Despite being beheaded by Pretty in Pink during its opening weekend in March of 1986, Highlander has managed to spawn a near-immortal franchise consisting of four sequels, three television series, novels, comics, and a robust collectible sword market. (For display purposes only, kids.)
The story of Connor MacLeod, a 400-year-old adventurer forced into duels to the death with his own race of ageless warriors, Highlander remains a perfectly seasoned mix of Queen, Sean Connery, and the indecipherable accent of Christopher Lambert. Better to read these 15 bits about the film than to let it fade away.
1. The Script Began as a College Kid’s Senior Thesis.
Gregory Widen was attending UCLA as a film student in 1982 when he was asked to write a feature-length screenplay as his final project in order to pass a Theater Arts class. Recalling a trip he took to a London armory, Widen wrote a script about an immortal named MacLeod who could only die via beheading; another immortal, the sadistic Kurgan, wanted MacLeod’s head in order to claim the mysterious “Prize” promised to the last of their kind. With encouragement from his instructor, Widen sent the script to six agents, one of whom got it sold.
2. The Role Was Originally Offered to Kurt Russell.
At the time, Russell was a former Disney kid star who had gotten some notice for his genre work with John Carpenter in Escape From New York (1981) and The Thing (1982). Highlander director Russell Mulcahy met with him for the film; though he appeared ready to take on the role, Mulcahy told Cinefantastique that Kurt's then-girlfriend, Goldie Hawn, talked him out of it.
3. Lambert Was Pretty Dangerous With a Sword.
After considering Russell and The Beastmaster star Marc Singer for the role of MacLeod, Mulcahy settled on Christopher Lambert, whose only major American film credit was playing Tarzan in 1984’s spectacularly-named Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. Despite taking on highly physical roles that often require stunt work, Lambert is myopic and wears glasses whenever he’s not filming. This is sometimes bad news for thumbs—his and others—when shooting sword-fighting sequences. During filming of 1991’s Highlander II, Michael Ironside sliced open Lambert's hand.
4. Lambert Barely Spoke Any English.
Aside from grunts, Lambert didn’t have much dialogue as Tarzan, so Mulcahy was unaware that his English was limited at the time he was cast in Highlander. In the end, his unique accent—Lambert was raised in Switzerland—worked for the character, who was supposed to have immersed himself in various cultures over his 400-year existence.
5. Sean Connery Only Filmed for Seven Days.
As a major international movie star, Connery was able to maximize his salary while minimizing his work commitments on the film. To play Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez, MacLeod's ancient Spanish mentor, Connery shot for only seven days; he recorded a voiceover in a Spanish villa, not a studio, which produced a strange echo effect the producers ended up leaving in the film.
6. But Connery Still Found Time to Criticize the Production.
According to Mulcahy, Connery was fond of getting the producers and director together to discuss in detail what he thought the crew was doing incorrectly. "He can't stand inefficiency of any kind,” Mulcahy said. “He would group us together and air his views on why so and so wasn't doing his job correctly. This was free advice—very expensive, I might add—that none of us needed. When he saw the rushes though, things changed.”
7. Clancy Brown Wanted The Kurgan in a Suit and Bowler Hat.
In an interview with Starlog shortly after the release of the film, actor Clancy Brown—who portrayed the scenery-chewing Kurgan—expressed some disappointment that the movie opted for action beats over more philosophical exploration. Though The Kurgan was dressed like a pro wrestler, Brown thought it would’ve been more interesting to wear a suit and a bowler hat. “You expect a heavy metal punker with skulls on his jacket to be a bad [guy],” he said. “But the really tough, mean, and nasty people don’t necessarily wear clothes like that and look like that.” Sadly, Brown’s pleas for subtlety in Highlander went unheard.
8. The Sword Sparks Came from a Car Battery.
Because it’s a lot of fun when swords make sparks and because augmenting fight scenes with CGI was not yet a thing, the film’s special effects crew rigged the blades to car batteries that sat out of the camera’s view. When the metal came together, sparks flew off.
9. Queen Never Actually Released a Soundtrack.
Mulcahy showed the band footage from production to gauge their interest in providing music for it. Though they wrote a number of songs specifically for the film—“Princes of the Universe,” “Who Wants to Live Forever”—Queen never actually released a soundtrack. One possible reason: while the film debuted in March of 1986 in the States, it wasn't seen in Europe until later that year. To avoid a tie-in to a film that didn’t yet exist in some markets, Queen released A Kind of Magic in June. They did, however, shoot a music video with Lambert (above).
10. The Finale Was Supposed to be on the Statue of Liberty.
The final duel between the Kurgan and MacLeod was intended to take place atop the Statue of Liberty, but other films (including the previous year's Remo Williams) had already used a similar idea; Mulcahy changed the locale to the Silvercup Studios rooftop in Queens, which he saw while driving into New York one day.
11. The Sequel Stunk Because of Argentina.
Contrary to some accounts, 1991's Highlander II: The Quickening didn’t opt for its imbecilic plot about a planet of alien Immortals because the first film ended so definitively. (Spoiler: MacLeod wins the Prize, becoming mortal and ending the Gathering of violent sword duels.) In fact, Mulcahy was thinking about a sequel even before the original was released. So why was the movie so poorly executed? Blame Argentina. The production was underway when the country began to experience significant inflation, leading to cost overruns. Skittish insurers began to interfere, and the film was edited into a nearly incomprehensible mess. Mulcahy later reassembled it for a DVD release. (It didn't really help much.)
12. Fans Aren’t Blameless in the Senseless Tragedy of the Sequel, Either.
According to producer Bill Panzer, the idea of exploring the origins of the Immortals was a result of fans constantly asking about it after the 1986 original. “The question we were most asked by fans after the first film was, 'Where did the immortals come from?'” he told Video Watchdog. “It made sense to answer that question in the second film. What we didn't realize at the time was that the fans didn't really want to know their ... origins because then the romanticism and mystery of the story was stripped away." Good job, fans.
13. Connery Had a No-Bond Rule on Set.
Virginia Madsen had the misfortune of being cast as MacLeod’s love interest in the sequel: When she was hired, she was told that a returning Sean Connery had instituted a written policy that demanded no one ever speak to him about James Bond. Anyone who did could be fired. Madsen thought it was ridiculous. As she told the Onion AV Club: “The first day that Sean came to work, I went up to the set and I said, ‘Oh, my God! James Bond!’ And he turned around, a big smile, and hugged me.”
14. The TV Series Was An Early Internet Sensation.
Highlander: The Series ran in syndication from 1992 to 1998, often slotted in late-night or weekday afternoon time slots. Following the adventures of Duncan MacLeod, the series grew into a cult hit: several active discussion groups and hundreds of Web pages were devoted to the show, a feat that at the time was only rivaled by Star Trek.
15. It Is One of Nick Offerman’s Favorite Movies, And He Was Very Upset That Chris Pratt Had Never Seen It.
In 2013, Offerman shared that his Parks and Recreation co-worker had never seen the original film. “I immediately booked a screening room and sat in there, just the two of us,” he said. “And it was, and still is, the greatest movie about becoming a man that I’ve ever seen.”