For my money, Highlander (1986) has one of the coolest premises of any adventure/fantasy film to come out of the 1980s – a decade chock full of classic genre films. It depicts a timeless battle between beings known as “Immortals,” warriors that have lived for centuries and are scattered all over the world. They can identify the presence of another through senses known as “The Quickening,” and can only be killed by decapitation. These immortal beings are bound together in an eternal contest that culminates at a time known as “The Gathering” where those that remain will battle it for the final Prize, where the last remaining Immortal receives the combined powers from all the others of his kind that have been killed. This fascinating premise is ripe for all kinds of possibilities, which may explain why Highlander, despite its lackluster box office, went on to spawn three sequels, a live-action television show and even an animated one.
From an early scene that features dizzying camerawork dramatically swooping and gliding its way through Madison Square Garden before zooming in on Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert introduced in moody noir lighting), Highlander flaunts its stylistic flourishes with pride. This continues with an exciting swordfight deep in the bowels of the legendary auditorium as MacLeod faces off against another Immortal by the name of Iman Fasil (Peter Diamond) in an underground parking garage. These fights are the highlights of the film and director Russell Mulcahy fills them with sparking swords, flips, near misses, atmospheric rain effects and the climactic beheading that ends all battles between these beings. It isn’t mentioned often, but Highlander has some truly expertly choreographed swordplay that I would rank on par with the Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader duel in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), but still not as good as the one in The Princess Bride (1987), which is still the gold standard for that era. That being said, the ones in Highlander are exciting and visceral.
The opening fight brilliantly sets the stylish tone for the rest of the film as it proceeds to flash back and forth from MacLeod’s days as a 16th century highlander, where he first discovered immortality, to the present day where his centuries-old feud with an Immortal named The Kurgan (Clancy Brown) culminates in The Gathering in the heart of New York City. After the opening battle, MacLeod, now going under the name of Russell Nash, is immediately picked up for questioning and crosses paths with Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart), a forensics expert intrigued by the enigmatic murder suspect and the rare weapon that was used.
At the time of Highlander’s release, French actor Christopher Lambert was at the height of his international stardom, fresh from the high-profile role in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984). If his thick accent is jarring, he certainly looks the part, especially in the contemporary scenes with his slick ‘80s attire and brooding good looks. At times, he struggles with his dialogue, which is a bit distracting, and it doesn’t help that he’s sometimes saddled with clunky words, especially his initial interaction with the police, which is laughably bad.
Once you get past Lambert’s dodgy on again, off again Scottish accent, the flashback scenes come to life once Sean Connery appears as Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez, a fellow Immortal that teaches MacLeod about the Quickening and prepares him for battle with Kurgan. Connery brings his trademark charisma to these scenes playing a gregarious adventurer with a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he puts Lambert’s MacLeod through his paces. There’s a fantastic swashbuckling vibe to these scenes, which makes Ramirez’s demise that much more painful because of how much we’ve grown to admire him in the short time he’s on-screen. As an aside, I always find it amusing how the film doesn’t address the jarring clash of Ramirez’s Spanish name with Connery’s Scottish accent and then throws in the detail that his character is Egyptian!
A film this steeped in fantastical elements needs a larger than life villain and has one with Clancy Brown’s muscular performance as Kurgan. He has an imposing presence and clearly relishes playing up his character’s nastier tendencies. Kurgan loves being an evil Immortal, plain and simple. Brown has a wonderfully gravelly voice, which he uses to full effect when he openly taunts MacLeod every chance he gets. Actors love playing bad guys in films because it allows them to cut loose and play colorful characters chock full of bad behavior. You can tell that Brown is having a blast with the role as evident in the way Kurgan gleefully torments Brenda after kidnapping her and driving into oncoming traffic just to scare her. To add insult to injury, he even mocks her terrified reaction. I also like how, in the present day, Kurgan dresses up like a punk rocker, which is in sharp contrast to MacLeod’s expensive suits.
Roxanne Hart plays the intrepid Brenda Wyatt who has the smarts and the tenacity to figure out who Nash is and in the process fall in love with the Immortal. For most of the film she plays a fairly proactive character until the last third when she’s reduced to a damsel in distress as MacLeod and Kurgan battle it out. The scene where Kurgan terrorizes Brenda is an interesting one in that it is where Highlander dips its toe in the horror genre as the villain takes his captive on a guided tour of New York all to the strains of Queen covering “Theme from New York, New York.” He delights in pushing her to see how much of his kamikaze driving she can take until passing out. To be fair, she is clearly out of her depth and can’t hope to compete with the likes of these beings. Hart is obviously beautiful, but there’s a down-to-earth or levelheaded quality to Brenda that grounds the character – something that seems absent from a lot of adventure/fantasy films in the 1990s and beyond.
Gregory Widen wrote the screenplay for Highlander as a class project while studying film at UCLA. It was inspired by a hitchhiking trip he made across Europe when he was 20-years-old. “I was standing in the Tower of London amid the world’s largest armory collection. And it suddenly struck me, what if I owned all this and had actually worn the armor in battle?” Based on this idea, he wrote a script that his screenwriting teacher really liked. He gave Widen a lot of encouragement and support. This gave him the confidence to send his script to various agents and it was eventually bought by producers Peter S. Davis and Bill Panzer in 1982. They were fans of adventure films and it was this element that drew them to Widen’s script. It was originally much darker in tone before being rewritten by Peter Bellwood and then Larry Ferguson, much to Widen’s chagrin: “Along the way it has gotten more black and white in the lines drawn between who is good and who is evil,” and this was done by altering the dialogue to “give the characters a different feel.” However, the producers weren’t happy with their rewrites and brought Widen back in to rewrite the rewrites!
Early on, the producers decided that the material required an unconventional approach and opted for a director that could bring a unique style to the film. They picked Russell Mulcahy after seeing his first film Razorback (1984) and a collection of his music videos. He was originally slated to direct Heavy Metal: The Movie (1981), but when no one could agree on a central storyline he moved on and read the script for Highlander: “It leapt off the page as instant visuals.”
Kurt Russell was originally cast as MacLeod and Catherine Mary Stewart as Brenda, but the former decided not to do it based on advice from his girlfriend Goldie Hawn, while the latter “suddenly became unavailable.” Christopher Lambert was cast based on his work in Greystoke and Luc Besson’s Subway (1985). He read the script and loved the idea of playing an immortal. Sean Connery received an impressive one million dollars for only seven days of shooting, which required long days in order to complete all of his scenes.
Financed by Thorn-EMI Screen Entertainment on a budget of $16 million, Highlander was shot over 70 days starting in late April 1985 with filming taking place on location in Scotland during May before returning to London in June. Principal photography ended in July after two weeks in New York City. Mulcahy was used to working very fast and shooting a lot of film. During the first week of filming some people on the production had difficulty keeping up and quit as a result. For certain sequences, he drew on other films for inspiration. For example, the swordfight between Ramirez and Kurgan was inspired by the films of Errol Flynn and the skeleton swordfight in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958).
Connery and Lambert were taught a stylized fighting style that combined samurai technique with swordsmanship styles through the centuries, including intensive fencing training. English stunt coordinator Peter Diamond claimed that the two actors did 95% of their own swordplay and stunts. The climactic battle was originally supposed to take place on the Statue of Liberty, but when it featured prominently in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985), they re-staged it under the famous Silvercup sign, which the producers spotted on a location scout.
Highlander did not receive very many positive notices when it was first released. In his review for The New York Times, Walter Goodman wrote, “Since none of the characters makes sense even on the movie’s own terms, Highlander keeps on exploding for almost two hours, with nothing at stake.” Gene Siskel gave it one-and-a-half stars and wrote, “Oh, how one wishes for some human moments in Highlander. If these are indeed the people who are going to save our planet, as the film suggests in quick conclusion, well, maybe it’s a good time to consider buying an acre in Montana or someplace else remote.” Leonard Maltin also gave it the same rating and wrote, “Former rock video director Mulcahy’s relentless showy camera moves may have you reaching for the Dramamine.” However, People magazine, of all periodicals, wrote, “This picture is a mesmerizing triumph of style over substance. Director Russell Mulcahy, a music video director, has turned what might have been just another wacky fantasy adventure into a moody combination of Blade Runner, The Terminator and your last really good nightmare.”
Highlander is a stylish film whose look epitomized the ‘80s music video aesthetic thanks to the flashy direction by Mulcahy who helmed some of the most iconic videos of the era, including ones for bands like Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and The Buggles. Speaking of music, from the rousing anthem, “Princes of the Universe,” that kicks things off, the Queen songs that feature prominently in the film act almost as a Greek chorus, commenting on the action. This is particularly evident with “Who Wants to Live Forever,” a ballad that plays during the scene where MacLeod outlives his 16th century Scottish wife (Beatie Edney) and serves to underline the tragic aspect of his existence. He will outlive any woman that he becomes romantically involved with and watch them get old while he doesn’t age.
Highlander delivers on its intriguing premise with an action-packed adventure featuring a hero that is a bit of a tragic figure – doomed to live forever, always looking over his shoulder for others of his kind that are determined to kill him so that they can achieve the Prize. Widen’s screenplay wisely doesn’t try to over-explain the film’s mythology, which allows us to fill in the gaps by using our imagination – something that is not evident in the subsequent sequels.
Jones, Alan. “The Making of Highlander.” Cinefantastique. May 1986.
Pirani, Adam. “On Location with Highlander.” Starlog. March 1986.
Rabkin, William. “Greg Widen – The Route to Writing Highlander.” Starlog. June 1986.
Further reading: check out John Kenneth Muir's excellent look at this film over at his blog.