When someone says “There can be only one” what immediately pops into your head? For just about everyone it will be the movie Highlander. That’s how ingrained into pop culture the franchise has become. It’s impressive considering that the original film was actually a massive flop. Yep, the first film died at the box office and seemed destined to fall into obscurity. But just like the immortals in the film, it would rise from the dead and live on. The path to the first film wasn’t without its own pitfalls and near-death experiences. Let’s find out what happened to the 1986 film Highlander here on WTF Happened To This Movie.
Writer Gregory Widen was on a vacation in Scotland where he visited a museum. When he happened upon a suit of armor, he began to wonder about the man that had originally worn it. What would he think of the modern world? How many stories would he have if he was still alive today? This began the wheels turning in his head.
Widen was still an undergraduate in the screenwriting program at UCLA. He decided to write the script for a class assignment under the name Shadow Clan. When his instructor read the script, he advised Widen to send it to an agent. Very quickly he sold the script for $200,000.
The original script that Widen had come up with was much darker and grittier than what the original movie would become. Conner MacLeod was about a hundred years older and lived with his parents. He was promised to be married to a young girl named Mara, but she would leave him once he became immortal.
Connor sets out on his own when his clan begins to view him differently instead of being banished from his village. When we meet up with him in the modern world, he has a wide collection of swords he uses instead of just the katana blade. His love interest Brenda was known as Brenna and was a historian at the Smithsonian who helped the police on occasion. The Kurgan was named The Knight, and instead of being a savage, he was almost more of a serial killer who enjoyed the death that he brought to the world.
Immortals could still have children and Connor was said to have had 37 children throughout his life. There was no big energy blast when another immortal was killed, but they could still sense each other. A prize wasn’t present as something all the immortals were working towards. At the end of the movie, Connor would sense another immortal nearby, and this would imply this was only one battle that Connor went through as he moved through the modern world. More awaited him.
After the script landed at a studio, more writers were brought in to punch up the script, and we ended up closer to the version we saw on screen.
In the film, Connor MacLeod is shown to be an immortal after he dies in a battle with the army of another clan led by The Kurgan. When he returns to life, his clan fears that he has made a pact with the devil. They banish him from their village, and he leaves to live a life with his wife. Soon he is visited by a man named Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez who is also immortal. He teaches Conner about immortals and that there is a contest where they battle each other until there is only one left. That immortal with collect The Prize of connection with everything. The Kurgan shows up to kill Connor but ends up killing Ramirez instead.
In the present we meet Connor who is going under the name Nash. He is an antiquities’ dealer who still ends up in sword fights when an immortal is nearby. The end of the contest is close as The Kurgan has arrived in his city. The two are drawn to battle each other, but a police forensics expert named Brenda gets caught in the middle as she begins investigating the rash of beheadings that has been happening lately.
Connor reflects on his life as he befriends Brenda and tries to protect her against The Kurgan while preparing for the final battle as the last two Immortals meet. In the end, there can be only one.
Director Russell Mulcahy was brought onto the movie and began to seek out a cast. They began to seek out who was going to be their Connor MacLeod and put out the call to multiple big names. The actor they had hoped to get was Marc Singer. Yes, Beastmaster himself. Sadly, he had to turn the project down due to schedule conflicts.
They began to seek out other actors and sent it out to just about everyone working at the time. Under consideration for the role were Michael Douglas, David Keith (not to be confused with Keith David), Kevin Costner, Mickey Rourke, Peter Weller, Mel Gibson, William Hurt, and Sting. If he had accepted, he would have also been the main push behind the movie’s soundtrack as well.
They finally found their Connor when they sent it out to genre favorite actor Kurt Russell. He liked the script and signed on. Now it was time to turn their attention to the female lead. They decided to cast a wide net to see who they could get for the role. Most actresses turned it down, but the list they had been looking at included Brooke Adams, Rosanna Arquette, Karen Allen, Glenn Close, Demi Moore, Sigourney Weaver, Sean Young, and Tanya Roberts. Roberts would end up turning it down to go make the James Bond film A View To A Kill. Probably the better choice. The film finally got Catherine Mary Stewart to sign onto the role, and they were off to get a villain locked in for the picture.
For The Kurgan they wanted someone that would be frightening on screen. Early in pre-production for the film, they thought that Scott Glenn or Roy Scheider would be great candidates for the role. When the character of the Kurgan changed from a smart killer to more of a hulking savage, they changed the type of actor they were looking for. Big was in. After his turn as the evil T-800 in The Terminator, they put out the offer to Arnold Schwarzenegger. He would turn them down, and they would start looking for someone else.
Producers thought that Rutger Hauer or Nick Nolte could fill the role well with their larger stature. Neither was interested, and they were at a loss. Mulcahy talked to Sting when he was interested in the part. He recommended Clancy Brown after having just worked with him in the 1985 movie The Bride. Brown played Frankenstein’s monster in the film, and Sting said he had been really great. Mulcahy sent out the offer, but Brown wasn’t sure he wanted to take the role.
In The Bride he had to have a lot of prosthetics on his face. He experienced a really bad allergic reaction to the glue. It was so severe that they had to shut down production for three weeks while it healed up. Since he wouldn’t be as covered, he went ahead and took on the character.
His take would differ from what the director had in mind. Brown’s idea was to have him dressed in a suit and bowler hat to show the difference between the savage version of The Kurgan and the modern-day version. They instead went with the punk biker look in the film.
They had hoped to get a big-name actor to come in as Ramirez out put out offers to Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood, Malcolm McDowell, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, and Peter O’Toole. None of the actors were interested. According to Clancy Brown, at one point they offered the role of MacLeod to Sean Connery, but he wasn’t interested and suggested he would rather play Ramirez. They ended up taking him up on the offer, and the role was cast.
Thinking they had their full cast, they began looking for a shooting date. Before they could get too far into the process, Catherine Mary Stewart would drop out of the film for unknown reasons. They were able to cast Roxanne Hart and figured they were still on track to move forward. Then the biggest blow hit the film as Kurt Russell had been talked into dropping out of the film by his partner Goldie Hawn. Instead, he went off to film Big Trouble In Little China with his good friend John Carpenter.
They were once again on the search for their Connor MacLeod. One day Director Russell Mulcahy was flipping through a magazine. He stopped on a page showing actor Christopher Lambert from his recently released movie Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan, Lord Of The Apes. That’s a long title.
Mulchay asked some of his production staff who he was and thought he had the perfect look for the character. His performance in Greystoke must have swayed them as they offered him the part of Connor MacLeod. He quickly accepted, and as they began to move forward to begin making the film, the production team was shocked to learn that Lambert didn’t speak English.
He was quickly stuck with an English teacher and a dialect coach. Mulchay was happy to learn that Lambert picked up English very quickly so it wouldn’t be a problem. Lambert worked on his English and then decided with the dialect coach that Connor should have a muddled accent that didn’t reference any specific region. Having lived so long, they figured he would have moved all over the world at different points.
They finally moved forward to shooting the film and hoped that all their production issues were behind them. Unfortunately, that would not be the case. For a lot of it, weather seemed to be the biggest enemy of the production. During the filming of the scene where Connor and the Kurgan meet, it began to rain. The crew had to use umbrellas to cover the camera and hair dryers to keep the water from getting on the camera lens. They could keep the rain from appearing on film, but Lambert didn’t seem to help with the number of takes they would have to scrap. According to crew members, Lambert was near-sighted. He would consult his script, and then when the action sign was given, he would ride his horse over the hill and still be wearing his glasses. They would have to stop and reset the scene.
The battle scenes were filmed while it was raining heavily and even snowing at certain points. Mulcahy was impressed with all the local extras they had signed onto the film. He said most of them just wanted a good bottle of scotch at the end of the day. They would drink half the night, sleep outside, and then show up early for work the next morning. Although some of the extras liked to start a bit earlier and keep the medical teams busy. When they would cut for lunch, some of the locals would go to the local pub and have a “liquid lunch”. They would return to the set drunk. This would cause some of them to get too enthusiastic during the rest of the battle scenes and a lot of minor injuries would start happening.
Even nature wouldn’t help the production out. In the scene where Ramirez and Connor are training on the beach, they run across a stag. The director said this was a nightmare to shoot as during the time of filming, all the male deer had lost their horns. It was decided to glue horns onto the deer. A veterinarian was brought in to put the animal to sleep. The horns were then glued onto its head, and then the crew had to wait around for the deer to wake up. When it was awake, all it wanted to do was shake off the antlers. It would eventually run away and not return. Word was that it was found twenty-five miles away without the antlers on its head. Shots without the actors in it were stock footage from National Geographic.
Originally the opening scene was supposed to take place during an NHL hockey game. The filmmakers wanted to inter cut between the violence of a hockey fight and the battle going on in the parking deck. When the NHL found out, they refused to be part of the shoot. Instead, it was made a wrestling match.
Maybe the biggest issue during filming was that Sean Connery would only be on set for a week to shoot all of his scenes due to some scheduling conflicts. Connery had such little faith in the director that he made a bet with him that he wouldn’t end up getting everything filmed in seven days. Mulchay would take him up on the bet and ultimately win, but it wasn’t smooth sailing for that week. According to the director, Connery liked to gather up all the producers and the director and tell them how bad the production was going. He would point out the crew members he felt weren’t doing their job properly and how they could be improving it. They just listened but would ignore his suggestions. Mulchay said when Connery saw the first round of dailies that he stopped doing it. He must have gotten some faith in their ability.
One reason for this could have been that Connery was said to often be drunk during filming. A producer has said that Connery once pulled out a flask and offered him a sip. When the producer took a drink, he said it almost made his head explode. When he asked what it was, Connery said it was homemade scotch. He was often seen taking a sip now and again.
One scene Connery wasn’t too fond of was when Clancy Brown as the Kurgan would burst into the room and cut the table in half. Brown got excited and ran into the room. He would accidentally cut the candelabra in half, barely missing Connery’s head. Connery got so upset that he stormed off the set. When he finally returned, Brown apologized and said he was nervous. Connery then joked that maybe he should use his stunt double more often. By the time Connery’s time had ended on the film, he had made $1 million for a week’s work. Not too shabby.
Brown’s savagery during the scene wasn’t a surprise to most of the cast and crew. They had felt that Brown had been getting so far into his role that he was becoming The Kurgan. A lot of them were scared to talk to him. Brown himself didn’t seem to have a great time during the making of the film. In multiple interviews, he has called the producers buzzards and scavengers. To this date, he says he has not been paid anything for his role in the film. He claims the producers took money that had been set aside for some of the actors and gave it to Sean Connery. The producers thought that acting alongside Sean Connery should have been payment enough for the actor.
Brown said that everyone working on the set was trying to make a good movie but that the producers were trying to make as much money as they could, so they would often do things on the cheap. One such example was recounted by other crew members from the first day of filming. It had been decided that none of the extras would be offered breakfast. The crew thought this was unacceptable and threatened to walk off the production. The producers wouldn’t budge until one of the assistant directors threatened to bring Sean Connery to set and let them explain themselves to him. They finally backed down, and everyone was allowed to have breakfast. Tensions on set would continue until the shoot was finally over.
After the film was edited, the search for a soundtrack started. Originally the idea was to bring in some well-known acts to fill out the movie. David Bowie, Sting, and Duran Duran were considered to record songs for the film. The prog-rock band Marillion was big in the UK and was asked to participate, but they turned them down since they were in the middle of a world tour. Later they said that was the stupidest thing they had ever done since the soundtrack for the film had become so legendary. They had even offered the lead singer a small part in the film, but their touring schedule wouldn’t line up with the shooting dates.
One of the bands that were interested in recording a song for the film was the legendary band Queen. They had originally agreed only to record one song. After they viewed the film, they were inspired to write more. Every member of the band had a different favorite scene. They would all go off and write their own songs for those scenes and before long the entire film was drenched in Queen songs.
A novelization for the film would be released around the time of its release. This would have extra story bits that didn’t make it into the finished film. The Kurgan had a bigger backstory and it is revealed that he found out he was an immortal in 970 B.C. His father killed him with a rock only for the Kurgan to return to life. He would force his father to swallow a red-hot stone that killed him.
We also learn that Connor went back to his antique shop to say goodbye to Rachel after defeating the Kurgan. He and Brenda then leave for Scotland where they open their own antique shop. Before the novel ends, he would go back to his home which is now just some small piles of rubble. There he finds his wife Heather and Ramirez’s graves. He tells Heather that should like Brenda because they are so much alike.
When the film came out, it ended up being a big flop. The budget of the film was around $19 million but would only make $13 million worldwide. Without even recouping its budget, it seemed that Highlander would vanish into the past never to be heard from again. The audience for the film wouldn’t find it until it hit video store shelves. There it quickly became a cult classic and interest in the film jumped dramatically. It was enough that the producers put together a sequel and the franchise would spawn multiple films and multiple TV series.
Christopher Lambert would return as Connor MacLeod for multiple films and make an appearance on the first television series. He got along with Sean Connery so well during the first film that he insisted that they bring him back for the second film. That would end up being a big problem as itself as the second film would reveal that the immortals are aliens from a different planet and basically destroy most of the mythos of the original film. Connery did return and it was the only time outside of James Bond he played a character more than once.
The following sequels would completely disregard anything from the second film and continue the story from the first film. They would add a lot of lore to the original film and enhance the mystery around the immortals. When MacLeod is training, Ramirez tells him that he is only safe on holy ground. No other immortals would break that law even The Kurgan. There is no explanation for this until years later on the Highlander TV show. It is revealed that the only immortal who killed another immortal on holy ground was in Pompeii which then triggered the eruption of Vesuvius.
In the Dynamite Comics’ series it is shown that immortals actually don’t stop aging after discovering they are immortals. Rather, the aging process continues until an immortal has their first encounter with The Quickening. Once they draw energy from an immortal they have defeated, then they will stop aging.
For Connor personally we learn the sad fate of Brenda in Highlander: The Final Dimension which was the third film in the series. He says that after they moved to Scotland, Brenda died in a car accident. During the film, he also fills in the gaps after his wife Heather died and tells that he traveled to Japan and trained with an immortal blacksmith and sorcerer named Nakano.
The film would end up being given a director’s cut when it hit DVD. This would restore eight minutes of footage that would include a scene that director Mulcahy felt was vital to the story. We get a flashback to World War II where Connor first meets Rachel. He saves her from some Nazis and during the battle she learns that he is immortal when he is shot but doesn’t die. The director feels that this completely explains the relationship between Connor and Rachel who was a young girl when he saves her. It would be regarded as the superior cut of the film.
Even though it was a rough road, Highlander would finally take its place in pop culture. The quirky idea of immortals running around modern day with swords fighting each other to become the only one left is intriguing and pulls the audience into a secret world we never knew existed. While the sequels and TV shows would fill in a lot of the mythology of the franchise, the first film would become a cult hit that couldn’t be beat. In fact, Chad Stahelski has been working on a remake for many years but – when it comes to the series as it is, there in fact can be only one.