The Making of Highlander (1986)

There Can Be Only One – The Making of Highlander (1986)

Nineteen-year-old Greg Widen had never been outside California, let alone the United States when he came to Britain on holiday in 1980. Raised in a culture where ancient history meant silent movies and the freeway dominated the landscape, Widen was amazed by the rugged beauty, lonely expanse and sheer timelessness of the Scottish Highlands.

He was working as a firefighter while also studying at UCLA’s film school. As part of his course, he needed to write a full-length screenplay. He ended up putting a whole new spin on the standard exercise of ‘What I did on my summer holidays, taking settings and ideas from his vacation and turning them into a film script.

Originally called SHADOW CLAN, the title subsequently changed, to the shorter, more evocative HIGHLANDER.

“Seeing some of the sights in Scotland got me thinking,” Widen says, “and then the red kicker was when I was in London. I was at the Tower of London, which has the world’s largest armoury display, and I was standing in the middle of all that, thinking, ‘Wow, what if you owned all this? What if you had actually worn all this through the years?’ And you are giving someone a tour of it, saying, ‘I wore this here and I wore this there. The movie kinda grew out of that.”

Christopher Lambert as Conner MacLeod in Highlander (1986)
Christopher Lambert as Conner MacLeod in Highlander (1986)

Back in Los Angeles, he worked up a script that contrasted majestic Scottish settings with the hustle and bustle of modern America.

It had action, adventure and the sort of swordplay at which Errol Flynn once excelled. The hero was a kilted Scottish clansman called Conner McLeod, part of a race of warriors who lived through history, blessed – or cursed, depending on your point of view – by virtual immortality, able to die only at each other’s hands, finally coming together for “The Gathering”, because “There can be only one!”

The script he wrote for his UCLA course would bring him back to Scotland a few years later with Sean Connery, Christopher Lambert and a full cast and crew.

The story would take on a life of its own, spawning a series of films, TV programmes and even games, disproving the original contention that there can be only one, as Immortals fall over each other to share ‘The Prize’.

Reinforcing the worldview of the Scots as a noble race of warriors in skirts, HIGHLANDER laid the foundations for BRAVEHEART and ROB ROY some ten years later.

The film has proved an incredible phenomenon, considering its modest beginnings and the public indifference with which it was met in the US and UK on its release in 1986, just four years after Widen completed his college assignment.

Sean Connery and Christopher Lambert in Highlander (1986)
Sean Connery and Christopher Lambert in Highlander (1986)

While still a college exercise, HIGHLANDER’s potential was spotted by agent Harold Moskovitz, who was looking for fresh talent.

He sent the script to a couple of young producers, Bill Panzer and Peter Davis, who had made their debut with DEATH COLLECTOR, a low-budget gangster melodrama with Joe Pesci. They had also produced Sam Peckinpah’s final movie, an adaptation of the Robert Ludlum thriller THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND.

In his Peckinpah biography. If They Move… Kill ‘Em, David Weddle dismisses them as “bottom feeders in the Hollywood food chain who specialised in low-budget exploitation pictures”, but they had an eye for unusual material and were adept at using young talent on the way up, and big names, on the way down.

They snapped up the rights to HIGHLANDER, bringing in some other writers, Peter Bellwood and Larry Ferguson. However, Panzer admits the main ingredients were already present in Widen’s draft – the hero, the hero’s mentor, the villain and a structure that flashed back and forth between modern-day New York and medieval Scotland.

The basic storyline of immortals destined to kill each other was in place. Conner Macleod comes to regard his immortality as a curse, as do other immortals, but his arch-enemy relishes the opportunity to wipe out the rest, acquiring their power in the process.

The Kurgan played by Clancy Brown in Highlander (1986)
The Kurgan played by Clancy Brown in Highlander (1986)

In Widen’s script, the villain was called ‘The Knight’. Widen’s Immortals were originally Scots or of indeterminate background. Bellwood and Ferguson transformed the Knight into the Kurgan, taking the name from an ancient people who, as the film says, inhabited the Russian steppes thousands of years before Christ.

There is, however, no evidence that they tossed children into pits to hungry dogs for amusement.

HIGHLANDER was conceived at the tail-end of the Cold War. As part of the United Kingdom, Scotland was a NATO ally; Russia remained the enemy.

Americans were charmed by the beauty of the Scottish Highlands, but they feared the threat beyond the Urals. The bottom line was that Scottish Highlanders got a good press, or a good myth, while Russian Kurgans were written off as a thoroughly nasty lot.

Widen did not have any actors in mind when he wrote HIGHLANDER. Still, the Scottish setting inevitably sparked thoughts of the country’s greatest film star, Sean Connery. Even the hero’s first name seems inspired by Connery’s surname.

Connery was in his mid-fifties and too old for the role of Conner MacLeod, but Widen imagined him as Conner’s mentor, a sort of Obi MacKenobi, even if he did end up as Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez, chief metallurgist to King Charles V of Spain, with Egyptian connections somewhere along the line.

The British company, Thorn EMI, put up a budget of about $16 million, a modest sum for a film that was going to shoot on location on two continents and required complicated action sequences, battle scenes and special effects.

Davis-Panzer hired Russell Mulcahy to direct, an Australian who had made a name for himself with pop promos and his debut feature RAZORBACK, an off-beat, low-budget horror film, variously described as “Jaws in the Outback” and “the biggest pig movie ever made” – this was, of course, before BABE.

Medieval Scotland as seen at the beginning of Highlander
Medieval Scotland as seen at the beginning of Highlander

Shooting was scheduled for the summer of 1985 before the actors were in place. France’s Christopher Lambert had starred in the French cult hit SUBWAY and in GREYSTOKE and was keen to make his mark in Hollywood.

He was cast as Conner MacLeod mainly off the strength of his looks, which were considered to possess the appropriate timeless quality.

Lambert was popular on set and keen to do as many stunts as possible. Still, there were problems with his attempts to transform his French accent into something more appropriate to the Scottish twang.

“I could hardly understand him,” says James Cosmo, the Scot who played his kinsman Angus MacLeod. “Then Connery comes along with this broad Edinburgh accent, saying he’s Con Fernandez Something [sic].”

Cosmo was not the only one to wonder if the producers mixed up the job offers.

Even in the Sixties and Seventies, Connery’s value outside the Bond series had been the subject of debate. After METEOR, CUBA and THE MAN WITH THE DEADLY LENS, the discussion seemed pretty much over. But he was still a big name and might be keen to make a film in his native land, with its many golf courses. It turned out he was available. Or rather, he was available.

Conner MacLeod and His wife Heather in Highlander (1986)
Conner MacLeod and His wife Heather in Highlander (1986)

Despite his dip in box-office status, Connery was not exactly cheap. He would cost $1 million a week, which seemed prohibitively expensive for a film whose total budget was only $16 million.

Undaunted, Panzer began toying with the schedule. “He’s in the movie for about 22 minutes and we shot him in six days.” He says proudly.

Connery was whisked from location to location by helicopter while a second camera team completed scenes with a stand-in.

“His name has about five words in it,” says Widen. “People used to look at me and say, ‘Every time he says his name it costs us $10,000’. Time is money with him”

Connery put a $10,000 price tag on a practice session for a sword fight. He turned up and swished a sword through the air with a shout of “One thousand!.” A second thrust was accompanied by the call “Two thousand!:, and so it went until he had delivered $ 10,000 worth of swordplay, at which point he put down the sword, returned to the helicopter, and disappeared.

However, there was a postscript to the story when Connery was slightly injured on his first day of filming, fencing with Clancy Brown, who plays the Kurgan.

“He went ape-shit and started screaming,” Mulcahy said when the film came out. “So I said, ‘Well, it’s your fault. You refused to come in and do any bloody rehearsals.” Connery was later seen practising his strokes during his lunch break.

Connor MacLeod being mentored by Ramirez in Highlander
Connor MacLeod being mentored by Ramirez in Highlander

Connery stayed at Inverlochy Castle Hotel, where he needed a tie for dinner and borrowed one from his friend Hamish MacInnes, the mountaineer who arranged locations and stunts on the movie.

At the end of his week, Connery threw a party for the cast and crew in a small hotel in Glen Coe. He had to leave early and left MacInnes a cheque to pay for everything.

“He had agreed with the hotelier a certain amount and it was a bit over that,” says MacInnes, who paid the difference himself.

One of the most dramatic sequences was Conner and Ramirez fencing on top of a steep rock column. It was shot on the Cioch on the Isle of Skye.

“We had a couple of stunt swordsmen from Canada,” says MacInnes. “I landed them on top of the Cioch by helicopter. They weren’t very happy doing it and we had to fix stainless steel wires around their ankles. The cameras also had to be brought in by helicopter separately. We had two camera positions to film from and one of the cameras ended up falling into Cioch Gully but 100 ft below.”

Mulcahy lived up to expectations, working at a furious pace. “It was quite tough, and the fight stuff was very physically demanding,” says Cosmo. His abiding memory of the shoot is “struggling about Glen Coe, up to my knees in mud, wishing I was back at home in Glasgow.”

Conner Macleod in modern day New York fighting an immortal
Conner Macleod in modern day New York fighting an immortal

Another Key location was Eileen Donan, one of Scotland’s most photographed castles. It occupies a little island in Loch Duich, linked to the mainland by a causeway, across which the MacLeods set out for battle at the beginning of the film.

It is a romantic vision of what a medieval castle should be. Yet, the present castle was built less than 100 years ago. It is the perfect symbol for a film that takes what it wants from history, and geography distorts it with shameless relish and makes up the rest.

In the script, the MacLeods’ castle is named Glamis, after the Queen Mother’s childhood home; Conner’s village is referred to as Glenfinnan, which is well to the south of Eileen Donan. The script places his later home in Jedburgh, which is in the Borders.

The climactic battle between Conner and the Kurgan spanned two continents, shooting partly in New York and partly in London. The final scene in which Conner takes Brenda to Scotland was a late addition to the film. In the script, they only talk about going to Scotland while quoting Dylan Thomas at each other, which is curiously appropriate as the two actors and a reduced crew ended up shooting the revised ending in Wales.

Conner Macleod kicking ass in Highlander
Conner Macleod kicking ass in Highlander

Mulcahy brought tremendous energy to the film and recruited Queen for the soundtrack. Conner’s original lover Heather comes towards him in one of the most powerful scenes. The audience realises, belatedly, she is now an OAP. At the same time, Conner remains the same age, and there is the added poignancy of the late Freddie Mercury singing “Who wants to live forever?”

Mulcahy’s first cut ran to around two hours, but 20th Century Fox, which had US distribution rights, felt it was too long and confusing. They dropped several scenes, including a Second World War flashback.

There had been changes at Fox since the distribution deal was signed, and Panzer maintains the new management had no belief in the film.

It was released in the US in March 1986. It only managed $5.9 million over its entire run in the US, which was a dismal return against its $16 million budget. Reviews weren’t kind either, with Variety saying, “Mulcahy can’t seem to decide whether he’s making a sci-fi, thriller, horror, music video or romance.” However, the more extended version was subsequently a hit in Europe. “It was playing five theatres on the Champs-Elysees,” says Panzer. “People were lined up, not for the next show, but for the showing after that. It was a bittersweet moment.”

Home video gave HIGHLANDER a new lease of life, and Lambert and Connery were reunited in a sequel in 1991.

HIGHLANDER marked the beginning of a revival in Connery’s fortunes. It was the first in a series of films in which he was the older mentor, including THE UNTOUCHABLES, a year after HIGHLANDER, for which he won his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Mulcahy never really fulfilled his early promise as a filmmaker, but there has been no stopping HIGHLANDER. A television series premiered in 1992 and ran for six seasons, starring Adrian Paul as Corner’s kinsman Duncan MacLeod. This was followed by an animated series and two spin-off series, one featuring a female Immortal called THE RAVEN and the other called THE METHOS CHRONICLES about the oldest immortal Methos. Each series only lasting one season. There have, so far, been four live-action sequels, the last one in 2007.

Clancy Brown as The Kurgan.
Clancy Brown as The Kurgan.

Widen, however, has nothing to do with the ongoing saga other than receiving a cheque every time there is a new instalment. He parted company with Davis-Panzer over the direction of the first sequel, in which it transpires the immortals are from another planet.

“I was pretty horrified by the whole alien thing,” he winces. Instead, he wrote BACKDRAFT, drawing on his experiences in the fire service.

“I was never a fan of fantasy movies,” he says. “As a kid, I always liked movies that were rooted in some kind of reality, where you threw a single supernatural or unique twist into an otherwise realistic setting. HIGHLANDER is a guy dealing with the reality of what happened to him, and there’s this one little thing, which is this hell – living forever and taking the energy of a person when you kill them. But, other than that, he’s a guy trying to run an antiques shop, having problems with relationships – how do you have a relationship under these circumstances? The whole focus of HIGHLANDER was this kind of melancholy – this idea of immortality sucks.”

Since 2008, plans for a HIGHLANDER reboot have been in the works, with a host of directors attached, like, Justin Lin, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo and Cedric Nicolas-Troyan. Ryan Reynolds was also lined up for a while to play Conner MacLeod, with Vinnie Jones taking on the Kurgan role.

The latest news is that Henry Cavill is now onboard, in which role we aren’t sure about yet. Still, Chad Stahelski, of the JOHN WICK movies, is currently attached as the reboot’s director.

Although the original 1986 HIGHLANDER was a mish-mash of ideas and characters, it worked. It was loud, exciting and compelling. The sequels were too far away from the core ideas and themes that made the original HIGHLANDER entertaining. A reboot could work well, and the talent currently attached is more than capable of producing a decent movie.

But after 14 years in development hell, we may need to be immortal to see the finished film.

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