Highlander (1986)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #43

There can be only one.

Country: UK
Language: English
Runtime: 116 minutes | 111 minutes (US theatrical cut)
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 7th March 1986 (USA)
UK Release: 29th August 1986
First Seen: TV, 6th October 2000 (probably)

Stars
Christopher Lambert (Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, Mortal Kombat)
Sean Connery (Goldfinger, The Rock)
Roxanne Hart (The Verdict, Pulse)
Clancy Brown (The Shawshank Redemption, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie)

Director
Russell Mulcahy (The Shadow, Resident Evil: Extinction)

Screenwriters
Peter Bellwood (St. Helens, Highlander II: The Quickening)
Larry Ferguson (Beverly Hills Cop II, The Hunt for Red October)
Gregory Widen (Backdraft, The Prophecy)

Story by
Gregory Widen (see above)

The Story
Connor MacLeod is an immortal, a race of men living in secret among the rest of us, who must one day come together for the Gathering, after which there can be only one immortal left standing. That time comes in New York, 1985, as hulking savage the Kurgan hunts down the remaining immortals so that he can be the only one, and use the power that imbues to dominate the world. MacLeod is the only man in his way. Who will win? After all, there can be only— yeah, okay, you get it.

Our Hero
There can be only one Connor MacLeod, the 16th Century Scotsman with a suspiciously European accent who can live forever (who wants to live forever, anyway?)… unless someone lops his head off. That tends to do for most people, to be fair.

Our Villain
The strong and silent type, the Kurgan is certainly a physically imposing menace. Also immortal except for the decapitation thing. Wants MacLeod’s head, literally.

Best Supporting Character
Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez — the perpetually Scottish-accented Sean Connery as an Egyptian from Spain. It’s that kind of movie.

Memorable Quote
Connor MacLeod: “I’ve been alive for four and a half centuries, and I cannot die.”
Brenda: “Well, everyone has got their problems.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“There can be only one!” — everyone

Memorable Scene
(Spoilers!) As Connor talks with his assistant Rachel, an old woman, the film flashes back to World War 2: fleeing from Nazi soldiers, Connor runs into a barn, where he discovers a little girl hiding — Rachel. When a German officer turns up, Connor takes a bullet for her… then gets up and kills the officer, of course. This scene wasn’t even in the truncated US theatrical cut (it’s the largest single deletion, as detailed here), but has always stuck in my mind. It’s one of the best executions of the concept of the immortal: his only friend, an old woman, is someone he rescued as a little girl. (Short-lived half-decent US procedural crime series Forever explored this same concept more thoroughly over its single season a couple of years ago.)

Memorable Song
Who Wants to Live Forever is one of Queen’s best songs — and it was written by Brian May on the cab ride home after watching some rough footage from the movie! The band had only intended to record one song for the film, but after enjoying that footage they were inspired to compose more. The exact number of tracks they produced varies depending which source you listen to — they’re all on the A Kind of Magic album, but not all the tracks on that album were for Highlander. The exception is their recording of New York, New York for the film, which has never been released.

Technical Wizardry
Before CGI, filmmakers had to find other ways to do things like make swords spark when they clash. Animation was one method, of course. Not in Highlander, though. No, they attached a wire to each sword that then went down the arms of the actors to a car battery. One wire was connected to the positive terminal, the other to the negative terminal, so that when the blades touched there was an arc of electricity. Sounds super safe. Imagine the insurance costs of possibly electrocuting two lead actors…

Letting the Side Down
You might say the accents, but I think they’re part of the charm.

Making of
The opening scene was scripted to take place during a hockey match, emphasising the violence of the sport in contrast to the flashbacks of Connor warring in Scotland. The NHL weren’t impressed and refused permission. It was replaced with a wrestling match, which is presumably less violent than hockey.

Next time…
There should be only one! No one pays much attention to anything Highlander-related beyond the first film anymore, it feels like, but there’s a whopping great franchise lurking underneath that surface. It begins with much-maligned sequel Highlander II: The Quickening, also directed by Mulcahy and starring Lambert and Connery, which is set in the future and explains away the immortals as being aliens, or something. In spite of the minor improvement in the form of a “Renegade Version” director’s cut, the rest of the franchise ignores it. Spin-off TV series Highlander: The Series began in 1992, following the adventures of Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul), another immortal from the same clan. It ran for six seasons, begetting a spin-off of its own, Highlander: The Raven, which only lasted one. An animated series set in a post-apocalyptic future began in 1994, titled Highlander: The Animated Series (imaginative with their names, weren’t they?), which followed “the last of the MacLeods”, Quentin. It lasted for 40 episodes across two seasons. Also in 1994, second sequel Highlander III: The Sorcerer (aka Highlander: The Final Dimension) returned to the story of Connor MacLeod, ignoring both The Quickening and the TV series. Apparently it’s just a rehash of the first movie. After the TV series ended, fourth film Highlander: Endgame attempted to merge the two branches of the franchise, with a movie that followed Duncan MacLeod and led him to encounter Connor. It’s been shown on the BBC with surprising regularity. For some reason they made an anime movie in 2007, Highlander: The Search for Vengeance, which pits Colin MacLeod (yes, another one) against an immortal Roman general in a post-apocalyptic future. What is it with animation and post-apocalyptic futures? The whole shebang ultimately ground to a halt with Highlander: The Source, a post-Endgame continuation that was supposed to be the first of a trilogy but didn’t go down very well (plus ça change). It’s also been shown on the BBC with surprising regularity. There are also novels, a Flash-animated webseries, a handful of comic books released in the mid-’00s, and a couple of series of audio dramas from Big Finish that continue the TV series. A remake/reboot has been in development since 2008.

What the Critics Said
“Film starts out with a fantastic sword-fighting scene in the garage of Madison Square Garden and then jumps to a medieval battle between the clans set in 16th-century Scotland. Adding to the confusion in time, director Russell Mulcahy can’t seem to decide from one scene to the next whether he’s making a sci-fi, thriller, horror, music video or romance – end result is a mishmash.” — Variety (they say that as if it’s a bad thing!)

Score: 68%

What the Public Say
“I hear this won the Oscar for Best Movie Ever Made.” — Jope @ Blu-ray.com

Verdict

Highlander is a cult favourite — many reviews will tell you as much. I guess I’m in that cult, then, because I bloody love it. Of course it’s preposterous, of course the screenplay and performances are ridiculous, and of course it’s directed as much like an ’80s music video as it is a film… but it’s also a fantastic fantasy concept, so rich for further exploration that they keep trying to do just that (even though they keep messing it up). Also, it’s about men who have sword fights — excitingly choreographed sword fights — so, yeah, it’s right up my alley in that, too. Highlander may not be a “great film” in the artistic history-of-the-medium sense, but my goodness is it a great film.

A 30th anniversary restoration of Highlander is released on DVD and Blu-ray next month.

#44 will be… the best Fantastic Four movie.

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4 thoughts on “Highlander (1986)

  1. God it is daft though isn’t it? I’ve not seen it in ages and don’t think I ever owned a copy of it on tape or disc (well, maybe on VHS years ago, can’t remember for sure). Its not a film I ever took to, funnily enough. I think the artifice of it kept pulling me out of it, its very style over substance but that’s the films appeal to so many of its fans (and I’m not one to judge, as I love Blade Runner so much).

    I guess there is a certain charm to it, certainly in how it reminds how like music-videos some films were back in the 1980s. It was weird how Blade Runner influenced so many pop videos (Duran Duran’s stuff for instance) in the early eighties and then that all filtered back into movies, so much so that they sometimes seemed like collages of music video sequences (stuff like Flashdance, Top Gun, that kind of stuff, and Highlander of course). I’m tempted by that upcoming Blu-ray though if it has a decent master, if only to give it another go for old-times sake. I mean crikey, 30th Anniversary? Shocking!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I kind of like how unpretentious it seems. I mean, it is sort of straight-faced about the whole thing, but parts of it are so incredibly daft that you feel like they had to know. Reportedly Lambert and Connery had a whale of a time, which is why they agreed to the terrible sequel.

      I also used to love Top Gun when I was a kid, but I haven’t seen it in forever. It’s got me thinking philosophically: do the films we watch in formative years create our tastes, or do we have some kind of inbuilt taste that we focus through certain movies? I guess that’s just “nature vs nurture” applied to the world of films, but still I wonder…

      I picked up the previous Blu-ray at some point, and of course never got round to watching it and so am wishing I hadn’t bothered. Not that it’s a bad release, I don’t think, but the new one is even-more-restored and has some new extras.

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      • Funnily enough, some of those films that I didn’t like in my own ‘formative’ years, when I revisit them now, often don’t seem as bad as they once did. There are certainly some bad 1980s films that have a particular charm now that perhaps they didn’t have at the time of their original release. Maybe its the actors, or dated effects, or the slower pace films had, or the kind of music scores films had back then. Give it twenty years, maybe Avatar will seem a classic work of art.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I suppose there’s an element of nostalgia in that — like you say, it’s a kind of charm that they’ve gained. At the same time, sometimes the perspective of what’s come since can make you appreciate what you used to have!

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