By Jerry Chandler
March 7, 1986, 32 years ago yesterday, a low budget film written and directed by no one most anyone had heard of hit American theaters with very little fanfare. For many people- one of whom was my father who took me to see it in theaters only because of the presence of this star -the only reason the film got their attention at all was Sean Connery, the 007 most of them had grown up on, being featured heavily in the ads. It went on to earn just under $6 million at the domestic box office at a time when successful movies were earning anywhere from $35 million to $50 million. In its inglorious domestic box office run, it was written off by critics and moviegoers alike, and was even beaten out by things like The Care Bears Movie 2 as a money earner. But in the decades to follow, the original Highlander would become one of the most popular and most loved cult films of its era.
It wasn’t just American audiences that turned their noses up at the film when it was in theaters. It pulled in just around $12 million against its budget of roughly $19 million. The film received mixed reviews, and the most popularly followed critics gave it largely negative reviews. But for a film that seemed to have such a hard time finding an audience, Highlander would go on to slowly make diehard fans and followers out of many who finally saw it when it hit cable television and the VHS rental shelves.
One of the things that may have worked against it with critics but ultimately helped it to eventually find its audience- especially with the speculative fiction crowd -was how it was filmed. Looking back on it and comparing it to many of the films that came out in and around 1986, it’s easy to see how much of the directorial style of the film was ahead of its time. That was all due to the creative and stylistic eye of director Russel Mulcahy.
At the time Mulcahy landed the job of directing Highlander, the ambitious Australian director had only two other feature films to his name; and one of those was a documentary. The documentary, 1979’s Derek and Clive Get the Horn, did little to show off the style that would later show in his work. But, 1984’s Razorback- the Gregory Harrison starring story of a wild boar terrorizing the Australian outback -would more than show off the style that became his feature film signature. It was a style that many of the older film critics of the time hated; a flashy, MTV video style in long form.
In his case, it was a very accurate description. His first director credit is for working on the Buggles’ 1979 music video, Video Killed the Radio Star. By the time he started working on Highlander, 28 of his 30 existing credits were on videos for artists like The Vapers, Ultravox, Rod Stewart, Billy Joel, The Tubes, Spandau Ballet, Elton John, and Duran Duran. It was on projects like these where he perfected his craft and his style, and it was a style largely disliked by many who had little love for the favorite entertainments of the “MTV Generation” and the media outlets that promoted these things.
But unlike many others who primarily relied on fast cuts and random camera movements to create disorienting visuals, Mulcahy was able to keep the flashy, MTV video style he had perfected while still keeping it framed in a more traditional narrative style. At no time in his film do you lose the sense of narrative flow or lose the viewer. It’s a narratively beautiful film to look at, with visual tricks that would become more common with other filmmakers (and even earn praise) in the decades to follow it. The film easily contains some of the best looking transitions between scenes of any film before or since; especially in the early going as the story moves from present day to Connor MacLeod’s origin story in the Highlands of Scotland hundreds of years earlier.
Another thing that may have worked against it in the early going was the story seemed like a hard pitch for the ad people. Having seen some of the original TV spots and trailers for the film, they don’t really do the film or its story justice. Immortal swordsmen running around across the centuries and cutting each other’s heads off in order to stop an evil immortal from winning and doing, well, something bad to the world really doesn’t do the film any justice.
For a low budget dark fantasy movie with a largely unknown cast and creative crew, Highlander had a lot going for it. It played on the themes of good vs evil, of sacrifice, and of loss extremely well. Gregory Widen, Peter Bellwood, and Larry Ferguson may have had little to show on their resume at the time, but they delivered a story well above most of the first timer fare seen in that era’s low budget and direct to VHS productions. With both Ramirez and especially MacLeod, it played beautifully with the concept of immortals living amongst mortal man and dealing with the choice of loving someone who you know will die long before you vs choosing to live without love. Through Kurgan, it played quite well with the idea of an immortal who has learned to live without care for anything or anyone until he truly became a terrifying evil of the most human kind.
The Prize was also hard to explain to many in a quick ad. Immortals came about for reasons that no one knew, they existed for centuries in hiding, and they fought one another in a contest where eventually there would be only one for a prize they knew nothing about. But once MacLeod wins it, it proves that it truly is the ultimate prize. The last immortal becomes essentially one with all mankind. He can hear the thoughts of everyone on Earth, or any one person he chooses to. He can understand all mankind, and he can know the intent of every world leader in their every action. It’s a power that would give anyone the ability to be mankind’s greatest asset or its greatest threat.
Every bit as important to the success of the film was the principle cast. Sean Connery gave it an internationally recognized star, but Christopher Lambert, Clancy Brown, and Roxanne Hart more than held up their end of it. Lambet’s unusual acting style and accent made Connor MacLeod seem like a man out of time, a man who had traveled for so long and to so many places that he no longer had any sort of recognizable accent. Clancy Brown became famous with genre fans with his performance as Kurgan. He was insane, evil, terrifying, and every bit the believable threat to not only other immortals but to mankind should he win the Prize. You knew he would be the end of mankind as we knew it if he won, and Ramirez’s warning of an age of darkness seemed like an understatement the more you saw Clancy Brown on the screen. Roxanne Hart wasn’t given a character with as much meat to it, but she perfectly captured the character of a mortal human who suddenly finds herself in the middle of the unreal just as the future of mankind is about to hang in the balance.
Plus, well, it was so much damned fun. The film is often tagged as dark fantasy, but it was also high adventure. There was an exhilarating fun in the film for a first time viewer that is still there many years and many viewings later. A part of that has to be credited to the fantastic music of Queen playing throughout most of the film.
It may sound over the top and like bad hyperbole, but the film eventually became such a cult favorite force that it changed lives. It’s not over the top or bad hyperbole. I literally know people who only got married because they met at events built around the Highlander fandom. I know people who acquired their bug for travel because they decided they wanted to do at least one vacation where they would go and see the filming locations. One of my best friends at work and I only started talking when I first started working the job I have because the subject of Highlander came up and a couple of hours of silence or awkward small talk turned into six hours of rabid fanboying. Hell, he’s such a fan that he talked his wife (appropriately an actual Scottish lass) into naming his two sons Connor and Duncan. There are people out there who are now longtime friends who would have never met had they not shared a huge love of this film.
The film’s tagline was the line that Ramirez gives Connor while explaining the contest of the immortals. There can be only one. Sadly, the various filmmaking powers that be didn’t see it that way. Despite the film’s story being a contained one and done with a very definitive ending, the explosive growth of the film’s early cult following caused some to see dollar signs. This resulted in a 1991 sequel that, well, the less said the better. But the fandom continued to grow and another sequel followed that one in 1994. It was better received by fans than the previous sequel, but still nothing compared to the first film with regards to quality or longtime fan favor.
1992 would see the launch of a live action TV series following a different immortal from the same highland clan, Duncan Macleod. While it started out somewhat hit or miss, the series eventually became a favorite of many in the Highlander fandom, and Adrien Paul’s Duncan become almost as loved by fans as the Lambert’s Connor. The series would have a less well received spinoff. Highlander: The Raven only lasted one season and it and its immortal, Amanda Darieux, have become mostly footnotes for many Highlander fans. Still, it’s at least remembered more favorably than 1994’s animated series featuring yet another new member of the clan, the future immortal Quentin MacLeod.
While the TV show ended on a high note with fans, the 2000 theatrical release designed to restart the film franchise following Duncan Macleod, Highlander: Endgame, was a massive misfire. Not only was it poorly conceived and felt nothing like the series that birthed it, but it made massive missteps that turned some fans solidly against it. This was followed by an anime project with a completely new immortal, Colin Macleod, and then one last film featuring Duncan. 2007’s Highlander: The Source ultimately became a direct to TV original movie, and a complete hot mess of one at that. It had even most of the diehard fans of the franchise hoping the powers that be would just go ahead and let it die off. So, of course, a year later a remake of the original film was announced. As of 2018, the remake, while still discussed in the entertainment news, has yet to move forward in any significant way. Although, the latest reports have a script actually being written.
But for many, 32 years on, there can be only one as the original Highlander is still the best of them all, and it’s the one fans still go back to all these years later. As well they should, and it’s a great film for new fans to start out with. It still holds up, it still delivers, and it’s still every bit the heart and soul of the franchise and fandom it started all those years ago.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. When not wasting too much time on social media, he can be found writing regularly here at Needless Things, but has also written for websites like Gruesome Magazine as well as remembering to put up the occasional musings on his on blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, Decades of Horror, and the Subject Matter. He has also recently become a regular cohost of The Assignment: Horror Podcast.