Original style-A poster
|Directed by||Russell Mulcahy|
|Produced by||Peter S. Davis
William N. Panzer
|Screenplay by||Gregory Widen
|Story by||Gregory Widen|
|Edited by||Peter Honess|
|Distributed by||EMI Films (UK)
20th Century Fox (US)
Highlander is a 1986 British-American cult 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 depicts the climax of an ages-old battle between immortal warriors, depicted through interwoven past and present day storylines.
Despite having enjoyed little success in its initial U.S. release, the cult film launched Lambert to stardom and inspired a franchise that included film sequels and television spin-offs. The film's tagline, "There can be only one", has carried on throughout the franchise, as have the songs provided for the film by Queen.
In 1985, Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), who is going by the name Russell Nash, is attending a professional wrestling match at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Overcome by a strange sensation, MacLeod exits to the stadium parking lot, where he is confronted by a man called Iman Fasil. Despite MacLeod's reluctance, the two engage in a sword fight which concludes with MacLeod beheading Fasil, at which point a powerful burst of electrical energy destroys the parking lot and surges into him. Hiding his katana, MacLeod attempts to escape but is surrounded by officers of the New York City Police Department and taken into custody.
In 1536, MacLeod—appearing to be the same age as he is in 1985—rides with his fellow clan members into battle against their rivals, the Clan Fraser, in Scotland. The Frasers have hired the services of the Kurgan (Clancy Brown), a sinister mercenary, to defeat their rivals, with the Kurgan's only demand being that MacLeod is to be left to him. MacLeod senses the Kurgan's presence before he is attacked, but he is no match for the Kurgan and is mortally wounded before his fellow clansmen can rescue him. MacLeod receives the last rites and appears to die of his injuries away from the battle field, but when he miraculously returns to life shortly after dying he is accused of witchcraft. Although his fellow clan members demand his execution, his cousin Angus takes pity on him and instead exiles MacLeod from the clan.
Back in 1985, MacLeod is questioned over the murder of Fasil and several other similar murders. It becomes clear that New York has seen an increase in violent beheadings, and although MacLeod is a chief suspect, the police lack the evidence to hold him. Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart), a police technician, is fascinated by the case, particularly when forensic dating on fragments of MacLeod's katana found at the scene date it as being over 2000 years old, far older than other katanas. Intrigued, she begins to follow and investigate “Nash”, but is rejected by him when she approaches him in a bar. At the same time the Kurgan, who has also not aged since his confrontation with MacLeod, arrives in New York under the alias Victor Kruger.
In 1541, MacLeod is married to Heather (Beatie Edney) and has settled in Glencoe, working as a blacksmith. Their peaceful lives are interrupted when MacLeod is approached by Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez (Sean Connery), who claims to be the Chief Metallurgist for Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain. He identifies himself and MacLeod as “Immortals”, a race of near-invulnerable and long-lived beings who wander the Earth concealing themselves from mortal humans; Ramírez himself was born in Ancient Egypt and has lived in Japan in 593 BC, where he acquired his katana. Ramírez explains to MacLeod that Immortals can sense each other through a form of extrasensory perception called “The Quickening” and can only permanently die if they are beheaded. As such, they participate in what they call “The Game”, an eternal contest between Immortals that will only end at the time of “The Gathering”, when the final Immortals are drawn together to battle each other until only one is left standing. The final Immortal, in turn, will receive what is only known as the Prize, the combined power of the Quickenings taken from each Immortal as they are killed. The prophecy about the Prize is worded in such a way that makes it clear that the Gathering is taking place in 1985 New York City.
Ramírez begins to tutor MacLeod in the ways of the Immortals in order to prepare him for the Game, and the two become friends. Ramírez advises that MacLeod abandon Heather, informing MacLeod that Immortals are sterile. Drawing upon his own tale of lost love with a Japanese princess, Ramírez also reminds MacLeod that Heather will eventually grow old and die, leaving him alone. MacLeod refuses to leave his wife, but one night while he is away the Kurgan returns, attacking Ramírez and Heather, as well as destroying much of the castle keep. Ramírez battles the Kurgan, but is decapitated, and when MacLeod returns he finds Heather suffering mental trauma from the experience. They remain happily married, but Heather eventually dies of old age. Devastated, MacLeod buries his wife and burns down their home, abandoning his old life and wandering the world throughout the centuries that follow. He takes Ramírez's katana as his own. MacLeod progresses throughout the centuries, with one point in the Second World War saving a Dutch girl from being murdered by an SS soldier, who is aghast to see an unscathed MacLeod despite being shot in the heart. MacLeod kills the soldier and becomes caretaker to the girl, Rachel Ellenstein, who grows up to become his secretary.
Back in 1985, Brenda witnesses a confrontation between MacLeod and the Kurgan that is in turn interrupted by the police. Intrigued, she attempts to get closer to MacLeod, but MacLeod turns her down, thinking that she is trying to set him up for the police. Despite the fact that he is gradually falling in love with Brenda, MacLeod is also still devastated over the death of Heather and refuses to let any mortal woman get close to him, certain in the knowledge that they will grow old and die while he will not.
The Kurgan battles and defeats Sunda Kastagir (Hugh Quarshie), a fellow Immortal and old friend of MacLeod’s, taking his Quickening and making himself and MacLeod the last remaining Immortals. The Kurgan becomes unstable with the power he has acquired over the centuries, believing that winning the Prize will make him all-powerful and capable of ruling the world. The Kurgan confronts MacLeod in a church as MacLeod is engaging in his annual remembrance of Heather. As Immortals cannot fight on holy ground, the Kurgan taunts MacLeod with the knowledge that he killed Ramírez and raped Heather, and MacLeod vows revenge.
Having learned that the real "Russell Nash" died in infancy, Brenda confronts MacLeod; MacLeod reveals to her that he is an Immortal. He proves his statement of immortality by having Brenda stab him only for him to return to life moments later. The two make love. As Brenda attempts to return home afterwards, she is kidnapped by the Kurgan. Using Brenda as bait, the Kurgan draws MacLeod to an abandoned film studio, where they engage in a sword duel. Although the Kurgan is powerful, MacLeod is able to decapitate him, winning the Game and claiming the Prize—a complete psychic connection to everyone and everything in the world.
As the Kurgan was earlier witnessed battling Kastagir, the police assume that he is the murderer and that “Russell Nash” is the final victim, allowing MacLeod to change his identity once again. MacLeod—now mortal, and capable of having a family—returns to the Scottish Highlands with Brenda, where he explains that he is one with all living things, and that his new powers enable him to understand everyone’s thoughts and help bring them together. The two engage in a loving embrace, and the film ends.
|Christopher Lambert||Connor MacLeod / Russell Nash|
|Sean Connery||Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez|
|Clancy Brown||The Kurgan / Victor Kruger|
|Roxanne Hart||Brenda Wyatt|
|Beatie Edney||Heather MacDonald|
|Alan North||Lieutenant Frank Moran|
|Jon Polito||Detective Walter Bedsoe|
|Sheila Gish||Rachel Ellenstein|
|Hugh Quarshie||Sunda Kastagir|
|Christopher Malcolm||Kirk Matunas|
|Peter Diamond||Iman Fasil|
|Billy Hartman||Dougal MacLeod|
|James Cosmo||Angus MacLeod|
|Celia Imrie||Kate MacLeod|
Production and development
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.
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 ex-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 with a voice coach in order to perfect the Spanish accent he used in the film). It was played for the producers over the phone and they approved of it because they could not discern the quality of the recording that way.
The Highlander original orchestral score was composed by Michael Kamen. 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 lead singer, Fish, had also been offered a part in the film. 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
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (November 2014)|
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
- Much longer fight scene between MacLeod and the Kurgan at the end of the movie
There are several changes in dialogue 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!"
- 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, it was not well-received, but it gained wide and persistent popularity in Europe and on other markets, as well as on home video. It has since obtained status as a cult classic film in both domestic and non-domestic markets, leading to four sequels, a television series, and various other spin-offs.
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. 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 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 Immortal Arab 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 Conner and Kastagir meeting in the Subway before meeting at the Bridge. One really interesting thing about the novel is that it portrays Conner and Kastagir's relationship very differently from in the film. Here they are just simply two Immortals who are simply not enemies and are just passive friends who can talk about anything without fighting.
The novel also reveals how Heather came to find out about Conner's Immortality from Ramirez, the ending of the book is also expanded by revealing that Conner went back to his Antiques store 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. "She is much like you.".
In March 2008, Summit Entertainment announced that it had bought the film rights to the Highlander franchise and is remaking the original film. Originally Iron Man writers Art Marcum and Matt Holloway were writing the script, but Summit Entertainment turned to Melissa Rosenberg to write it instead, with release scheduled for 2011. In September 2009, Fast & Furious director Justin Lin was announced as director of the film, while Neal H. Moritz was slated to co-produce. However in August, Lin dropped out of the film due to commitments to other projects and was replaced by 28 Weeks Later director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. In June 2012, Ryan Reynolds was announced to play the lead role of Connor MacLeod. Due to creative differences, Fresnadillo left in November 2012 and Reynolds also departed in June 2013.
In October 2013, Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, visual effects supervisor and second unit director on Snow White and the Huntsman, was hired to direct the film, which will be his directorial debut. Filming is set to begin in 2014 using the original script by Art Marcum and Matt Holloway. In February 2015, it was announced that Dave Bautista would play The Kurgan. 
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- Highlander at the Internet Movie Database
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