AVAILABLE ON Collector’s Edition 4k UHD and Blu-Ray: October 31st 2022 from STUDIOCANAL
RUNNING TIME: 116 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
Let’s have the voice of Sean Connery set the scene. Just shut your eyes and imagine:
“From the dawn of time we came, moving slowly down through the centuries, living many secret lives, struggling to reach the time of the gathering when the few who reman will battle to the last. Noone has ever known we were among you, until now….
“There can only be one” said the tagline for Highlander, and, while the TV series was decent, all the other films had major problems, something which made said tagline more true than was ever intended! This is a mystery, seeing as, while it does play fine as a solo film with a good conclusion, there’s so much potential in the universe it created. There’s something rather special about this 1986 original, which was my favourite film for a while when I was about 15. Of course the kid in me loved the exciting and fairly original premise, the over the top swordfights and the sometimes odd humour, but even then it was the film’s soul that got to me most, it really evoking the curse of immortality, with a guy who’s doomed to loneliness because he outlives everyone he cares for. In particular there’s a scene which moved me greatly when our ageless hero Connor MacCleod, living in 15th century Scotland and having returned to his girlfriend Heather against the wishes of his teacher Juan Sanchez Villa-lobos Ramirez, is seen living with his mortal love while Queen’s heartrending song “Who Wants To Live Forever” plays on the soundtrack, the montage reaching an emotional high point when we cut to Heather walking up a hill and we then cut to her aged face is as Freddie’s emotive singing reaches an impossible level of feeling. Well, most movie lovers have moments which get to them in a way they can’t always totally understand, so I’m not ashamed in also saying that the scene still hits me, now I’m much older and have much life experience to add to those old musings on love, death and the fragility of our existence. By contrast other portions have some of that good old ’80s camp which certainly dates the film, though it does seem that most of the laughs were mostly intended.
Gregory Widen wrote the script as a class assignment while he was an undergraduate in the screenwriting program at UCLA. “The idea of the story was basically a combination of a riff on The Duellists – 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.” Widen had Connor living with his mother and father and a younger brother, Connor having 37 kids and even visiting the funeral of one, no Heather, and a very different hero and villain, but rewrites by Peter Bellwood and Larry Ferguson changed some details and made things lighter. Filming took place in Scotland, England, and New York City. Right from the first day of shooting corners were cut, with extras told that they wouldn’t receive breakfast. The crew threatened to leave, but only when one of the assistant directors threatened to bring in Connery did the producers back down. Clancy Brown [the Kurgan] wasn’t even paid. Connery lost a bet with Mulcahy that the seven days he was meant to shoot would be extended. While filming in the Scottish Highlands, the production’s medical team were kept busy in the afternoons by boozed up local extras getting too enthusiastic during the clan battles. Deleted scenes included Connor drinking with fellow Immortal Sunda Kastagir and Frank Moran the main cop after him, and a Japanese Immortal who’s killed by the Kurgan; they were all destroyed in a fire. The US theatrical version lost some brief early flashbacks, some humour and violence, and a crucial World War 2 flashback. It wasn’t much of a hit anywhere until it hit video, quickly becoming a cult favourite.
The intro leads into two wrestlers walking onto the ring at Madison Square Gardens, a swooping camera shot taking us around the ring to move into the face of Connor in the audience, in the first of Mulcahy’s show-offy stylistics which infuriated many critics at the time but which thrilled those of us at the time and don’t seem a big deal at all today. Connor is thinking of when he was a happy clansman back in 1536 Scotland, where he was respected for his fighting prowess, and the film begins to tell two stories almost at once, frequently going from the present to the past and back again in a way that supposedly confused many critics though I had no trouble keeping up with things even at 15. Connor goes into battle again, this time against the brutal barbarian the Kurgan, and is supposedly killed by him though then comes back to life, arousing the fear of people around him. Dumped by his girlfriend Kate, beaten up and then expelled, Connor wanders for five years before making a new life with Heather. Then along comes Ramirez, a much older Immortal than him who tells Connor what he needs to know before training him for the future, and at last Michael Kamen’s main musical theme, previously heard only partially, can come through in full orchestral glory while the camera shows us as much of the magnificent beauty of the Highlands as it can fit in, making even Connor and Ramirez seem small and unimportant when set against nature. But the Kurgan is still around, and we know that tragedy of more than one kind is going to strike, while the comedy in the film reaches a height of silliness when a modern-day encounter with another Immortal [“it seems like it’s been a hundred years”, ” it’s Been a hundred years” segues into a farcical 1783 duel where Connor keeps on getting killed by his opponent.
Generally it’s the 1985-set stuff that contains more chuckles despite the sadness of the Connor character who goes by the name of Russell Nash and works as an antique dealer. “What do you think is the cause of death”? asks a cop by the corpse of a beheaded Immortal, taking us into a New York where characters tend to speak in a fashion probably only seen in the movies, yet a New York that still has a particular flavour, with quirky details such as the old black guy who always sits there drinking by reception in a crummy motel. The killer is shown fighting this other Immortal in a car park, and Connor is linked to the death and grabbed by the police. “You talk funny, where’re you from”? asks a cop, to which the reply is “Lots of different places”. Was this exchange put in because of Lambert’s strange Scottish accent? Then again, he didn’t speak a word of English when he was cast, so it’s unfair to poke fun too much. Connor is let go because a human victim of the Kurgan describes someone else, but Brenda Wyatt, a forensic scientist working for the cops plus a published metallurgy expert, has found shards of Connor’s sword at the murder scene and is puzzled that they come from a Japanese sword dated around 600 B.C. but made with medieval-era methods. There’s a strong feeling of mystery to Brenda’s detective work even if we know the essential details which is some feat, though as this is the ’80s she’s up for having sex immediately after having found out something totally earth shattering about the man she likes. Meanwhile the Kurgan becomes increasingly goofy as he does things like licking a priest’s hand and driving a car with an elderly woman still in the passenger sheet and her husband on the bonnet. A scenery chewing Brown often seems to be acting in a different film to anybody else. but most of us fans wouldn’t want it any other way.
The transitions across time are often masterful. In an underground carpark, the camera tracks up to the roof where the next floor but becomes ground in Scotland. It rises above a dead Connor in the past and out the eye of Connor in the present. A pan up a fishbowl reveals that the top of the water is actually the top of a Scottish lake. Such shots would have been very complicated to put together so it’s amazing that we can’t see the seams. Much later, the film gets away with showing two fighters plunging from a great height into water and having them standing up and fighting underwater even though we’re obviously not seeing any water at all, because we’re watching special beings after all. Back in 1987 [I sadly didn’t see this in cinemas] it was possible to be totally and utterly impressed by the audacity of the fight between Ramirez and Connor where they destroy half a castle in the process. Such spectacles are common-place now and realised with slick CGI, but, while Highlander‘s swordplay isn’t particularly great, technically the scene is still impressive except for one shot, and Highlander still usually succeeds in such moments because us caring about some of the characters overrides any ropey-looking shots. Only the climactic “Quickening” doesn’t quite work, and I’m not sure it ever entirely did really. What’s up with all those cartoon demons? Mystery is often good but some explanation here would have helped considerably. It’s interesting though how Connor’s final state is in line with the literature of the Gothic romantics which presents it as the ultimate goal. But then this film manages to borrow from a lot of sources without ever seeming like it’s just a compendium of spare parts, and proves again that supposed popcorn movies can be more genuinely existentialist than those of the explicitly arty kind.
Connor and Brenda first meet in a bar in a strange scene full of film noir-like disillusionment, one of the greatest examples of how Mulcahy is able to create a very strong and particular vibe with his pop video style which is certainly not all about look, as well as another example of how well pop music can work, with “One Year Of Love” playing on the radio sounding just so appropriately. How on earth did he not continue to be a major director? Lambert and Connery have a wonderful chemistry and it’s sad that Lambert’s slightly off-kilter way of acting and presence was rarely used well. Of course having the two leads being a Frenchman playing a Scot with a heavy French accent and a Scot playing an Egyptian who spent much of his life in Spain with nothing more than a Scottish accent, may just seem weird to some new viewers, but back in 1986 we didn’t think about such things much. Roxanne Hart as Brenda probably has the hardest role to play, partly because we could have done with a couple more scenes showing her falling for Connor, though after viewings I tend to think about the character of Rachel Ellingstein more. She was a Jewish child rescued by Connor during the Holocaust who in 1985 is his late middle-aged secretary and therefore knows more about Connor than anybody else. They clearly share a deep love. Did they ever have a romantic relationship? The character’s sheer goodness leaves a really strong impression – well, unless you’ve only seen that American theatrical cut which removed the relevant flashback. How could they? Sometimes it feels as if distributors are out to actively harm films.
I sometimes think of a version of Highlander which greatly expands the Rachel character. But then a lot of aspects could be expanded, even if, by the time of the ending, we feel as if we’ve been watching a far longer film than we actually have, and I mean that of course in a good way. One thing the world certainly needs is a full soundtrack release [that isn’t a bootleg]. Queen’s songs remain iconic and an essential part of the Highlander experience, but Kamen’s score, which uses electronics and synthesiser to underly the action while the orchestra focuses more on emotion, deserves a full showcase. Us soundtrack nerds remain positive. After all, we’ve finally got Scarface. And in the meantime there’s still the glorious film itself. Its MTV style may seem like nothing now, it may lurch unevenly in tone, but it’s crammed full of ambition, verve and heart. Yes, lots of heart. Who wants to live forever?
UHD and Blu-ray
This review is based on an online viewing but can still comment on the transfer. It clearly looks wonderfully crisp and detailed and, perhaps best of all, seems to have no revisionism; it all looks just as it has always done, just much better.
NEW – THE IMMORTAL ATTRACTION OF HIGHLANDER: Looking back at four decades of Highlander magic in a brand new and exclusive documentary featuring new interviews with director, cast and other key crew [56 mins]
It’s extraordinary that Highlander has had a fair few releases on DVD and Blu-ray but no making off documentary up until now. Studiocanal have finally filled this gap, and managed to interview somewhat more cast and crew members than has become the norm for older movies. Mulcahy has the most to say, but there’s good stuff from others too. What we don’t get are some of the less savoury stories about the production; there are others in addition to what I mentioned in my review. However, I learned a lot in return. Beattie Edney [Heather] had old age makeup applied for three days which took ten hours; it was then deemed unsatisfactory and may have contributed to makeup supervisor Nick Maley having a heart attack. The scene was reshot much later using much simpler makeup. When it was clear that a battle was going to be staged in mud, an assistant director ordered hundreds of boots covered in hessian overnight. And costume designer Lois Maxwell, after lying down on the boat containing Lambert and Connery to keep it balanced, was rescued by none other than Connery himself when he and Lambert were piggybacked onto land but she was forgotten about. Nice to see Lambert happy about being linked with one particular character more than anything else. While clearly leaning towards the “things were mostly good” agenda, this is still a rewarding watch.
NEW – A KIND OF MAGIC: MUSIC OF THE IMMORTALS: A featurette on the Soundtrack [14 mins]
Music supervisor Derek Fowler and expert Neil Brand discuss both Queen’s and Kamen’s contributions, such as it being unusual to have songs commenting on the film and Kamen’s two distinct musical styles for the film. I didn’t know that Queen were disappointed in the lack of exposure that Flash Gordon gave them. though did know that Brian May tended to contribute the most out of the band. Despite a few bits repeated from the longer above featurette, it’s nice to see a piece on this, but where’s the CD?
NEW – CAPTURING IMMORTALITY: Interview with photographer David James [13 mins]
James begins by saying that a stills photographer’s job is to work out how things are going to look, before realising on set that they’ll actually be very different. He then goes through his favourite shots and tells the reason for there being very few shots of the surrounding New York in the climax atop the Silvercup Building, as well as relating a great story of how noise complaints from two miles away caused police to interrupt Queen recording – and then stay the rest of the night!
NEW – THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE KURGAN – Clancy Brown remembers Highlander [13 mins]
Brown has always seemed the complete opposite of the Kurgan. He says how he was nervous about working with veteran swordmaster Bob Anderson and his two stunt men, remembers Jason Connery telling him that his dad rang him and said he was too old to be running about in films, as well as some ideas which weren’t used. Brown seems happy here even though he’s often said, as he does here, that he wasn’t too keen on some aspects of his character. The Kurgan as a slick American Psycho-style yuppie who fit in more would have been great.
NEW – Audio Commentary with author Jon Melville
As I’ve been working from a digital screener, I was unable to discuss the commentary tracks.
Audio Commentary with Russell Mulcahy
Audio Commentary with William Panzer and Bill Davis
64 page booklet with brand new essays
Prequel comic #1 The Way of the Sword
Set of 4 badges
“Highlander” finally gets a worthy release that in addition to new material includes two commentary tracks from previous editions. Especially as it’s region coded A, B and C and includes a normal Blu-ray, fans should need no further excuse to pick it up, while if you haven’t seen “Highlander” – well, what are you waiting for? Highly Recommended!