Highlander (film)

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Highlander 1986,poster.jpg
Directed byRussell Mulcahy
Produced by
Screenplay by
Story byGregory Widen[1]
Music byMichael Kamen[1]
Edited byPeter Honess[1]
Highlander Productions[1]
Distributed byColumbia-Cannon-Warner (United Kingdom)
20th Century Fox (United States)
Release date
  • 7 March 1986 (1986-03-07) (Los Angeles)
Running time
111 minutes[1]
CountryUnited Kingdom[1]
Budget$19 million[2]
Box office$12.9 million[3]

Highlander is a 1986 British fantasy action-adventure 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 Connor MacLeod, born in the Scottish Highlands in the 16th century. MacLeod is trained by the swordsman Ramírez (Sean Connery), who explains they both were born with "the Quickening", a power making them invincible to death unless beheaded. Immortals wage a secret war, the victors absorbing the Quickening of those they behead, and one day the "Gathering" will happen when the last few will fight for "the Prize": enough power and knowledge to enslave humanity. Becoming a skilled warrior, the Scottish Highlander lives for several centuries, eventually settling in New York City. In 1985, with only a few immortals left alive, it is finally the time of the Gathering and MacLeod must make sure the Prize is not won by his oldest enemy, the murderous Kurgan (Clancy Brown).

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.[citation needed]


In 1985, Connor MacLeod is confronted by Iman Fasil in the parking garage of Madison Square Garden. After a sword duel, MacLeod beheads Fasil and absorbs power from the dead man. Police officers detain Connor for murder, later releasing him due to lack of evidence.

MacLeod's history is revealed through a series of flashbacks. 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 delivers a fatal stab-wound to Connor but is driven off before he can behead the man. Connor makes a complete recovery, prompting accusations of witchcraft. Banished, he wanders the highlands, becoming a blacksmith and marrying a woman named Heather.

Don Juan Sánchez-Villalobos Ramírez appears, claiming to be from Spain before revealing he is originally Egyptian. He explains to Connor that they and the Kurgan, whom he was tracking, were born with a rare gift making them immortal. After their First Death, they no longer age and can only die if decapitated. Immortals are empowered by "the Quickening," energy granting a special connection to living things and letting them detect each other. Since immortals can absorb another's Quickening by killing them, some hunt others for power, a "Game" with one rule: never fight on "holy ground." When only a few are left, they will be drawn to a faraway land for "the Gathering" and battle for "the Prize," the combined energy of all immortals, enough power and knowledge to enslave humanity. MacLeod does not care, wanting only a family with Heather. But Ramírez reveals immortals cannot have children and believes they must ensure someone like the Kurgan does not win the Prize. "In the end, there can be only one."

Ramírez trains MacLeod and the two become friends. One night while Connor is away, the Kurgan attacks and kills Ramírez then leaves, thinking MacLeod has left the area. After Heather dies of old age years later, Connor wanders Earth, adopting Ramírez's katana sword as his own. The sword is one of a kind, made by a Japanese "genius" in 593 BC. In 1985, it is the time of the Gathering and the Kurgan comes to New York where MacLeod now lives as an antique dealer under the alias "Russell Nash," working with his confidant Rachel Ellenstein. The director's cut reveals Rachel is MacLeod's adopted daughter, a child he rescued from Nazis during World War II.

Brenda Wyatt, a metallurgy expert working for the police as a forensic scientist, finds shards of Connor's sword at the crime scene and is puzzled they come from a Japanese sword dated around 600 B.C. but made with medieval-era methods. Brenda witnesses the Kurgan attack "Nash" and the two fight briefly before police arrive, forcing them to flee. She meets with Nash twice afterward, hoping to learn about the paradoxical sword. Connor tells her to leave him alone.

Connor reunites with fellow immortal Sunda Kastagir, a friend who wishes to catch up rather than fight. After they part ways, Kastagir fights the Kurgan and dies. Brenda investigates Nash and finds evidence he has been alive for centuries. On Heather's birthday, Connor lights a candle for her in a Roman Catholic Church. The Kurgan arrives and confirms he and the Highlander are now the last two immortals. He also reveals he raped Heather after killing Ramírez. Prohibited from fighting on holy ground, Connor leaves.

Brenda confronts Connor, who explains his true identity. After spending the night together, they part company but the Kurgan finds Brenda and kidnaps her to draw out the Highlander. Connor decides regardless of his survival, it's time to leave behind his Russel Nash identity. He says goodbye to Rachel and confronts his enemy at Silvercup Studios in Queens. After a prolonged battle, the Kurgan is killed and the Highlander earns the Prize. Connor returns to Scotland with Brenda and reveals he's now a mortal man who can age and have children. Along with this, he has knowledge of all previous immortals and can read the thoughts and feelings of people all around the world. Rather than abuse the power, he hopes to encourage cooperation, understanding, and peace among humanity.


  • Christopher Lambert as Connor MacLeod, a 16th-century immortal born in Glenfinnan, Scotland near the shores of Loch Shiel. Under the alias Russell Nash, the Scottish Highlander lives and works as an antique dealer in New York in 1985.
  • Sean Connery as Juan Sánchez-Villalobos Ramírez, an Egyptian immortal who later lives for a time in Japan and then later still in Spain. Learning the Kurgan has targeted Connor MacLeod, Ramírez tracks down the Highlander and becomes his mentor in the ways of immortals.
  • Clancy Brown as The Kurgan, Connor's nemesis, said to be a member of the Kurgan tribe. In 1985, he travels to New York under the name "Victor Kruger" intending to kill the few remaining immortals and claim "The Prize."
  • Roxanne Hart as Brenda Wyatt, a forensic scientist and published metallurgy expert helping to investigate the string of beheadings in New York City.
  • Beatie Edney as Heather MacLeod, Connor's first wife. After Connor is banished from his village, he starts a new life with her. She lives with the eternally youthful Connor for many years until she dies of old age.
  • Alan North as Lt. Frank Moran, Brenda's colleague in the NYPD.
  • Jon Polito as Det. Walter Bedsoe, an NYPD detective working alongside Moran.
  • Sheila Gish as Rachel Ellenstein, Connor's middle-aged secretary and adopted daughter. Saved from the Nazis by Connor when she was a Jewish child during The Holocaust, Rachel is one of the few mortal 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 the villain's sword.
  • Peter Diamond as Iman Fasil, a French immortal. He attacks Connor before the Highlander can have a chance to draw his own sword. Despite this, Connor defeats and beheads him.
  • Celia Imrie as Kate MacLeod, Connor's lover in 1536, before he met Heather. Convinced Connor's immortality means he is "in league with Lucifer", Kate 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 leaders of the MacLeod Clan.
  • Corinne Russell as Candy, a prostitute hired by 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.[4][5]

Production and development[edit]


Gregory Widen wrote the script for Highlander, as a class assignment while he was an undergraduate in the screenwriting program at UCLA.[6] 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 ...[7]

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 that he is immortal. Connor willingly leaves his village, instead of being banished. His alias is Richard Tupin and his weapon is a custom broadsword. Ramírez 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. He then senses another Immortal and is implied to be heading towards them to kill them, continuing the Game.


Scotland's Eilean Donan Castle and its bridge featured prominently in the film

The budget was put up by Thorn EMI.[2] When brought to Russell Mulcahy, the title was The Dark Knight.[8] 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.[citation needed] It took place in Scotland, England, and New York City.[9]

Director Russell Mulcahy filmed it using music video techniques including fast cutting and pacy music.[10]

On filming a scene underwater in a Scottish loch, Lambert said, "The first time it's a surprise. I thought the water would be cold, but not that cold. The second time you know it is going to be freezing. The third time you turn away and you say, ‘That's the last take you're doing’".[11] 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."[12]

Bow Bridge in Central Park

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.'"[13] The pro-wrestling match in the opening scene featured The Fabulous Freebirds vs. Greg Gagne, Jim Brunzell and The Tonga Kid.[14]

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.[9] 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.[9]

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.[citation needed]

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.[15]


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.[16] The band's Scottish lead singer, Fish, had also accepted a part in the film but pulled out because of the scheduling conflict.[17] 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).[18] 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.[15]

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.

Release and reception[edit]

Highlander opened in Los Angeles on March 7, 1986.[19] The film had an 116 minute running time in the United Kingdom and a 111 minute running time in the United States.[1] Roughly eight minutes of footage was cut from the film for its U.S. theatrical release. Most of the cuts were sequences involving a specifically European brand of humor which the distributors thought American audiences would not find funny, such as Connor being repeatedly head-butted by one of his clansmen, the duelist shooting his assistant, and the Kurgan licking the priest's hand.[9] The cut Mulcahy found most objectionable was the deletion of the scene showing how Connor met Rachel, because he could see no reason for its removal and believed that the relationship between Connor and Rachel was incomprehensible without it.[9]

Upon initial U.S. release, Highlander was not well-received, but it gained wide and persistent popularity in Europe and other markets, as well as on home video. It has since become a cult film in both domestic and non-domestic markets, leading to four sequels, a television series, and various other spin-offs.[20]

The film grossed $2.4 million on its opening weekend and ended with $5.9 million in the US. Internationally, the film grossed $12.9 million.[3]

Highlander holds an approval rating of 69% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 35 reviews, with an average rating of 6.1/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "People hate Highlander because it's cheesy, bombastic, and absurd. And people love it for the same reasons."[21] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 24 out of 100 based on 7 critics, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews".[22]

Danél Griffin of Film as Art awarded the film four stars (out of four), saying: "The key to Highlander's success is in its approach to its subject matter. What could have been a premise that breathes cliché is given a fresh approach due to Mulcahy's unique directing style and a cleverly-written script. ... Highlander is certainly a classic film that will continue to be cherished and watched as the world of movie making continues to grow and change. It is a triumphant example of the art of cinema, and watching it reminds us all of why we like going to the movies in the first place."[23] Christopher Null of FilmCritic.com gave the film four and a half stars out of five, writing: "Highlander has no equal among sword-and-sorcery flicks."[24] Null later called Highlander "the greatest action film ever made," saying that it features "awesome swordfights, an awesome score, and a time-bending plotline that only a philistine could dislike".[25]

Matt Ford of the BBC gave the film three stars out of five, writing: "From the moody, rain-soaked, noir-ish streets of late 20th century America to the wild open spaces of medieval Scotland, Mulcahy plunders movie history to set off his visceral fight scenes with suitably rugged locations. ... What the film loses through ham acting, weak narrative, and pompous macho posturing it more than compensates with in sheer fiery bravado, pace, and larger than life action."[26] Dean Winkelspecht of DVD Town also gave Highlander three stars out of five, writing: "The film's slow pace and dated look will turn away many a new viewer ... However, there is a certain appeal to the film that brings back many for a second or third helping. I have learned to appreciate the film over the years, [and] the film's story is unique and entertaining."[27]

Also giving the film three stars out of five, Adam Tyner of DVD Talk wrote, "The screenplay spots a number of intelligent, creative ideas, and I find the very concept of displacing the sword-and-sorcery genre to then-modern-day New York City to be fairly inventive. The dialogue and performances don't quite match many of the film's concepts, though. The tone seems somewhat uneven, as if Highlander is unsure if it wants to be seen as a straight adventure epic or if it's a campy action flick."[28] IGN, awarding Highlander a score of 8 out of 10, wrote: "This 80s classic has a lot going for it. The hardcore MTV manner in which it was filmed is common these days, but was groundbreaking then. This movie features some of the best scene transitions committed to celluloid. ... To this is added some fun performances by Connery and especially Clancy Brown."[29]

Leonard Maltin gave the film one and a half stars: "Interesting premise made silly and boring ... Former rock video director Mulcahy's relentlessly showy camera moves may cause you to reach for the Dramamine."[30]

Home video release[edit]

The video was a hit in the United States.[31] 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.[32] 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.[29] A "15th Anniversary" edition was released in Australia in 2001, which also contained the International cut of the film.[33]

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.[34] On the June 17, 2009 French distributor StudioCanal issued the film on Blu-ray[35] with identical releases following in Germany,[36] UK,[37] Holland, Australia and Japan.[38] 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, while television rights currently stand with The Walt Disney Company, parent company of theatrical distributor 20th Century Fox.



A novelization of the film was written by Garry Kilworth under the pen name "Garry Douglas". It expanded more on the movie by telling how the Kurgan met his first death and describing his training with an Arabian Immortal known as "The Bedouin", whom he eventually kills. The novel also reveals how the Kurgan gets his customized broadsword and his battle with an Immortal Mongol before meeting MacLeod in 1536. The novel also introduces an alternate scene, showing Connor and Kastagir, meeting in the Subway before meeting at the Bridge. Connor and Kastagir's relationship is portrayed differently than it is in the film. In the novel, despite both being Immortals, they are passive friends who can talk about anything without fighting. The novel also reveals how Heather came to find out about Connor's immortality from Ramírez. The ending of the book is also expanded by revealing that Connor went back to his antique shop to say his final goodbye to Rachel before leaving for Scotland. Once he and Brenda arrive in Scotland, they tour for two months and then open an antique shop in Camden Alley. On one occasion, he returns to the Scottish Uplands alone and stares at the remnants of his home with Heather. There is no croft there but he finds a few stones from the fallen tor and locates the burial place of Ramírez and Heather. He finds two timbers and fashions a crude cross, telling Heather that she would like Brenda because "she is much like you".

Sequels and planned or possible remake[edit]

The film was followed by five sequels including Highlander II: The Quickening (1991), Highlander III: The Sorcerer (1994), Highlander: Endgame (2000), the anime Highlander: The Search for Vengeance (2007) and Highlander: The Source (2007). Apart from The Search for Vengeance, all the sequels received very negative reviews, with the first one considered among the worst films ever made.[39]

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.[40][41][42] As of May 2020, the filming for the remake has not yet begun.[43]


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  2. ^ a b Andrew Yule, Hollywood a Go-Go: The True Story of the Cannon Film Empire, Sphere Books, 1987 p138
  3. ^ a b "Highlander". The Numbers. Retrieved April 16, 2015.
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  31. ^ Ryan, Desmond (August 26, 1991). "Och, laddie, Highlander won't die". The Toronto Star. p. D2. ISSN 0319-0781.
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External links[edit]