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Highlander (1986)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

HIGHLANDER (1986)

Starring: Christopher Lambert, Clancy Brown, Sean Connery, Roxanne Hart, Beatie Edney

Written By: Gregory Widen (also story), Peter Bellwood, Larry Ferguson Directed By: Russell Mulcahy

The Short Version

Behold the cult classic that made several careers.

Highlander is a triumph of world building and of maverick filmmaking.

The cheese is part of what makes it great.

Music by Queen. ‘Nuf said.

You just can’t go wrong with Highlander.  If you don’t own it already, go get it!


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEDDAR SPREAD.

Extra sharp, presented on an assortment of crackers.


Pairs Well With...

HENNESSEY, FROM 1783.

"1783 was a very good year. Mozart wrote his Great Mass. The Montgolfier brothers went up in the first hot air balloon. And England recognized the independence of the United States."

“There can be only one!”


There are some movies for which the initial run at the box office tells nothing.  They fail that first time around, but in the world of second runs and home video, they gain a devoted following, and that following grows into multitudes, and finally, they emerge victorious, having gained the coveted mantle of “cult classic.”  It was true of John Carpenter’s The Thing, and of another movie that was released on the very same day called Blade Runner.   It is also most certainly true of Highlander.

And to what does the movie owe its latter day success?  Like the man sang: it’s a kind of magic.

Highlander is an outstanding combination of brilliance, foolishness, fearlessness, not knowing any better, and knowing all too well.  It is also a triumph of world building, which stands as both its ultimate achievement and its ultimate curse. 

But the curse is for later; let’s start with the good stuff, by way of a highlight reel.


The Premise.  Gregory Widen’s story – honed over several revisions – imagines a world where every so often (no one knows why; indeed, dialogue is spent emphasizing that point), humans are born with the potential to become Immortal.  The catch: they must first “die” a violent death.  After that, the only thing that can truly kill them is cephalic resection, better known as “beheading.”  These Immortals recognize each other through a sort of sixth sense, and have come to understand that ultimately, they will be drawn to kill each other off.  When only a few are left, they will feel compelled to come together at the place of “the Gathering,” fighting a final series of duels until only one Immortal remains to claim the mysterious “Prize.”

Now that’s a premise with a lot of potential.  You want to know why Highlander became such a cult hit?  No question: that world building is why.

The Cast.  So much could have gone wrong on this score.  After just one previous star turn that didn’t require him to say more than a few words (Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan), Christopher Lambert had just learned to speak English for Highlander, for which he was third choice.  (That distinctive accent of his?  It was developed in large part by his work with the dialect coach of this movie.)  Sean Connery, brought in for name recognition and gravitas, was only available for a week, and had a bet with the Director that he wouldn’t be able to finish his scenes.  (Connery lost.)  Clancy Brown almost didn’t take the villain’s role because of a makeup allergy.  Roxanne Hart was also at least three down the offer list for the role of Brenda, the modern day female lead. 

And yet… everything works.  For Lambert, Brown, and Hart, these are signature, career-defining roles, played with a gusto that just isn’t possible in a tight, no-risks environment.  And Connery… he’s playing through with an air of amusement, which is not to be confused with “phoning it in,” for that he does not do.  Never mind that he’s a Scotsman playing an Egyptian with a Spanish name who is at first ignorant of and then revolted by the concept of haggis; he’s the anchor he needs to be, and from there, the new lights are allowed to shine.  Brown is a ham-tastically menacing villain, and Lambert is both fun and intense as the film’s title hero.

The Direction.  Highlander wasn’t Russell Mulcahy’s first feature film, but it was his first real grab at the big time, and he approaches the opportunity with a maverick’s willingness to take risks and try unusual things.  Like what, you ask?  Let’s start with some of the most fantastic scene transitions in motion picture history.  (Madison Square Garden sliding downward to become Scotland of old… gorgeous.)  Then let’s move on to sword fights where the weapons are attached to opposite poles of car batteries so they really spark when they clash (complete with clanging sound effects very much like those little kids have been making to accompany sword fights since forever).  And who needs booms and dollies when you can just plop a camera down onto what amounts to a glorified skateboard and kick it across the floor for a unique perspective on the final duel?  All of this and so much more, Mulcahy delivers, giving Highlander an utterly unique look and feel that no other film has ever come close to duplicating.  

Tack on the reminder that he gets the most out of his well-chosen cast, and you’ve got unbeatable stuff coming from the Big Chair. (I guess that makes four people for whom this flick has become a signature forever after.)

Songs and Additional Music by Queen.  Rarely has a rock band so brilliantly captured the spirit of a motion picture as Queen does for Highlander.  Originally contracted for just one song, the band members were so taken by what they saw that they were inspired to write more.  The results?  “Princes of the Universe.”  “Don’t Lose Your Head.”  “Gimme the Prize.”  “Who Wants to Live Forever?”  “It’s A Kind of Magic.”  Fantastic stuff that would’ve made for one of the greatest soundtrack albums of all time, had it been released as such; as it stands, all of those songs appear on the band’s album “A Kind of Magic,” though Freddie Mercury’s dynamite rendering of “New York, New York” that there’s a whisper of at the tail end of a car sequence has never appeared anywhere in release… more’s the pity.


You want more highlights?  Pick up the movie and watch it for yourself.  Highlander has reached “cult classic” status for a reason, and it is more than worth owning for your permanent collection.  (High definition crisp it ain’t, even on a fresh pressing, but that’s part of the charm here, I think.)

If only it had stopped here.

As noted above, Highlander is both gifted and cursed with phenomenal world building.  The immediate result is a fantastic story the draws viewers in and makes them hungry to experience more.  Unfortunately, the later consequence turned out to be a long string of sequels to a story that was explicitly written to stand alone.  Never mind that the dialogue says it all: “There can be only one!”

And there should have been only one.  But that’s for later reviews. Meanwhile, as noted, you really can’t go wrong with the original, so if you don’t already own Highlander, go get a copy.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, September, 2014

Marking the occasion of Scotland's choice to not lose its head after voting on a referendum for its independence.


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