❉ This new release is the best presentation of this sci-fi fantasy classic to date, writes David Geldard.
“At the heart of the film is the underlying question, “Who wants to live forever?”. Whilst most of us probably fear death, we see through MacLeod’s eyes that immortality is a curse. What is the point in life when you outlive everyone you have ever loved? MacLeod’s life is defined by loss and loneliness. Highlander is a film about grief as much as it is about anything else.”
It’s perhaps difficult to believe now that a film as much-loved as Russell Mulcahy’s Highlander (1986) wasn’t a huge box office hit upon its initial release.
However, this was a time when cinema attendance had declined in the U.K. due to the popularity of home video rental.
The kids who saw Star Wars (1977) the first time around had to wait an eye-watering five years before it appeared on television, but once your family had succumbed to buying a VCR, you were spoilt for choice. A trip to the local video store in those days was akin to entering an Aladdin’s Cave. Everything from traditional family favourites to the latest X-rated video nasty were proudly displayed on the shelves. Making a choice was difficult. If you were lucky, you might have read a review in Starburst Magazine, or had a heads up from one of your schoolmates. Quite often, just the cover art was enough to make you part with your money. As a result, many films that flopped at the cinema gained popularity on home video.
It was on this format that Highlander, starring Christopher Lambert (Greystoke) and James Bond legend Sean Connery, became a huge cult hit.
The story focuses on Connor MacLeod (Lambert), a swordsman, born in the Scottish Highlands in 1536. He discovers he is immortal when he survives a fatal stabbing in battle. Driven out by his own people (who believe this magic to be the work of the devil), MacLeod befriends another immortal, Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez (Connery) who mentors Connor and teaches him the truth of the immortals. He tells McCleod that there are other immortals like him and that they must battle it out until there is only one left. The last man standing shall receive ‘The Prize’ (which consists of the power of all the Immortals that ever lived). Ramirez is soon decapitated (which is the only way you can kill an immortal, apparently) by the evil Kurgan (a fantastic performance by Clancy Brown), who becomes MacLeod’s main adversary.
Throughout the movie we travel back and forth, seeing Connor MacLeod’s battles and loves throughout the ages, in a not strictly linear fashion (the action often cuts from 1980s New York to flashbacks to the Scottish Highlands of the 16th Century). Some viewers struggled to make sense of this upon its release, but I have to say, even as a twelve-year-old, it made perfect sense to me.
At the heart of the film is the underlying question, “Who wants to live forever?”. Whilst most of us probably fear death, we see through MacLeod’s eyes that immortality is a curse. What is the point in life when you outlive everyone you have ever loved? MacLeod’s life is defined by loss and loneliness. Highlander is a film about grief as much as it is about anything else.
In addition to the well realised, explosive sci fi/fantasy action and wonderfully choreographed fight scenes, the film does a great job of exploring the themes of mortality and love, allowing the viewer to very effectively empathise with McCleod’s situation.
The creator of Highlander, Gregory Widen, has said that the immortality element of the story was inspired by Anne Rice’s classic novel, Interview with the Vampire (published 1976). Another acknowledged influence on the film was Ridley Scott’s first motion picture, 1977’s The Duellists.
Apart from a great story, lush cinematography and a superb cast, Highlander had another ace up its sleeve – its soundtrack. Having done an amazing job in providing the soundtrack to Dino De Laurentiis’s high-camp take on Flash Gordon (1980) the band Queen were approached by Highlander’s Australian director, Russell Mulcahy, then best-known for his slick and glossy, MTV-friendly, music videos for Elton John, Duran Duran, Ultravox and Spandau Ballet and whose cinematic directorial debut was the rather less slick and glossy Derek And Clive Get The Horn (1979).
Back in 1986, the regal rock quartet were at the peak of their popularity following their triumphant performance at Live Aid the previous year and having the band provide the soundtrack certainly attracted a wider audience towards the film. According to legend, Queen were only expected to donate one song, but after they had viewed twenty minutes worth of footage at a special screening, they wrote five.
Two of the songs from the film’s score, A Kind of Magic and Who Wants to Live Forever, were U.K. chart hits for the band in 1986. For the promo video of Princes of the Universe, Christopher Lambert joined the band and took part in a sword fight with Freddie Mercury. The bulk of the tracks that Queen contributed to Highlander were included on their 1986 album A Kind of Magic, apart from Hammer to Fall (which had already appeared on 1984’s The Works) and a brief snippet of the band covering Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York. The latter remains unreleased to this day.
Queen’s magnificent soundtrack is an integral component of Highlander, elevating this film to another level as a feast for the eyes and ears, and perfectly complementing the on-screen action.
This new 4K UHD Blu Ray release features a featurette on the soundtrack, A Kind of Magic: Music of the Immortals, which provides great insight into the contributions of both Queen and Michael Kamen, the latter best known for his Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves score including That Song but originally made a name for himself as David Bowie’s musical director for Dame David’s extravagant ‘Diamond Dogs Tour’ of 1974.
Dramatist, composer and author Neil Brand and music supervisor Derek Power explain how the soundtrack to Highlander lends the film credibility. The pair go into detail about Queen’s involvement, eloquently describing the power of their contribution as well as deconstructing the brilliance of Michael Kamen’s orchestral score. There is no doubt that the featurette would have benefitted from contributions from Brian May and Roger Taylor, but nonetheless still an enjoyable piece.
On the technical side, this new 4K UHD release from StudioCanal features, without doubt, the best presentation of this sci-fi fantasy classic to date.
The film has never looked as good as this in any of its previous home entertainment releases. The scenes set and filmed in the highlands of Scotland, with their rich scenery, benefit the most. There is notably more visual detail than before and the new upgrade really brings out the colours. Naturally, some of the effects work hasn’t aged particularly well but does place the film firmly in the 1980s and for many people, revisiting that era is part of the attraction.
The extras are worth the price of admission alone. In addition to the aforementioned soundtrack featurette, a special mention must go to the audio commentary by Jonathan Melville, whose book A Kind of Magic: Making the Original Highlander is an absolute must-own for any fan of the film. Melville is like a walking encyclopaedia on all things Highlander and his extensive subject knowledge is impressive.
The 56-minute documentary The Immortal Attraction of Highlander is an absolute treat, and features interviews with Christopher Lambert, Clancy Brown, Russell Mulcahy and other main players. The story of the film’s origins and production is almost as entertaining as the main feature itself.
Four film sequels followed, none of them reaching the lofty heights of the original (although this reviewer has a worrying soft spot for Highlander III). The franchise also had a spin-off TV series in 1992 which featured guest appearances from everyone from rock stars Roger Daltrey and Joan Jett to Fine Young Cannibal vocalist Roland Gift and Kenny Everett’s sidekick Cleo Rocos. Whilst not exactly a classic, it was certainly watchable.
A reboot/remake starring Henry Cavill has been mooted but is yet to materialise. Perhaps in this case, when it comes to great Highlander movies, there really can be only one.
StudioCanal are worthy of high praise for both the upgrade of the main feature and the depth of the bonus material featured here. For my money, it’s the definitive edition so far and one that will be rewatched countless times by fans of this 1980s masterpiece.
4K UHD BONUS MATERIALS
❉ NEW – THE IMMORTAL ATTRACTION OF HIGHLANDER: Looking back at four decades of Highlander magic in a brand new and exclusive 56 documentary featuring new interviews with Director, cast and other key crew
❉ NEW – A KIND OF MAGIC: MUSIC OF THE IMMORTALS: A featurette on the Soundtrack
❉ NEW – CAPTURING IMMORTALITY: Interview with photographer David James
❉ NEW – THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE KURGAN – Clancy Brown remembers Highlander
❉ NEW – Audio Commentary with author Jon Melville
❉ Audio Commentary with Russell Mulcahy
❉ Audio Commentary with William Panzer and Bill Davis
❉ ‘Highlander’ 4K UHD Collector’s Edition & 4K Digital available from 31 October 2022. Directed By Russell Mulcahy. Starring Christopher Lambert, Sean Connery, Clancy Brown, & Roxanne Hart. Music By Queen and Michael Kamen. 116 mins / Cert: 15. PRE-ORDER UHD COLLECTOR’S EDITION HERE
❉ David Geldard is a regular contributor to We Are Cult and co-editor (with Jay Gent) of In the Lap of the Gods: Queen & Freddie Mercury: Music and Memories, due to be published by Cult Ink later this year with all profits to be donated to The Mercury Phoenix Trust. David hosts the Classic Rock Hub on http://fabradiointernational.com and tweets as @DaveOfAndrozani