Highlander: a movie that is the very definition of a cult hit. Initially met with relatively little box office success and middling reviews, it managed to spawn two direct sequels, a TV series which itself had two films and a second spin off series, a cartoon series, an animated movie, and several books. In keeping with its theme of never dying it also gave the world the tag line “There can be only one”, and an immortal soundtrack by the legendary band Queen.
Due to its cult status and age, plenty has been written about Highlander itself. Some reviews come to damn, others to praise. Now, almost 40 years later, it’s fascinating to see a film that plays with the notion of time itself become something of a time capsule. Not just visually, but stylistically, Highlander manages to perfectly encapsulate a certain vibe of the 80s. It’s huge, with over the top foley work, almost cartoonish dialogue, and a brash bombast that demands to be watched. At times this can make it hard to take seriously, which is where the movie occasionally wobbles. But you know all that already.
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Much like the titular hero, Highlander itself has continually stepped into a new life, with a plethora of VHS and DVD releases. Now we have a new 4K UHD Blu-ray to enjoy. But for the hardcore fan – and when the DVD has been around for a couple of decades, usually for about £3, who else is this aimed at – what really matters are the special features.
We get four documentaries. The main one, ‘The Immortal Attraction of Highlander’, lasts almost an hour, with the other three not quite clocking 45 minutes between them. In these days of repackaging archive material to justify adding ‘Bonus Features’ to a menu, it’s nice to see that these documentaries have all been recently shot for this release. Though obviously all cut together form the same set of interviews, Studiocanal show a respect not just to the film itself, but to the customers buying it.
‘The Immortal Attraction of Highlander’ is an interesting retrospective of the film and manages to assemble many of the most important people, both from in front of the camera and behind. Cast interviewees include Christopher Lambert, Clancy Brown, Roxanne Hart, and Beatie Edney. In addition, there are insights from Gregory Widen the writer, Michael Kamen the music supervisor, and quite a few others, including director Russell Mulcahy.
At one point, Mulcahy himself perfectly encapsulates the mindset which drove the film. Speaking of the difficulty in casting the lead he explains how he finally saw a photo of Lambert from the film Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. He immediately knew that that was the look he wanted. When someone pointed out that Christopher Lambert didn’t actually speak any English, Mulcahy replied “I guess we’ll work that out”. Who cared? The guy looked right.
The second documentary, ‘A Kind of Magic: Music of the Immortals’, looks at the music of the movie. Though Michael Kamen is featured and presents some lovely anecdotes, film music expert Neil Brand offers some hugely important insights, not least is to highlight the work done by Kamen, who can often be overshadowed and overlooked due to the genius of Queen. In reality, the band and Kamen worked very closely to create a genuinely important film score; one that somehow is yet to be released in its entirety. ‘Capturing Immortality’ is an interview with photographer David James, and offers a glimpse into a feature of films that is often overlooked: the world of the stills photographer. It’s diverting and interesting, and manages to offer a few unique stories, but is very much a niche extra.
Finally, we have ‘There Can Be Only One Kurgan’ – Clancy Brown remembers Highlander. We’re given real insight into how Brown thought about the role he took on, as well as his ideas about the movie itself. At one point he describes his ideas about how the Kurgan should look. Rather than a background artist from the music video for ‘Wild Boys’, Brown pitched the idea of a pinstripe wearing bond trader, a Patrick Bateman type. His argument being that real evil lives within the accepted mainstream.
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To contrast with MacLeod fighting Nazis, he felt that the Kurgan could be in the Russian Army, liberating concentration camps but decapitating any unfortunate immortal he might find. He sums up his vision of the character beautifully, telling us how he would like to see him played now: a Senate majority leader in congress who would go down to the border and chop heads off of immortals there. An even darker take on a twisted, iconic movie baddie. He also succinctly sums up how odd is the prize the immortals are actual fighting for. Empathy with every living being? Can you imagine how awful that would be? But in the film MacLoud manages it. “Oh, he’s Jesus now. You just had to chop a few heads.”
Highlander is a dated, over the top, preposterous film. It’s also beautiful, imaginative, and aims to be more than it should be. As an important piece of cultural art, it’s right that it has been been reissued in this cleaner, crisper format. The addition of decent interviews with the people who were there, giving us the opportunity to both learn first-hand what it was like, as well as see the real affection these people have for the film, makes this a well recommended release.
Highlander is out on 4K UHD and 4K Digital on 31st October from Studiocanal.