A Kind Of Magic: Making The Original Highlander (Jonathan Melville) – Book Review

“There can be only one.”

Anybody who happens to have more than a modicum of familiarity with Highlander will realise the inherent irony in that famous quote. From what was intended as a standalone movie, a franchise was born, resulting in sequels which were of rather variable quality; two live action and one animated television series; novels; comic books; audio dramas made by Big Finish; and an oft-mooted reboot.

Some would say there should have ever been only one, given that the legacy of the 1986 original film has been somewhat tarnished by the various offshoots. That movie – which had combined fantasy, adventure, action and romance – holds a very special place in the hearts of its devoted fans, to such an extent for one of them that he felt compelled to write a book all about it, giving us the previously untold story behind this much-loved – and often overlooked – gem.

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Arts journalist – and proud Scot – Jonathan Meville first saw Highlander as a student in the 1990s, as part of a double bill with The Crow, and his continued interest in it eventually led him to researching and writing A Kind Of Magic: Making The Original Highlander, which is the first in-depth look at this movie. Melville previously penned Seeking Perfection: The Unofficial Guide To Tremors, so he certainly has form when it comes to going behind-the-scenes on cinema cult classics which deserve more attention.

Highlander is a rather curious mix of elements, with a script penned by a UCLA undergrad film student who later went on to write Backdraft, and which was ultimately brought to life by a rather maverick Australian music video director, whose only prior feature film experience had been on Razorback, a horror film about a killer wild boar. Add to this mix a French actor cast as a Scot, and a Scotsman portraying an Egyptian with a Spanish name, and the whole thing just sounds like a recipe for disaster.

A lot of ‘making of’ tomes tend to be rather bland, anodyne affairs, mainly due to the fact that these are contemporary accounts which are officially sanctioned, and are therefore meant to cast things in the most positive of lights, happy to bury suggestions or hints of controversy under lots of glossy photos. As such, they tend to be rather insipid, and will only offer a very propagandised overview, while any actual meat or substance is noticeably absent. Nice, shiny pamphlets of publicity bumf, but often little more.

Melville has no such limitations, and goes for a ‘warts-and-all’ take on the production of Highlander, which gives a real look not only at the deleterious effects of the big Hollywood machine, but also the rather parlous state of the British film industry in the mid-1980s. While pulling no punches here in offering a very candid and frank appraisal, Melville chooses not to stoke any licentious or controversial elements of the tale which come to light, and instead lets all the facts speak very much for themselves.

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You simply cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer amount of research Melville has carried out, in pursuit of finding out what really went on with the making (plus, at certain points, the very nearly unmaking) of Highlander. More than 60 cast and crew members have been interviewed especially for this book, with everyone from the director Russell Mulcahy, star Christopher Lambert and bad guy Clancy Brown (who has a somewhat chequered relationship with Highlander), down to Brian May of Queen, and even the extras who share their experiences of working on the film.

No stone is left unturned in giving as complete and thorough an overview as possible, the only real omission being the late Sean Connery, who – at the time of Melville’s doing research for the book – had retired and was declining media requests. However, there are certainly plenty of colourful, fascinating anecdotes from cast and crew alike, which give a real insight into Connery, and probably serve us a far more rounded and honest portrait of the man than if Connery had participated by being interviewed.

Similarly impressive is Melville’s forensic attention to detail with all manner of paperwork being thoroughly interrogated for every last fact and morsel of knowledge. It would be hard to find a book about the production of a film which is as well-informed as this, and Melville must be commended here for not making it feel clunky or heavy going in its presentation, delivering the unfolding story in a manner which is not only engaging, but also very readable.

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Perhaps the biggest testament to Melville’s success is in his achievement of making you want to go and not only watch Highlander (whether again, or for the first time), but also listen to Queen’s A Kind Of Magic, which contains all their tracks from the film (including the main title song, ‘Princes Of The Universe’, the video of which features Lambert, and was directed by Mulcahy). Melville’s passion shines through here, but not at the expense of a truthful, honest account of events during development, filming and post-production of this feature.

A Kind Of Magic: Making The Original Highlander really is an essential read, not just for devotees of the original movie, but for anybody with a passion for learning about what goes into bringing films to the big screen. There may be plenty of ‘making of’ books out there, but as far as Jonathan Melville’s superior entry is concerned, there can be only one, and this is most definitely it.

A Kind Of Magic: Making The Original Highlander is out now from Polaris.

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