jonet, going so far as to announce that the witchfinder is an immortal like himself. Kendrick has his mob’s attention, until he’s hit with another surge of nausea.
Point of no return:
An eccentric stranger, in opulent dress, flings explosive powders into the crowd. Cutting Kendrick’s bindings, the stranger tells him to follow. Kendrick takes Jonet’s hand. Making their way to the stables, the trio flees on horseback.
The stranger leads them to the abandon castle, where he’s already setup camp.
Dismounting from his steed, the stranger spins on his heel. He bows, “Principe Dante Fontana de Bologna, at your service.”
Jonet dismounts, oblivious of the muck at her heels. Kendrick remains on horseback, weary of the eccentric Italian, and his dragon shaped hilt.
Beckoning his guests inside, Dante prepares a fire, “I recognized the priest from Roma. Back then he was Viceroy Gabriel de Roxate. He and his gown wearing brethren were charged with cleansing the occasions of sin. They set the world’s finest art aflame. They robbed history of its classics, because they deemed them unseamly. I smuggled as many works out of the city as I could. Looks like he still likes to burn things.”
Chopping vegetables with his katana blade, Dante sets them into a kettle. “Roxate believes he’s been chosen by God to be his shepherd here on earth. He believes that you and I are the final heirs to the throne standing in his way.”
Jonet squeezes her fiancé’s hand, “Do you believe all that?”
Dante pokes the fire, entranced by the flame. “I believe that with every head I claim, I gain a heightened awareness of the people around me, frightened, lonely, and confused. I wouldn’t know how to lead them to the promise land. That feels more like a responsibility than a prize.”
Dante mentors Kendrick, preparing him to take on Roxate. His training regiment takes them across the Scottish countryside. Dante speaks in parables, drawing life lessons from his many lifetimes. Kendrick catches him altering stories that he’s already told, exaggerating his adventures with each telling.
Building a bonfire, Dante challenges Kendrick to jump through it. Dropping his sword in the middle of a lake, Dante challenges Kendrick to retrieve it. The pair take turns leaping from a tall spire, seeing who can jump the furthest. Jonet returns to discover a blood trail into the castle. She follows it to find her men, their clothes reduced to tatters, singing a drunken shanty about the fall of Icarus.
Once he’s taught Kendrick about each of his abilities, Dante tells him the rules of the game:
Immortals do not fight on holy ground, for fear of being struck down. This is the reason Tavish had the MacLeod’s churches burnt down, so Kendrick would have no place to take refuge.
Only one immortal can challenge another.
Kendrick questions how this rule works in practice. “Does the hand of God intervene when two immortals dare converge on another?”
Dante shake his head, “It’s tradition. Besides, it doesn’t matter how many alliances you forge, in the end it will come down to two.”
Kendrick chuckles at this, “How, if immortals are spread throughout the world? What if one is stuck on an island, or buried inside a mountain?”
Dante looks out across the green terrain, “My mentor once told me that there will come a time when we feel a strong pull to a foreign land. Those that do not, will already be there. They call this the time of the gathering. This is when the game will draw to a close.”
Throughout their sparring, Dante is surprised to find Kendrick can match his speed. Despite the weight of his cumbersome claymore, Kendrick meets Dante’s katana strike for strike.
The tone of their training shifts, as the pair draw blood. They take turns counting aloud how long it takes for the other to heal. Dante is shocked that one so young could heal so quickly. Exploiting Kendrick’s poor footing, Dante drives his student over the edge of a cliff.
Kendrick wakes to find his garments torn, dry with blood. “I really liked that shirt.”
With his apprentice climbing up the rock face, Dante confides in Jonet. He tells her that Kendrick, like all immortals, will never be able to give her children. He begs her to leave, to spare her fiancé this humiliation.
“Drive from your mind any fantasy of growing old together. That’s something he can never do. Ask yourself, do you want him to see you turn grey, to watch your flesh wrinkle and sag? What happens when he looks half your age? Will you introduce him as your son? What happens when he’s looking at other women the way he used to look at you? Will you wonder who he’s really writing his little verses for?”
Dante sends Jonet away for supplies. He implores her to think about whether or not she actually wants to return with them.
Kendrick scales the cliff to find his fiancé is gone. Dante uses this opportunity to reveal the opponent he’s been preparing Kendrick to face is himself. Kendrick accuses his mentor of training him to assess his weaknesses, to develop a technique that he could never match.
“If I’d wanted to, I could have killed you in your sleep.”
“Then why didn’t you?”
Dante holds his chin up high. “What kind of God would that make me?”
He raises his katana. “The time of the gathering has already come. The game chose the Highlands of Scotland. You didn’t know, because this is your home. There’s but a handful of us left. It pained me to think you were so late to embrace your immortality. I wanted to give you a fighting chance.”
Kendrick reaches for his claymore. He doesn’t raise it. “Why not settle for immortality? Why fight for a prize you do not desire?”
Dante steps forward. “Because the game will find us. It will bend fate to bring us back to face our responsibility.”
Jonet watches from the shrubs that border the grounds. She didn’t leave after all.
Dante lunges at his pupil. They cross blades. Dante slices Kendrick’s throat. The young Highlander reveals how much he’s been holding back. Hitting his master with the broad side of his sword, Kendrick sweeps Dante off his feet. He has the opportunity to claim Dante’s head, but refuses.
Kendrick flings his claymore into the mud. “I prefer the world with you in it. We should face Roxate together. If he labors to usher in an age of darkness, then we must be the ones to stop him.”
Retrieving his katana, Dante rolls to his feet, “Have I taught you nothing? There are rules.”
Dante pierces Kendrick’s stomach. He falls to his knees. Before Dante can land the killing blow, Jonet bashes him with the dull side of the claymore. Dante kicks her in the stomach. She rolls down across the ground. Dante readies his blade to find his pupil has vanished. Kendrick moves into Dante’s stroke, pries the katana free, and uses his master’s momentum to claim his head.
Sparks shoot from Dante’s neck. His headless corpse bows to his student. Kendrick is hit with an arc of electricity. The grass catches fire around him. The quickening levels the castle to the ground. When the lightning ceases and the smoke clears, Jonet crawls out of hiding.
“We have to leave.”
“You heard him, their game is almost over. Let the others come.”
“Sod their game, and the lot of them for playing it. God didn’t give you this gift just so they can take it away. We’ll travel to the ends of the earth, keep their prize out of reach.”
“But this is our home. This is where we’re going to raise our children. Glenfinnan is our home.”
Jonet shakes her head, “You’re my home, you stupid git.”
Sifting through the rubble, the pair gather what supplies they can carry, and trek into the valley below.
As you can tell, my imagination has been trekking across the Highlands of Scotland for some time. It makes it difficult to summarize the story without it reading like a police report. That said, this pitch is going to need another entry.
Continued in Part 2: Present Day New York