How ‘Highlander’ Achieved Immortality
Gregory Wilden was a screenwriting student when, for a class assignment, he wrote a script inspired by sword dueling. His lecturer suggested he should try to sell it, and it eventually went for $200,000. Originally titled The Dark Knight, Wilden’s story went on to become the cult movie Highlander.
A great deal of detail changed as the concept made its way to the silver screen; but many of the leading elements remained. When it opened on Mar. 7, 1986, it focused on clansman Connor MacLeod, born in the Scottish Highlands in the 16th century, who discovers he’s immortal after surviving a usually fatal battle wound. He's cast out by his clan, who believe he’s a witch, and his situation is explained to him by Ramirez, an ancient Egyptian who settled in Spain. MacLeod learns that the only way he can die is if his head is severed from his body.
There are several others engaged in the deadly Game, each determined to kill the other immortals and win all their power. The most evil of them all is the Kurgan, the man who failed to kill MacLeod on the Highland battlefield but warned him there would be “another time.” The race is on, and it plays out over centuries — until the present day, with all the others dead, when MacLeod and the Kurgan face each other in the final showdown. All this to a backdrop of music by Queen, featuring material that became the backbone of their album A Kind of Magic.
What’s not to love, right? Sadly it wasn’t so simple (or indeed, complex) behind the scenes. As a result of budget and time constraints, along with a touch of misdirected marketing and some storyline smoothing, Highlander bombed at the box office. But the film's positives shone through over time, with changed perspectives, and it became the cult classic that (sometimes regretfully) spawned sequel movies and a TV show.
Australian director Russell Mulcahy knew he had a challenge on his hands, partly due to a limited budget, and he fell back on his career as a music video director to give the movie its flashy feel. “We shot fast — in Scotland, London and New York,” he told the Guardian in 2016. “The budget was just [$13 million], so it was guerrilla-style filmmaking.” He added: “There was very little CGI in those days. But because I grew up in theatre, I knew a lot about tricking the eye. For the fights, we strapped car batteries to the actors’ legs and wired them up so they’d spark when a sword struck.”
He’d chosen his star after seeing a photo of him. Frenchman Christopher Lambert’s understanding of English was limited, but he loved the idea of playing MacLeod and was soon taking language lessons. “I was flipping through a magazine and saw this picture of Christopher Lambert in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan,” Mulcahy recalled. “I said: ‘This is the guy!’ His eyes had a timeless quality. The fact he couldn’t speak English didn’t really matter.”
For Ramirez, Mulcahy chose veteran Scotsman Sean Connery, whose attempts at a Spanish accent were abandoned in favor of his globally recognized delivery. “So we ended up with a Frenchman playing a Scotsman, and Sean Connery as the Spanish-Egyptian immortal who trains him,” Mulcahy said. “We didn’t bother changing Sean’s accent — this was Sean Connery!” He justified it by saying, “These guys had been around for centuries. They could have picked up accents from wherever.”
The Kurgan was brought to towering, dangerous life by Clancy Brown, who’d later become known for playing Byron Hadley, the brutal chief prison guard in The Shawshank Redemption. Since the character didn’t have much depth in the original story, Brown was able to throw in some left-field stuff, including the character’s use of a Neil Young quote (“It’s better to burn out than fade away”) and the scene-stealing “Mom!” speeding-car moment.
Despite the difficult production, most of those involved enjoyed the work. Lambert recalled making “very, very, good friends” on set, particularly with Connery. “Like most Scottish people, what you see is what you get,” he told HeyUGuys in 2016. If they like you they love you; if they don’t like you they punch you. You know where you stand. But we got on great from the beginning … he treats everybody on the same level, which is right because everybody’s role is important on a movie set, as in life. … That was my approach to life and that is Sean’s approach.”
Brown hailed Mulcahy’s approach to making the project work. “[I]t’s a weird movie,” he told the Skinny. “There are strange acting styles, strange art direction, strange costumes.” He said the director “wasn’t fazed by anything that didn’t make much sense, as long as it made enough sense.” The actor continued: “You know, there are huge holes in the plot, and the motivations are all out of whack, but Russell could always have a cool smoke effect or some kind of spotlight come through the fog or whatever to break it up.”
‘Highlander’ Training Scene
Queen’s music, of course, achieved that difficult aim of becoming an additional character in the story (ably assisted by Michael Kamen’s orchestration). “What’s interesting is that Queen was meant to just record the opening title song ‘Princes of the Universe,’” Lambert recalled. “When they watched the movie they said, ‘We’ve got to do an album,’ because they understood immediately what value they could bring to both the movie and the characters. It clicked with them, and if you look at all the songs, they are all aligned with what’s happening on the screen. So everything blended well — and I have to say, that is rare.”
Wilden himself lamented the loss of some of the elements from his original story. For example, the power the immortals sought was connected to the power of nature, meaning that there was a eco-aware, world-saving quality in trying to ensure the Kurgan didn’t win it. (That aspect would doubtlessly have been played up today, and it may yet be if the long-rumored remake ever goes into production.) While the immortals wound up being unable to have children, those in The Dark Knight were entirely capable, leading to a scene where MacLeod had to attend the funeral of one of his dozens of children, facing the mother and brothers of the passed, all of whom had aged while he hadn’t. Wilden — and, interestingly, Clancy — had seen the Kurgan as a more refined, calm, chilling character…in a suit. But perhaps the biggest change was that MacLeod hadn’t originally worn his sense of loss and regret so heavily; on discovering his condition, he gladly left his Highland village and journeyed brightly into an endless future, determined to make the most of it for him and everyone else.
‘Highlander’ Cathedral Scene
Highlander only managed to gross $5.9 million in the U.S., making slightly more than double that amount elsewhere. “The U.S. release was a disaster,” Mulcahy said. “It had one of the worst posters ever: a black and white closeup of Christopher. It looked like he had acne. You thought: ‘What the fuck’s this about?’ But at the premiere in France, there were 30-foot cutouts of Sean and Christopher all the way down the Champs-Elysees. The audience went apeshit. It became an enormous hit in Europe.” Brown, for one, said that the producers’ approach to the project left him unwilling to play any further part. “I think it was a successful franchise in spite of itself,” he said in 2020. “They screwed up the movie franchise so massively.”
While it didn’t do well upon release, Highlander was one of many films reincarnated in the home video market. And understandably so, since it had received a healthy amount of praise. The principal acting was singled out for its clever “B. A. L. A. N. C. E. – balance!”, with Lambert’s sensitive presentation set against Clancy’s comic book villain performance. Mulcahy’s graphic novel-style visuals also found acclaim. But most of all, audiences responded to the movie’s heart — the exploration of what being immortal could really mean, how it could make a person so lonely that they’d give up on the companionship they needed. Viewers found it easy to empathize with how MacLeod, Ramirez, the other immortals — yes, even the Kurgan — struggled with their condition.
“I think people see the different layers in the film exactly in the same way as I felt when I read the script,” Lambert said. “I didn’t do it for the action, I did it because it was dealing with immortality. How do you cope with that? How do you survive inside? It’s difficult living through one life but to see all the people around you dying over and over. How do you cope with that pain? How do you have he strength to keep on walking, to keep being positive and optimistic? To be capable of falling in love again when you know the pain it creates when you lose them.”
The lesson became very real for him some years later: “When my brother died of cancer, I had the same feeling I had during Highlander, with its idea that you cannot get the past back — life has to go on. If Connor MacLeod can get through five or six lifetimes, we should be able to manage one.”
And, of course, there can be only one.
‘Highlander’ – ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’ Scene