In the pantheon of ludicrous Eighties action movies , Highlander is a cut above. This tale of kilt-wearing immortals engaged in mutually-assured decapitation to the strains of Queen featured Sean Connery as a swashbuckling Egyptian (with a Spanish name) and Christopher Lambert as a salty Scotsman with an impenetrable Eurotrash accent.
There were cartoon demons, multiple beheadings and a villain capable of demolishing an entire castle armed with a sword and a leer. Later, it would spawn sequels so terrible they made the original look like Lawrence of Arabia.
But Highlander was hokum with a heart. In a genuinely wrenching twist, the true enemy of eponymous Highlands warrior Connor MacLeod is not cackling barbarian The Kurgan but time itself. One of a secret race of “Immortals”, MacLeod (Lambert) is doomed to stay forever young as those around him shrivel and die.
A montage in which wife Heather (Beatie Edney) grows old even as he remains fresh-faced is moving because it speaks to the nagging awareness we all have of our limited span on this earth.
Here was a splash of nuance unique in the Eighties action genre. It won Highlander an enduring cult following; this month sees the release of a long-awaited digitally restored cut marking the film’s 30th anniversary.
“It’s this violent tale of immortals fighting to the death but there’s this subplot, a tragic love story,” said Queen guitarist Brian May when promoting the band’s tie-in album, A Kind Of Magic in 1986 (May was inspired to write Who Wants To Live Forever after watching Heather’s death scene). “The hero cannot die but he falls in love with people who can. He falls in love with this girl in the Highlands.
“She grows old and he has to say good bye to her. It’s a strange kind of tragedy. I related that to my own life, to everyone’s life. Love always comes to an end.”
There was as much drama off screen as on. The shoot, in London, New York and western Scotland, was riven with tensions between Highlander’s hot-shot director, an often confused cast, and a studio that wanted to crank the picture out as quickly and cheaply as possible.
Watching in growing disbelief was the writer of the original script, Gregory Widen, who had come up with the story as a class assignment at film school in Los Angeles when he was just 20 and was encouraged by a lecturer to send it to an agent on spec.
“It was a UCLA film project. I got an A – and a house,” jokes Widen, who would go on to script Ron Howard-Robert De Niro firefighter romp Backdraft and to write and direct the supernatural thriller Prophecy. “The idea of the story was basically a combination of a riff on The Duelists – guy wants to finish a duel over years– and a visit I made both to Scotland and the Tower of London armour display, where I thought, ‘What if you owned all this? What if you'd worn it all through history and were giving someone a tour of your life through it?’ That scene is basically in the movie.”
Though some of that pathos survives, Highlander is considerably more winking than Widen envisaged, a fact that rankles to this day. “There were logic issues that crept in after me that make me cringe.” he says. “Like Connor being all jokey as he's run-through by a sword during a duel. The whole idea was that they don't die but they feel agonising pain. There's moments where the production kinda winged it and silly stuff like that crept in.”
Widen had conceived Highlander as dark and earnest, MacLeod wearily soldering through the centuries until that final face-off with the Kurgan in modern New York during an Immortal smack-down called “The Quickening”.
But brooding melodrama was not on the wish list of producers Peter S. Davis and Bill Panzer, or of director Mulcahy, a musical video veteran with a Duran Duran haircut.
One source of conflict was the fact that actor Clancy Brown, perfectly cast as the hulking Kurgan, shared Widen’s vision of a bleaker movie (he also felt the Kurgan would look better in a suit and bowler hat than in the leather and denim he ended up sporting).
“I was on the set,” recalls Widen. “That was complicated because Clancy Brown preferred my take on his character and some dust-ups happened over it with the producers.”
“It’s amazing how many times the movie steps out of itself, particularly some of the stuff with the Kurgan,” Widen elaborated in another interview several years ago. “Clancy had a real problem with that. He hated what he was being asked to do. He used to come to me complaining about it. He used to come to me and I didn’t know what to tell him. I did think it was a little jokey. What is essentially a very serious person with a serious issue was tarted up a little bit.
“Kurgan was the thing that was most different about my screenplay. He was much more tortured. The Kurgan in Highlander as it is is pretty much like Freddy [Krueger] – he’s just a cackling psychopath. I envisaged him as a guy who loses everything over time.
“The only thing he could hold onto, to give him a reason to get up in the morning, was to finish this thing – finish it with our guy [MacLeod]. It was more about that…it was just a reason to get up in the morning. Otherwise, what is the point? Everything is impermanent, everything is lost. That made him much more serious – in a weird way, a sympathetic bad guy.”
“It was a strange set,” Brown would muse in a Reddit Ask Me Anything session in 2014. “We were all trying to make a good movie, and the producers were trying to make money any way they could, so there were a lot of things we had to work around, do on the cheap because of those producers.
“I wasn’t getting paid anything, Sean [Connery] was getting paid a lot, so you have to decide if you’re going to have fun or not. The only thing I could have on that set was fun, so that’s what I had! It’s not one of my favourite experiences making that movie, although I did have fun on it,. The circumstances of making it were very hard. And not pleasant, for a lot of people.”
Connery was indeed handsomely recompensed, receiving $1 million for just seven days work playing MacLeod’s dashing mentor Ramirez (he was off to start on The Untouchables straight afterwards).
To save time, many of his reaction shots were filmed in advance while the famous Ramirez voiceover with which Highlander opens was recorded by Connery in the bathroom of his holiday villa in Spain. Listening in on the phone, the producers agreed it sounded fine. Later, it was discovered that the recorder had picked up an echo, which ended up in the film.
Adding to the stress was the director’s determination to cast Lambert, notwithstanding that the 28-year old was unknown to American audiences and not exactly fluent in English. The actor had caught Mulcahy’s eye in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan Lord of the Apes and having failed to convince Kurt Russell to take the part he was set on the Frenchman.
“Flicking through a magazine I saw of photo of Christopher Lambert from Greystoke,” Mulcahy told the Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival last year. “I said, ‘who’s this?’ They had no idea. He couldn’t speak English. But he had the perfect look. And he learned English very fast.”
Highlander is one of the great cult hits of the Eighties, with four sequels, two television spin-offs and countless tie-in novels and video games . Yet it was initially a flop in the United States, where it recouped just $6 million of a $16 million budget. It was in Europe that it would initially find an audience, thanks to Lambert’s star power in his native France and the popularity of Queen’s A Kind Of Magic.
"Queen turned up," Mulcahy recalled of the Paris premiere. "There were crowds of fans outside and giant cut out billboard things of Sean [Connery] and Chris [Lambert] and it was just like, 'Woah!' It was this whole totally different experience. Years later, it came out on video and caught on and it became internationally successful. The Paris premiere was really a shocking surprise though. It was like going to a rock concert. It was quite emotional.”
Eighties action movies have generally not aged well. Yet Highlander stands up today, despite chintzy special effects and occasionally creaking dialogue. Unlike other bash-em ups of similar vintage, it has a core of humanity. At its best it ceases to be a biff-tastic guilty pleasure and tugs at the heart strings.
“I was a 20 year-old college kid when I wrote it,” says Widen. “Many of the films I've done since might make some people's list of "top 20 favourite movies". Highlander is still the one where people say it's their favourite. I'm okay with that.”
A restored version of Highlander will receive its world premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival on June 18
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