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Original style-A poster
|Directed by||Russell Mulcahy|
|Story by||Gregory Widen|
|Edited by||Peter Honess|
|Box office||$12.9 million|
Highlander is a 1986 British-American epic adventure action fantasy 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 narrates the climax of an ages-old battle between immortal warriors, depicted through interwoven past and present-day storylines.
Christopher Lambert plays swordsman Connor MacLeod from Scottish Highlands, known as the Highlander, one of a number of immortal warriors, who can only be killed 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 policewoman named Brenda and finds out that he must face his biggest enemy, Clancy Brown's Kurgan, 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 launched Lambert to stardom. The film inspired a franchise which included film sequels and television spin-offs. Its tagline, "There can be only one", has carried on throughout the franchise, as have the songs provided for the film by the rock band Queen.
In 1985, Connor MacLeod, also known as the Highlander, is in New York City. In an arena parking garage, Connor is confronted by fellow immortal Iman Fasil, and decapitates him, upon which an energy surge destroys several cars around him. He hides his sword just as police swarm the exit to the garage, and arrest Connor.
The story then flashbacks in time to the 16th century Scottish Highlands, in the village of Glenfinnan on the shores of Loch Shiel. Connor and his clan, the Clan MacLeod, prepare for battle. In 1985, the police release Connor, as they have failed to get any information from him. One of the detectives involved, Brenda Wyatt, is an expert in metallurgy and recognises Fasil's sword as an extremely rare Toledo Salamanca broadsword. Later, Connor returns to the garage to retrieve his own sword but sees Brenda is looking at the crime scene. She finds metal shards embedded in a concrete column and saves them for analysis.
In another flashback to the Highlands, The Kurgan, assists the clan Fraser against the Clan MacLeod in exchange for the sole right to slaying Connor. In the resulting confrontation the Kurgan stabs Connor but is then driven off by the MacLeod clansmen, before he can decapitate him. The wounded Connor is taken back to the village, and everyone assumes he will die. In the evening, Connor succumbs to his battlefield injuries and dies. When he makes a full, remarkable overnight recovery and comes back to life, the village is convinced that it is the work of the devil. The villagers attempt to have Connor executed, but he is instead exiled by the clan leader out of mercy.
In 1985, Connor lives under the alias Russell Nash and is a wealthy antiquities dealer. Meanwhile, the Kurgan takes up residence at a seedy motel. Connor tails Brenda to a bar, but she leaves quickly. She then tails Connor, but the Kurgan attacks them both. The fight is interrupted by a police helicopter, and everybody flees. Brenda analyzes the metal fragments and discovers them to be from a Japanese katana, dated about 600 B.C. but made with advanced technology for the era. She makes a date with Connor in an attempt to entrap him. Connor recognises the ruse, tells her to stop digging, and leaves.
In the past, Connor lived an idyllic life with his wife Heather. One day, the mysterious and flamboyant Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez appears and begins tutoring Connor in the history of immortals and sword-fighting. Ramirez explains that they both belong to a group of immortals, who constantly fight one another but can only be killed by complete decapitation. When one immortal decapitates another, the winner receives a transfer of power from his/her fallen opponent called "The Quickening". Eventually, all the immortals must do battle until there is only one left alive; the last survivor will receive "The Prize". Ramirez tells Connor that the Kurgan, by that time 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 and raping Heather.
In Central Park, Connor meets a long-time friend, fellow immortal Sunda Kastagir. They talk about "The Gathering", an impending gathering of immortals which precedes the final battle, and they joke about old times. Brenda has by now discovered that Connor has been alive for centuries, living under false identities, faking his death every few decades, signing his assets over to children who had died at birth, and assuming their identities. She confronts Connor, who demonstrates his immortality. After this revelation, Brenda and Connor become lovers although Connor is reluctant, following a flashback in which Connor's wife, Heather, dies of old age in his arms in 16th century Scotland. Ramirez has earlier explained that immortals cannot have children and must let go of people in their lives, including loved ones. Ramirez reveals his Japanese katana was made specifically for him by the father of his third wife and remarks that like her, his katana is one of a kind.
The Kurgan finds Kastagir, killing him and wounding a man who witnesses his beheading. When the Kurgan finds out about Connor's relationship with Brenda as he stalked them at the zoo, he kidnaps her to draw Connor out. After a climactic battle at the Silvercup Studios in Queens, 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 has awareness of people's thoughts around the world, and promises to use his gift to encourage cooperation and peace in mankind.
- 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. Born Tak-Ne in 896 BC, he became an immortal after being run down by an out-of-control horse and cart. At the time of meeting Connor, he had been living in Spain and working as the Chief Metallurgist to King Charles V.
- Clancy Brown as The Kurgan, a Scythian immortal living under the alias Victor Kruger. Born on the border of the Caspian Sea in the 10th century BC, he was a member of the Kurgan tribe. He travels to New York with the intention of killing the few remaining immortals and claiming the "prize".
- Roxanne Hart as Brenda Wyatt, a forensic pathologist investigating the string of beheadings in New York.
- Beatie Edney as Heather MacLeod, Connor's second wife. After Connor is banished from his village, he starts a new life with her. Unbeknownst to Connor, she was raped by the Kurgan on the same night he killed Ramirez. She lives with Connor until she dies of natural causes.
- 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 elderly secretary and adopted daughter. Saved by Connor as a child during World War II, she is one of the few people who know of 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, a Vietnam war veteran who witnesses the duel between the Kurgan and Kastigir.
- Peter Diamond as Iman Fasil, a French immortal. Born Gaultier de Savoie in 1145, he was a knight and one of the leaders of the Third Crusade. In 1985, Connor beheads him after watching a wrestling match.
- Celia Imrie as Kate MacLeod, Connor's religiously fanatic first wife. When Connor achieves immortality, Kate, convinced he is in "league with Lucifer", makes 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 Clan MacLeod.
- Corinne Russell as Candy, a prostitute.
Production and development
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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's original draft of the script differed significantly from the movie version. The initial story of the film was darker and more violent. Connor is born in 1408 rather than 1518. He lives with his mother and father. Heather doesn't exist; Connor is promised to a girl named Mara, who rejects him when she learns he's 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 entire budget was put up by Thorn EMI. 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 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 then 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.
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). Queen wrote many of the songs specifically to match the mood of the scenes when the songs play, notably Brian May's "Who Wants to Live Forever", concerning the doomed love of Connor and his wife Heather.
Despite a mention in the end credits, to date a complete soundtrack album for Highlander has not been released. However, Queen's 1986 album A Kind of Magic features most of the songs from the film (although sometimes in different arrangements). Songs from the film that appear on the album are "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 indent in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
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A number of scenes were lost in a fire. They included:
- A duel sequence that introduced an Asian immortal named Yung Dol Kim was cut from the film. The footage for the scene, along with certain other deleted scenes, was later destroyed by fire, although a few stills from the sequence, some in colour and others in black and white, survived.
- Connor, Kastagir and Bedsoe partying at a bar. The scene expanded more on Kastagir and Connor's relationship and revealed that they met during the American Revolutionary War.
- One scene in which Connor shows Brenda his katana after the sex scene.
Proposed duel in the ending
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In the scene following Connor beheading the Kurgan, Mulcahy had originally envisioned an animated dragon with the Kurgan's battle helmet emerging from his decapitated body and challenging Connor again. Only after Connor had defeated this ghost-dragon would he have received the final Quickening and subsequent Prize. This idea was eventually cut due to budget constraints.
The additional scenes include:
- MacLeod having a short flashback about his first battle in Scotland during the wrestling match
- A longer fight scene between Connor and Fasil, mainly Fasil doing backflips through the garage
- A scene showing Connor's first love, Kate, bringing him flowers before he goes to battle
- A flashback to World War II that further develops the character of Rachel Ellenstein
- Longer sex scene between Connor and Brenda
- A scene where the Kurgan can be seen in the background trailing MacLeod and Brenda at the zoo
- Longer fight scene between MacLeod and the Kurgan at the end of the movie
There are several changes in dialogue and sound effects from the theatrical version:
- Whooshing sounds whenever one Immortal senses another
- When Connor and Ramirez jump into the water during training, Ramirez (in the theatrical version) shouts, "MacLeod, this is the Quickening!". This dialogue is back in the 2016 Remastered Edition.
- When Connor is talking about the 1783 bottle of wine (in the theatrical version), after he says, "Brandy, bottled in 1783", Brenda's head can be seen moving but she speaks no dialogue. In the new release, she says, "Wow, that's old."
- After Connor wins the Prize and is being comforted by Brenda (in the theatrical version), he looks up and says, "I want to go home." This is missing in the new release.
The new release is also missing a short scene of Detective Bedsoe spilling coffee on himself while staking out Brenda's apartment.
The French theatrical version of Highlander is mainly the same version as the U.S. theatrical. It includes the World War II flashback but it removes the interior shot of Detective Bedsoe in his car while on a stakeout. This has been issued on 2-disc and 3-disc DVD sets in France with French dialogue only.
Release and reception
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.
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.
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." 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." 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".
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." 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."
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." 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."
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."
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.
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 Ramirez. 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 Ramirez and Heather. He finds two timbers and fashions a crude cross, telling Heather that she would like Brenda, because "She is much like you."
In March 2008, Summit Entertainment announced that it had bought the film rights to the Highlander franchise and was remaking the original film under the title Highlander: The Reckoning. As of November 2016, the filming has not yet begun.
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