15 Immortal Facts About 'Highlander'

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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The Many Lives of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"

Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

In the late 1970s, Leonard Cohen sat down to write a song about god, sex, love, and other mysteries of human existence that bring us to our knees for one reason or another. The legendary singer-songwriter, who was in his early forties at the time, knew how to write a hit: He had penned "Suzanne," "Bird on the Wire," "Lover, Lover, Lover," and dozens of other songs for both himself and other popular artists of the time. But from the very beginning, there was something different about what would become "Hallelujah"—a song that took five years and an estimated 80 drafts for Cohen to complete.

In the 35 years since it was originally released, "Hallelujah" has been covered by more than 300 other artists in virtually every genre. Willie Nelson, k.d. lang, Justin Timberlake, Bono, Brandi Carlile, Bon Jovi, Susan Boyle, Pentatonix, and Alexandra Burke—the 2008 winner of the UK version of The X Factor—are just a few of the individuals who have attempted to put their own stamp on the song. After Burke’s soulful version was downloaded 105,000 times in its first day, setting a new European record, “Hallelujah” soon became a staple of TV singing shows.

It's an impressive feat by any standard, but even more so when you consider that "Hallelujah"—one of the most critically acclaimed and frequently covered songs of the modern era—was originally stuck on side two of 1984’s Various Positions, an album that Cohen’s American record label deemed unfit for release.

“Leonard, we know you’re great,” Cohen recalled CBS Records boss Walter Yetnikoff telling him, “but we don’t know if you’re any good.”

 

Yetnikoff wasn’t totally off-base. With its synth-heavy ’80s production, Cohen’s version of “Hallelujah” doesn’t announce itself as the chill-inducing secular hymn it’s now understood to be. (Various Positions was finally released in America on the indie label Passport in 1985.) Part of why it took Cohen five years to write the song was that he couldn’t decide how much of the Old Testament stuff to include.

“It had references to the Bible in it, although these references became more and more remote as the song went from the beginning to the end,” Cohen said. “Finally I understood that it was not necessary to refer to the Bible anymore. And I rewrote this song; this is the ‘secular’ ‘Hallelujah.’”

The first two verses introduce King David—the skilled harp player and great uniter of Israel—and the Nazarite strongman Samson. In the scriptures, both David and Samson are adulterous poets whose ill-advised romances (with Bathsheba and Delilah, respectively) lead to some big problems.

In the third verse of his 1984 studio version, Cohen grapples with the question of spirituality. When he’s accused of taking the Lord’s name in vain, Cohen responds, hilariously, “What’s it to ya?” He insists there’s “a blaze of light in every word”—every perception of the divine, perhaps—and declares there to be no difference between “the holy or the broken Hallelujah.” Both have value.

“I wanted to push the Hallelujah deep into the secular world, into the ordinary world,” Cohen once said. “The Hallelujah, the David’s Hallelujah, was still a religious song. So I wanted to indicate that Hallelujah can come out of things that have nothing to do with religion.”

 

Amazingly, Cohen's original "Hallelujah" pales in comparison to Velvet Underground founder John Cale’s five-verse rendition for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Cale had seen Cohen perform the song live, and when he asked the Canadian singer-songwriter to fax over the lyrics, he received 15 pages. “I went through and just picked out the cheeky verses,” Cale said.

Cale’s pared down piano-and-vocals arrangement inspired Jeff Buckley to record what is arguably the definitive “Hallelujah,” a haunting, seductive performance found on the late singer-songwriter’s one and only studio album, 1994’s Grace. Buckley’s death in 1997 only heightened the power of his recording, and within a few years, “Hallelujah” was everywhere. Cale’s version turned up in the 2001 animated film Shrek, and the soundtrack features an equally gorgeous version by Rufus Wainwright.

In 2009, after the song appeared in Zack Snyder's Watchmen, Cohen agreed with a critic who called for a moratorium on covers. “I think it’s a good song,” Cohen told The Guardian. “But too many people sing it.”

Except “Hallelujah” is a song that urges everyone to sing. That’s kind of the point. The title is from a compound Hebrew word comprising hallelu, to praise joyously, and yah, the name of god. As writer Alan Light explains in his 2013 book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah,” the word hallelujah was originally an imperative—a command to praise the Lord. In the Christian tradition, it’s less an imperative than an expression of joy: “Hallelujah!” Cohen seemingly plays on both meanings.

 

Cohen’s 1984 recording ends with a verse that begins, “I did my best / It wasn’t much.” It’s the humble shrug of a mortal man and the sly admission of an ambitious songwriter trying to capture the essence of humanity in a pop song. By the final lines, Cohen concedes “it all went wrong,” but promises to have nothing but gratitude and joy for everything he has experienced.

Putting aside all the biblical allusions and poetic language, “Hallelujah” is a pretty simple song about loving life despite—or because of—its harshness and disappointments. That message is even clearer in Cale’s five-verse rendition, the guidepost for all subsequent covers, which features the line, “Love is not a victory march.” Cale also adds in Cohen’s verse about sex, and how every breath can be a Hallelujah. Buckley, in particular, realized the carnal aspect of the song, calling his version “a Hallelujah to the orgasm.”

“Hallelujah” can be applied to virtually any situation. It’s great for weddings, funerals, TV talent shows, and cartoons about ogres. Although Cohen’s lyrics don’t exactly profess religious devotion, “Hallelujah” has become a popular Christmas song that’s sometimes rewritten with more pious lyrics. Agnostics and atheists can also find plenty to love about “Hallelujah.” It’s been covered more than 300 times because it’s a song for everyone.

When Cohen died on November 7, 2016, at the age of 82, renewed interest in “Hallelujah” vaulted Cohen's version of the song onto the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time. Despite its decades of pop culture ubiquity, it took more than 30 years and Cohen's passing for “Hallelujah”—the very essence of which is about finding beauty amid immense sadness and resolving to move forward—to officially become a hit song.

“There’s no solution to this mess,” Cohen once said, describing the human comedy at the heart of “Hallelujah. “The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say 'Look, I don't understand a f***ing thing at all—Hallelujah! That's the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.”

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