Sunday, July 22, 2012


Thailand’s Highlands? No… neither the rugged hill vantages of the Hmong or the Karen, nor the borders-encompassing danger zone known as the Golden Triangle. But listen, my children, and you shall hear instead of the midnight ride of… well, maybe I should set the scene a bit first:

In May of 1986, early on the around-the-world journey that took me to Fiji and Burma and back to Turkey and Europe, I was traveling through parts of Thailand, riding on one of the remarkable long-distance “night buses” that carry folks up, down, and across the Kingdom, from Koh Samui in the far South, to Bangkok mid-country, to Chiang Mai in the North.
Packed with cheap tourists and restive Thais, sleepy children and surprising good cheer, these express buses hurtle down the black-as-pitch two-lane roads--head-lit juggernauts scattering produce and pedestrians, leaving small cars and big distances in their wake, stopping only when the driver needs to relieve himself--or a serious roadblock interferes...

So we're barreling along, blasting down the night, when suddenly the driver stomps
on the brakes, and we rock and shudder to a stop, some ways short of a makeshift barrier. (Later I realize that he was leaving room to maneuver--meaning: attempt to escape.)

And then we wait... nervously... because the roadblock may be manned by bandits, or rebels--or the Thai Army looking to capture bandits or rebels. Though the driver tells us later that there were bandits on this same stretch of road just the night before, we’ve come upon a patrol of soldiers, and in the low-power lights aboard the bus we see they are mostly nervous young conscripts carrying rifles and machine guns. A few Thai men must show their papers, and a couple of hippie tourists have their carry bags inspected.

This was right in the time frame when pot smokers caught on the nearby Malay Peninsula were subject to quick execution. But no illegal substances or suspicious citizens are found in this search, and after some threats and flashlights shown into sleepy eyes, we are told to get on down the road. Our driver knows an exit line when he hears it. He maneuvers around the slight barricade, and on we roll.

Soon he is talking--a Thai man near me translates--mocking the kid soldiers and making us travelers feel less threatened; and about then he reaches up above his view mirror to a small-screen TV set I hadn’t really noticed, turns it on, and shoves in a
VHS or Beta cartridge. (I don’t remember having encountered such an electronic distraction before; I don’t think most airlines--or travel buses--had made the move to multiple or even single viewing screens yet… or maybe, more likely, I was just blithely ignorant.)

Murky darkness on the set and a narrator speaking Thai cause my attention to wander, but loud stadium rock draws me back. “Hunh… sounds a bit like Queen,” I mumble. Then: “What the…?”--we’re witnessing swords brandished in a vast parking garage, and a fight to the (very weird) death--and suddenly it's Scotland
centuries ago: braw laddies, bricht kilties, draid claymores an’ a’. But all this time the characters have been yammering in Thai, with no subtitles in English, French, Scots Gaelic, or otherwise to help make sense of the film’s skittery action.

“Now what… gee, that guy in the fancy clothes looks like… wait, it is, it’s Sean Connery! What in the world is he doing in this sword-totin', time-hoppin' obscurity?”
But enough of the blow-by-blow description. Many moviegoers will know by now that our driver was small-screening a duplicate videotape print (very likely bootlegged) of Highlander, the genre-mixing adventure film fated to become a cult favorite, a “franchise” picture generating four or five sequels. But back then when I quizzed other travelers or native residents from Thailand to Denmark, no one had a clue as to the mystery movie I'd become obsessed with: Ed’s Fantastical Swordfight Feature.

After a while I was starting to believe I’d dreamed it, fitfully asleep after the roadblock. But late that fall, when my future wife and her kids had come over to
spend the winter in Portugal’s English-touristy Algarve region, I noticed a newspaper ad for a movie called Highlander, starring Sean Connery and Christopher Lambert (who?), playing at a nearby theatre--in English, without Portuguese subtitles even.

Whoa back, Buck! The weird night came roaring back: this sounded too similar not to be possible, and too possible not to be viewed, so off we went, driving 20 miles east to Albufeira, stocking up on hot popcorn, and settling into the plush seats. And there it was at last,
Scotland and savagery, Manhattan and MacLeod, the Kurgan and the Quickening--making more sense this time, albeit still the sort of violent flick that guys flock to and gals scoff at (as happened with our foursome that day).

I didn’t care. I was vindicated. If the film later turned out somehow to be more significant than the sum of its crazy parts, well, so be it. Here’s what I mean… some of what I’ve learned since:

Highlander was released in March 1986 in the U.S.--after I’d left the country--and then not until August in Europe; I don’t know the Asian release date but there couldn’t have been legal videocassettes by April. Director Russell
Mulcahy probably wouldn't have cared; he was happy just to move up from MTV vids to a career-making Hollywood feature. Ditto Christopher Lambert who went from brooding unknown to brooding star (for a time and a shot at Tarzan/Lord Greystoke). And Connery? He simply clicked his Spanish bootheels together and jetted, laughing, all the way to the bank and then straight on to his semi-retirement property on Spain’s posh Southeast coast.

A quarter century later, the sequels and TV versions and cult-film write-ups and long-threatened remake of the original... none of them
matter really. I inadvertently saw a stranger version--had it quickened into me, as it were--during an odd, discomfiting night in Thailand, going nowhere fast. And remember…

There can be only one.
* * * * *
(...except when there are four--Spivey Bros. Barbecue Sauce; next time!)

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