It's asked all the time: Who’s the best villain in cinema history? “Oh it’s Darth Vader with his funny lungs!”, “No, it’s Thanos with his prune-fingered snap!”, “It’s the Joker with his face paints!”, “It’s Hannibal Lecter with his beans!”
No. They are all the wrong answers, answers punishable by death in the ‘Obvious-and-Probably-Factually-Correct-Answers-That-are-Still-Actually-Wrong’ High Courts.
No. On the 35th anniversary of its release, the correct answer lies within 1986's flashy fantasy adventure, Highlander, the film that gave us the eternally quotable “there can be only one” line, with its absolutely fiendish villain, the Kurgan.
He is, to put it bluntly, a proper bastard.
There can be only one
A little bit of scene setting for those unfamiliar with the film. Highlander is a centuries-spanning sci-fi action epic, centring on 16th century scotsman Connor MacLeod (a bafflingly accented Christopher Lambert). The movie sees immortal warriors across the globe fight through the ages to win ‘The Prize’, a sort of ultimate knowledge of all humanity’s thoughts and secrets. Being immortal, these warriors effectively live forever, surviving stabbings and bludgeoning, explosions and gunfire – but they can’t survive without their heads. Cue the excuse for a load of badass sword fights and beheadings, as a mysterious force draws the remaining immortals towards New York for a final 20th century showdown.
Is Highlander good? Objectively... probably not. It’s all a bit silly, and too much B-movie fun for cinema snobs to really take seriously. Really, it's a dyed-in-the-wool dad movie. Sean Connery stars as an ancient Egyptian Spaniard with a musketeer’s facial hair, a pearl earring and a defiantly Scottish accent – and this is all soundtracked by the falsetto of Freddie Mercury and Queen at their most metal. This is the kind of bold nonsense we’re dealing with here. But it has a fantastic concept, some amazing action sequences and some breathtaking highland scenery to bathe in, enough to make it a cult classic and guilty pleasure.
Its one undeniably excellent element? Yep, you guessed it – the Kurgan. Equal parts Conan The Barbarian, WWE’s Undertaker and Motorhead’s Lemmy, he’s walked the Earth for millenia, a contemporary of Atilla the Hun and Ghengis Khan, chopping off heads of immortal rivals and taking great pleasure in the process.
It’s Clancy Brown under the gothic make-up and barbaric costuming of the Kurgan. He’s perhaps better known these days for his role as prison guard Captain Byron Hadley in The Shawshank Redemption, or even the CGI monstrosity Sutur from Thor Ragnarok. Incredibly, he’s also the voice of Mr Krabs in Spongebob Squarepants. But his breakthrough came as the Kurgan in Highlander, a crazed and vile character – and an absolute delight to watch.
Brown steals every single scene he’s in – including those when he’s opposite the legendary Sean Connery. An imposing and muscled 6’3” in height, Brown walks a fine line between driven executioner and blood-thirsty savage. One scene shows him spinning his broadsword around a dishevelled New York tenement like a ballerina, another thrashing at a fellow immortal warrior in an animalistic fury.
There’s a ludicrous viciousness to Brown’s performance which he obviously relishes, a cruel smirk on his face even when impaling a helpless victim on his claymore. The Kurgan loves being a shit, basically, and you can tell that Clancy Brown loves being the Kurgan, being a shit.
Here’s some of the gnarly stuff that the Kurgan does in the Highlander:
- He beheads at least two people
- He survives getting his throat slashed to go on to win a battle with a master swordsman
- He later decorates the resulting throat scar with safety pins
- He wears a helmet made of a bear’s skull
- He survives getting shot by a submachine gun
- He steals a car from a granny and drives off with her holding onto the bonnet
- He destroys an entire Highland castle with just his sword and brute strength
- He licks a priest...
See? A proper bastard. All this while being about 3,000 years old.
Room for a remake?
But it’s the little things too. While chasing McLeod’s love interest Brenda Wyatt through her apartment building, he’s also enjoying a popsicle. He stubs out the flames of prayer candles in a church, all for a laugh. He really doesn’t give a crap – having lived as long as he has, morality, and humanity, civilisation is all just a big meaningless joke. He’s a true nihilist, playing chicken in a stolen car along the sidewalk, running down pedestrians with his hands off the wheel and his fingers over his eyes. As he screams to the parishioners of the Big Apple church he’s taking refuge in (before a pantomime twirl), “I have something to say! It's better to burn out than to fade away!”
For years now a Highlander reboot has been in the works, with John Wick director Chad Stahelski leading the project since the end of 2016. Previous rumors saw Guardians of the Galaxy’s Dave Bautista linked with the infamous Kurgan’s rebooted role. He’s definitely got the brawn, but can he pull off the unhinged nastiness of the Kurgan, should that casting rumor prove true? Here’s hoping.
Whatever is next for the Highlander franchise, there is one thing for certain – they’re going to have a hard time finding a bad guy as deliciously evil as Clancy Brown’s Kurgan.