Release Date: March 7th
Box Office: $5,844,868
Where do you start with a film that has a Frenchman cast as a Scotsman and a Scotsman cast as an Egyptian/Spaniard? Highlander (1986), for all of it’s faults, is a film with the balls to not only do that but to also embrace it.
The conceit of the film is an absolute cracker: immortals battle each other across the centuries killing each other by cutting off the heads of their enemies, until the few that are left for The Gathering, where the final Immortal will win The Prize. This is because, as the poster says, There Can Only Be One.
Read it again. It’s great isn’t that? That tag line as well? A cracker.
So why was this film, despite all the sequels and ephemera that followed, not a runaway success? Why was it a cult hit not a mainstream hit?
The plot centres on the Immortal Connor MacLeod played by Christopher Lambert who is based in a very mid-1980s New York. As he wanders around brooding and wearing trench coats we see flashbacks of his life: his youth in the Scottish Highlands of the 16th Century and how he first learned he was immortal; his meeting with Sean Connery’s character Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez who begins training MacLoed in both the sword and the history of the Immortals; his run ins with various other immortals throughout history including Clancy Brown’s The Kurgan who is clearly a Very Naughty Immortal. This is mixed in with scenes in the present as the final few Immortals battle, Conner dodges a police investigation due to all the decapitated bodies that keep turning up whilst fending off one of the detectives who suspects that Connor has the odd secret or two.
It’s fine. It’s good enough. It’s not clear where the problem is, it’s just a great idea wrapped up in a load of cliches that you’ve seen before.
The cast do their best, once Lambert is in the present day we can buy his mangled accent as being the result of being around for several hundred years. When he’s back in is Scottish Highlander days? Bit of an issue. And Connery as an Egyptian Spaniard is an even great leap for the average person’s suspension of disbelief. What it succeeds in doing is taking you out of the film which is always a problem.
Those two casting choices, Connery and Lambert, are still very interesting. Lambert had only done one previous US film, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) which despite a troubled production ended up nabbing three Academy Award nominations, none for Lambert though. After working in French cinema for several years previous to this he was clearly someone on the up.
Connery, however, was in a different position. Following his last Bond film in Diamonds Are Forever (1971) he had never done anything that had quite the same level of success. He starred in some great films like The Man Who Would Be King (1975) and weird stuff like Zardoz (1974), but mainly popped up in cameo roles. He reached his nadir with Never Say Never Again (1983), the non-official Bond film that was surrounded by legal issues. When all was said and done with that, Connery wouldn’t make a film for several years.
It was with Highlander he returned to the big screen as well as the European produced The Name of The Rose (1986). Neither was a particularly big success but both established a new role for Connery in films, that of the older mentor character to the younger actors in the film.
His role in Highlander, really, isn’t much more of a cameo but he makes the most of it and finally seems to find his place in a cinema landscape that had changed drastically since he hung up his Bond tuxedo.
The director Russell Mulcahy was, in a roundabout way, partly responsible for that change in cinema.
Go back ten years and a bit to 1975 and two things happen: Jaws (1975) is released and the band Queen released a promotional video for their new single Bohemian Rhapsody. To say that these two things shook up their respective industries would be mild.
Jaws became the highest grossing film and ushered in the era of the high concept summer blockbuster. Bohemian Rhapsody was the first time a video was the central focus of the marketing for a song.
Sure, these promo clips had been around for decades. The Beatles and The Monkees had both produced film and TV work that would form the template of the music video, but it was Rhapsody that made an integral part of the process.
At the same time in Australia there were two shows called Countdown and Sounds. Both had started in 1974, both were music focussed shows. As they were based in Australia not many of the popular bands of the day would be in the studio so they needed something to fill the time so started producing their own film clips to go with the songs. Mulcahy worked on Sounds and started to direct these clips. He soon became so successful that he became a music video director full time and ended up making some of the most iconic videos of the era, like The Wild Boys promo for Duran Duran and Total Eclipse of The Heart for Bonnie Tyler. In fact, it was his video for The Buggles song Video Killed The Radio Star that was the very first music video that aired on MTV. He helped to define the music video and was one of the reasons that they and the new music channel became a success.
In act, MTV was such a huge success that it began to influence pop culture all round it; Miami Vice was aimed at an MTV audience, Flashdance (1983)took the style of music videos and wrapped it up as a feature film. By 1986 this cross pollination was only gaining steam, a period that Highlander firmly plants it’s flag into.
Some of the scenes in New York look like they’re like just like the video for Total Eclipse of The Heart, Queen songs fill the soundtrack and the visuals are given a music video sheen. You could quite easily chop up the film into about five or six music videos and not really lose that much.
This naturally dates the film more than anything else, it’s style being so tied down to Mulchay’s own music video style. The choppy pacing and cutting style evokes the scatter gun approach of MTV, which is all great but the effort seems to have all gone to the look of the film and not it’s story which plods along between the admittedly fancy looking sword fighting scenes.
No one really came out of the film with much success. Mulcahy would go back to making music videos until he returned for the sequel, Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) which was inferior in nearly every way. The studio can probably be held accountable for the problems with that film as Mulachy would try to get his name taken off the credits. After that he would go between movies, music videos and TV without ever really doing anything that would be quite as popular, cult or otherwise. It would be a similar story for Lambert, who would spend the next couple of decades appearing in various low rent or direct to video thrillers including several of the Mortal Kombat series.
The person who came out of the film best was probably Connery. Over the next few years he would star in a series of stone cold classics; The Untouchables (1987), Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade (1989) and The Hunt For Red October (1990). These films reestablished him at the top of the Hollywood pecking order.
The film’s itself didn’t fare that well either; its cult grew as it was released on home video which was enough to get that sequel a few years down the line. This is worth mentioning as few films have been dicked around by their sequels in the way that Highlander was by Highlander II, maybe only The Matrix sequels. The sequel pretty much took every good idea in the first film and retroactively ruined it, enforced by a studio that seemingly didn’t what was good with the original. Several more sequels and TV series followed that tried to undo the damage done by the sequel in ever more convoluted ways. The Highlander franchise soldiered on until 2007 which was probably about thirty years too long.
After all, there should only have been one.