'There Can Be Only One:' Highlander's Famous Line Explained
The line from Highlander -- "There can be only one" -- is an immortal movie quote, a sentiment so simple and ominous that it resonates with people whether they've seen the Sean Connery-Christopher Lambert film or not. In this way, the line is arguably more famous than the movie it comes from.
See, in 1986, a B-movie about Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, a Scottish warrior cursed to live forever was released in America -- and it kind of bombed. Well, bomb is a harsh word -- it didn't perform well. American distributors didn't think that audiences understood the film, they felt like it was too European. They weren't wrong. The film's star, Christopher Lambert, was a Frenchman playing a Scottish Highlander. Sean Connery pops up playing a Spanish-Egyptian who speaks with a clear Scottish accent, and the plot has something to do with guys cutting off one another's heads in pursuit of a vague prize made up of soul lightning.
What American distributors didn't understand was that Highlander absolutely rocks. Every moment of this movie is genetically engineered in a lab by a mad scientist weaned on music videos and medieval history to make the audience pump their fists. There's swordfighting, a kind of magic, decapitations, and the whole thing is soundtracked by Queen. At the heart of the film is its tag line which tells audiences everything they need to know: there can be only one.
It's A Kind Of Magic
Everything in Highlander is dedicated to explaining the central conceit of the film without really explaining anything. The plot, the dialogue, the action, even the music is dedicated to reminding the audience that they're watching a movie about kind of-sort of magical beings who are driven to fight each other to the death in "the gathering" to win "the prize."
Confused? That's why Freddie Mercury sings, "It's a kind of magic/There can be only one," on the aptly named "Some Kind Of Magic." As much as every part of Highlander is focused on explaining what's happening in the movie the brilliance of the film is that it's not hung up on the technicalities of lore. All of the back story and myth building came later in the film's sequels and spin-offs (of which there were many), but 1986's Highlander is just concerned with telling the story of a man and his sword, and other men and their swords all fighting to be the last immortal standing.
There Can Be Only One
Highlander got its start in the same way as a lot of b-movies, in college. Like Dark Star and THX 1138, this film about an immortal Scotsman began in southern California. Greg Wieden was attending UCLA when he wrote the first draft of the script as his senior thesis. Wieden sent the script around Hollywood and it eventually wound up in the hands of producers Bill Panzer and Peter S. Davis. They thought it was rough but liked what they read.
Immortals Are Nothing More Than Walking Corpses?
Pretty much everything that's in the finished product of Highlander is in Wieden's first pass: the beheadings, the multiple timelines, the police investigation, and the concept of "the game." At the heart of every version of the script was the idea that in the end only one immortal would remain. Wieden's draft had Connery's character Ramirez stating, "[Immortals are] nothing more than walking corpses living only to slaughter each other in an insane quest."
When veteran screenwriters Peter Bellwood and Larry Ferguson got their hands on the screenplay they made the idea more succinct: there can be only one. That's called editing.
Keep It Simple, Stupid
The lore and myth building about immortals, the Quickening, the struggle to not lose one's head is central to Highlander. Take all of that away and what you have is a story about an antiques dealer who runs into trouble in 1980s New York City. The brilliance of "There can be only one" is that it wraps up everything going on in the movie into one sentence. It answers any questions that the audience has and gives the characters an excuse to pop off and decapitate one another while sparks shoot from their swords.
Fans of Highlander can explain that immortals have been fighting to the death for centuries until the time of "the game" when the final remaining players will meet in a far away land to fight for "the prize" which only one of them can win. Or, you can say that there can be only one. It's not only a mantra uttered by the characters in the film but it's central to the film's marketing.
Fox dumped the American release of this movie on the States with little fanfare, but they were smart enough to make the tag line of the film something that explains all of the quasi-magical nonsense that happens in the movie. Something like, "Heads will roll" might have been more exciting but it wouldn't have fit the film's themes.
Who Wants To Live Forever?
If you have more than a cursory amount of knowledge about Highlander then you know that there can be more than one. Many more. Highlander performed poorly at the American box office but it was a huge hit in Europe. Director Russell Mulcahy told the Guardian:
At the premiere in France, there were 30-foot cutouts of Sean and Christopher all the way down the Champs-Elysées. The audience went apes**t. It became an enormous hit in Europe.
A sequel was released in 1991 that took the concepts of the original film and made them more confusing, and a year later Highlander: The Series premiered and followed the exploits of Duncan Macleod, Connor's cousin. The series ran for six years while more film sequels were released, each of them creating further issues with the concept of one immortal remaining on Earth. For producers of Highlander, the question was, ironically, why should there be only one?
Don't Lose Your Head
It's not the sequels, side stories, or variations on Highlander that define the series, it's the film that started it all. Dreamt up in a UCLA dorm room, Highlander continues to thrill audiences with its super weird mash up of fantasy and science fiction that's tailor made for 12-year-old who would die on the cross to own a broad sword. Fans of the series know that the latter pieces of the franchise don't hold up, but the catalyst is undeniable.
In the same way that Highlander has survived reimaginings and unnecessary sequels, the film's tagline has been mainstreamed in such a way that you can hear it and not even know that it's from a crazy head chopping magic movie. The phrase has made its way to Talledega Nights, Zack and Miri Make A Porno, The Amazing World of Gumball, and so on and so forth. There may not be any real immortals in the cast of Highlander, but the film and its tagline will live forever.
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