Highlander (1986)

Highlander is a 1986 British-American fantasy actionadventure film directed by Russell Mulcahy and based on a story by Gregory Widen. It stars Christopher Lambert, Sean Connery, Clancy Brown, and Roxanne Hart. The film chronicles the climax of an ages-old battle among immortal warriors, depicted through interwoven past and present-day storylines.

Christopher Lambert plays swordsman Connor MacLeod from the Scottish Highlands, known as the Highlander, one of a number of immortal warriors who can be killed only by decapitation. After initial training by another highly skilled immortal swordsman, Ramirez (Sean Connery), MacLeod lives on for several centuries, eventually settling in New York City, managing an antiques shop. In 1985, he falls in love with a police forensic scientist named Brenda. He also finds out that he must face his greatest enemy, Kurgan (Clancy Brown), who wishes to kill MacLeod and to obtain “the Prize” – a special ability which is given to the last living immortal warrior, vast knowledge and the ability to enslave the entire human race.

Highlander enjoyed little success on its initial theatrical release, grossing over $12 million worldwide against a production budget of $19 million, and received mixed reviews. Nevertheless, it became a cult film and inspired film sequels and television spin-offs. Its tagline, “There can be only one”, has carried on, as have the songs provided for the film by the rock band Queen.

In 1985, Connor MacLeod, also known as the Highlander, is confronted by fellow immortal Iman Fasil in a New York City parking garage. MacLeod decapitates him after a duel, upon which an energy surge from Fasil enters Connor and destroys several cars around him. Connor hides his sword just as police officers swarm the garage and arrest him.

Connor’s history is revealed through a series of flashbacks throughout the film. In the Scottish Highlands in 1536, The Kurgan assists the Fraser Clan against the MacLeod Clan in exchange for the right to slay Connor. In battle, the Kurgan stabs Connor but is driven off by the MacLeod clansmen before he can cut off his head. When Connor makes a complete recovery from the Kurgan’s apparently fatal stab, his family and friends are convinced it is the work of the devil. They attempt to have Connor burned, but he is instead exiled by the clan’s Chief as an act of mercy and he wanders about, eventually becoming a blacksmith.

The flamboyant Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez appears and tutors Connor in sword-fighting and the history of the immortals. Ramirez explains that they belong to a group of immortals, who can be killed only by decapitation. When one immortal decapitates another, the winner receives a transfer of power from the deceased called “The Quickening”. Eventually, all the immortals must meet in “The Gathering” and do battle until there is only one left alive; the survivor will receive “The Prize” which enables its winner to gain unlimited knowledge of the universe. Ramirez tells Connor that the Kurgan, the strongest of the immortals, must not win the Prize, or mankind will enter an eternal dark age. One night while Connor is away, the Kurgan attacks, decapitating Ramirez. Some years later, Connor’s wife Heather dies of old age in his arms. Ramirez had explained earlier that immortals cannot have children, but Connor and Heather chose to be wed regardless.

In 1985, the police release Connor after he denies knowing Fasil. Brenda Wyatt, a forensic scientist and expert in metallurgy, recognizes Fasil’s sword as an extremely rare Toledo Salamanca broadsword. Later, Connor returns to the garage to retrieve his own sword but sees Brenda looking at the crime scene. She finds metal shards embedded in a concrete column.

Connor lives under the alias Russell Nash and is a wealthy antiquities dealer. Brenda tails Connor but the Kurgan attacks them. The fight is interrupted by a police helicopter and everybody flees. Brenda analyzes the metal shards and discovers them to be from a Japanese katana dated about 600 B.C. but made with medieval-era technology. She makes a date with Connor in an attempt to entrap him. Connor recognizes the ruse, tells her to stop digging and leaves.

Connor meets with fellow immortal Sunda Kastagir. They talk about “The Gathering” and joke about old times. Meanwhile, Brenda discovers that Connor has been alive for centuries; every few decades he fakes his death, signs his assets over to children who had died at birth, and assumes their identities. She confronts Connor, who demonstrates his immortality. After this revelation, Brenda and Connor become lovers. However, he breaks up with her shortly after, citing Ramirez’s warnings about immortals forming attachments to mortals.

The Kurgan finds Kastagir and kills him. On Heather’s birthday, Connor lights a candle for her in a Roman Catholic Church, as he has done every year since her death. The Kurgan arrives and informs him that only they remain. However, by immortal tradition they cannot fight on holy ground.

The Kurgan finds out about Connor’s relationship with Brenda and kidnaps her to draw Connor to Silvercup Studios in Queens. After a long battle, Connor defeats and beheads the Kurgan. He receives the Prize, which manifests itself as a massive Quickening. Now mortal and capable of having children, Connor returns to Scotland with Brenda. Connor now can read people’s thoughts around the world, and promises to use his gift to encourage cooperation and peace.

Cast

  • Christopher Lambert as Connor MacLeod, a 16th-century immortal born in Glenfinnan, Scotland near the shores of Loch Shiel. Under the alias Russell Nash, he lives and works as an antiques dealer in present-day New York.
  • Sean Connery as Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez, an Egyptian immortal. He serves as Connor’s mentor in the ways of immortals.
  • Clancy Brown as The Kurgan, Connor’s nemesis. A murderous immortal living under the alias Victor Kruger, he was a member of the Kurgan tribe. He travels to New York with the intention of killing the other immortals and claiming “The Prize”.
  • Roxanne Hart as Brenda Wyatt, a forensic pathologist investigating the string of beheadings in New York City.
  • Beatie Edney as Heather MacLeod, Connor’s second wife. After Connor is banished from his village, he starts a new life with her. She lives with an eternally youthful Connor until she dies of old age.
  • Alan North as Lt. Frank Moran, Brenda’s friend and boss.
  • Jon Polito as Det. Walter Bedsoe, Brenda’s friend and fellow detective.
  • Sheila Gish as Rachel Ellenstein, Connor’s middle aged Jewish secretary and adopted daughter. Saved from the Nazis by Connor when she was a child during The Holocaust, Rachel is one of the few people who knows his true identity.
  • Hugh Quarshie as Sunda Kastagir, Connor’s fellow immortal and friend. He is beheaded by the Kurgan during a battle in New York.
  • Christopher Malcolm as Kirk Matunas, an emotionally unstable Vietnam War veteran who witnesses the duel between the Kurgan and Kastigir, machine guns the Kurgan, and is then impaled on his sword.
  • Peter Diamond as Iman Fasil, a French immortal. Connor beheads him after watching a wrestling match.
  • Celia Imrie as Kate MacLeod, Connor’s lover in 1536. When Connor demonstrates immortality, Kate, convinced he is in “league with Lucifer“, leads an unsuccessful effort to have him burned at the stake.
  • Billy Hartman and James Cosmo as Dougal and Angus Macleod, Connor’s cousins and fellow leaders of the MacLeod Clan.
  • Corinne Russell as Candy, a prostitute who comes to amuse The Kurgan.

Professional wrestlers Greg Gagne, Jim Brunzell, Sam Fatu, Michael Hayes, Terry Gordy, and Buddy Roberts appear as themselves in the film’s opening sequence at a tag-team match. The event in the film is supposedly held at Madison Square Garden, but was actually shot at Brendan Byrne Arena in New Jersey.

Gregory Widen wrote the script for Highlander, as a class assignment while he was an undergraduate in the screenwriting program at UCLA. Widen sold the script for US$200,000.

According to William Panzer, joint producer with Peter S. Davis of the Highlander franchise:

[Gregory Widen] was a student at film school, and he wrote this as his writing class project. … He was apparently travelling through Scotland on his summer vacation and he was standing in front of a suit of armor, and he wondered, “What would it be like if that guy was alive today?” And that’s where everything fell into place – the idea that there are Immortals and they were in conflict with each other, leading secret lives that the rest of us are unaware of.

Widen also used Ridley Scott‘s 1977 film The Duellists as inspiration for his story.

Widen’s original draft of the script differed significantly from the film. The initial story was darker and more violent. Connor is born in 1408 rather than 1518. He lives with his mother and father. Heather does not exist; Connor is promised to a girl named Mara, who rejects him when she learns he is immortal. Connor leaves his village instead of being banished. His alias is Richard Tupin and his weapon is a custom broadsword. Ramirez is a Spaniard born in 1100 instead of an ancient Egyptian born more than two thousand years earlier. The Kurgan is known as the Knight, using the alias Carl William Smith. He is not a savage, but a cold-blooded killer. Brenda is Brenna Cartwright.

Other elements were changed during the rewrite. Initially, immortals could have children; in the draft Connor is said to have had 37. In a flashback in the first draft, Connor attends the funeral of one of his sons. His wife (in her 70s) and his two sons, who are in their mid 50s, see him revealed as an immortal. Also, there are no quickenings in the first draft. When an immortal kills another, nothing special occurs. Nor is there mention of a “prize”. When Connor finally kills the Knight, he feels a sharp burning pain. The viewer is then not told if he remains immortal.

The budget was put up by Thorn EMI. When brought to Russell Mulcahy, the title was The Dark Knight. Filming began in April 1985 with on location shooting in Scotland in May and returning to London in June and ended July after a two-week shoot in New York City. It took place in Scotland, England, and New York City.

Director Russell Mulcahy filmed it using music video techniques including fast cutting and pacy music.

Director of photography Arthur Smith actually filmed the scene in which fish fall out of MacLeod’s kilt, but Lambert’s kilt proved to be too short. Smith said, “I stuck part of a drain pipe above Chris’s kilt out of camera range, and fed live trout down the tube.” Smith also had difficulties shooting MacLeod meeting the Kurgan. It was raining that day and the crew had to use umbrellas and hair dryers to prevent water from hitting the camera lenses and appearing on the film. Smith also remembered that Lambert, who was near-sighted, “kept forgetting to take off his glasses as he came over the hill on his horse.”

The filming of the parking garage scene took place in two different places. According to New York location manager Brett Botula, “the garage exterior is Manhattan, across from Madison Square Garden, and the interior is ‘somewhere in London.'” The pro-wrestling match in the opening scene featured The Fabulous Freebirds vs. Greg Gagne, Jim Brunzell and The Tonga Kid.

The scene where the MacLeod clan sets off to battle is supposed to take place “in the village of Glenfinnan, on the shore of Loch Shiel” in the Lochaber area, but was actually filmed at Eilean Donan Castle, which is in the same general area but is really on the shore of Loch Duich, a sea loch near Kyle of Lochalsh and the Isle of Skye.

According to the DVD commentary, the film’s climax was originally intended to take place on top of the Statue of Liberty. Then it was changed to an amusement park and finally changed to the rooftop of the Silvercup Studios building. The opening sequence was originally intended to take place during a National Hockey League game, but the NHL refused because the film crew intended to emphasize the violence of the match.

The scene in the alley where the Kurgan beheads Kastagir and stabs the former marine, followed by an explosion, was filmed in an alley in England even though it was set in New York. The director was reluctant to set off the explosion in the alley because the windows were full of Victorian glass, but he was given permission to do so because that particular site was going to be destroyed in a few months anyway.

The opening voice-over by Connery has an echo effect because it was recorded in the bathroom of his Spanish villa, where he had been working on his Spanish accent for the film with a voice coach. It was played for the producers over the phone, and they approved of it because they could not discern the quality of the recording.

Soundtrack

The Highlander original orchestral score was composed by Michael Kamen. The British rock band Marillion turned down the chance to record the soundtrack because they were on a world tour, a missed opportunity which guitarist Steve Rothery later said he regretted. The band’s Scottish lead singer, Fish, had also accepted a part in the film but pulled out because of the scheduling conflict. The eventual soundtrack includes several songs by Queen, such as “A Kind of Magic” and “Princes of the Universe” (the latter also being used for the Highlander television series title sequence). Brian May was inspired to write “Who Wants to Live Forever” after watching the love scenes between Connor and his wife Heather, which the song ultimately accompanied on the film.

Despite a mention in the end credits, to date a complete soundtrack album for Highlander has not been released. Queen’s 1986 album A Kind of Magic features several songs from the film (although sometimes in different arrangements): “Princes of the Universe”, “Gimme the Prize (Kurgan’s Theme)” (the album version includes snippets of dialogue from the film), “One Year of Love“, “Don’t Lose Your Head”, “Who Wants to Live Forever”, and “A Kind of Magic”. The album and single edits of “A Kind of Magic” feature a different mix from the one in the film; a 2011 re-release of the album includes the long-unreleased Highlander version of the song. The album does not include Queen’s recording of “Theme from New York, New York“, which features briefly in Highlander. “Hammer to Fall“, a Queen song heard playing from a car radio in one scene, was from an earlier album, The Works.

The 1995 CD Highlander: The Original Scores includes five cues from Kamen’s Highlander score (along with six cues from Stewart Copeland‘s Highlander II score, and four cues from J. Peter Robinson‘s Highlander III score). Furthermore, a rearrangement of an excerpt from Kamen’s score (specifically, the beginning of the track “The Quickening”) was used as the theme music for New Line Cinema‘s logo ident in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The video was a hit in the United States. The theatrical release of Highlander II: The Quickening in 1991 significantly increased the rental activity on Highlander even though the sequel was not a box-office success. Highlander was first released to DVD in the United States in 1997, in a “10th Anniversary Edition” Director’s Cut that contained the international uncut version of the film. A “15th Anniversary” edition was released in Australia in 2001, which also contained the International cut of the film.

Highlander was again released in 2002 in two editions: a special “Immortal Edition” with several extra features (including several Queen music videos and a bonus CD containing three Queen songs from the film) and a standard edition, both of which contain the International uncut version with remastered video and DTS ES sound. On the June 17, 2009 French distributor StudioCanal issued the film on Blu-ray with identical releases following in Germany, UK, Holland, Australia and Japan. The U.S. director’s cut is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray in North America from Lionsgate under license from the film’s current owner, StudioCanal. 20th Century Fox, the theatrical distributor, remains the television rights holder.

The film was followed by five sequels including Highlander II: The Quickening (1991), Highlander III: The Sorcerer (1994), Highlander: Endgame (2000), Highlander: The Search for Vengeance (2007) and Highlander: The Source (2007). In March 2008, Summit Entertainment announced that it had bought the film rights to Highlander and was remaking the original film under the title Highlander: The Reckoning. As of May 2018, the filming for the remake has not yet begun.

Comments are welcome on your 80s memories...