Highlander Retrospective

PrintE-mail Written by Grant Kempster

On a desk at a Melrose Avenue address in West Hollywood sits a screenplay. Like many of its kind – found up and down America’s West Coast movie hot spot – it is a ‘reboot’ script. Yet there is something special about this one. Something unique. In order to find out why, we need to go back 25 years to the release of a little movie called Highlander.

When Russell Mulcahy’s fantasy epic hit US shores in March of 1986, the reaction was less than stellar. Following in the footsteps of classic fantasy epics such as Krull, Ladyhawke and Excalibur, Highlander embraced the swords (with a touch of sorcery) theme and merged it with a modern-day city backdrop. Utilizing sporadic historical flashbacks and heaps of romanticism, it was a combination that had never been seen before. Sadly, it just didn’t work. Audiences simply didn’t know what to make of the tale of Connor MacLeod, a warrior from the Highlands of 16th century Scotland who, having risen from the dead, is forced to live through the centuries until the time of ‘the gathering’, where he will vie for the right to be the only one of his kind left, winning mortality and a mystical ‘prize’.

In fact, 20th Century Fox (who had distribution rites) all but buried the movie upon release. While a brief reprise was granted when it hit Europe (thanks largely to the established fan bases of rock gods Queen and French heart-throb Christophe Lambert), it wasn’t enough to stop the film becoming a financial disaster. Perhaps this was due to the misleading marketing, an overly complicated plot or simply the fact that Mulcahy had crafted a film with a mainstream look but European sensibilities. Whatever the reason, the film soon sank without a trace.

But… like the film’s immortal protagonists, Highlander’s cinematic death lead to a resurrection. A few years later, thanks to the advent of VHS, the film finally began to find its audience, slowly achieving cult status. Perhaps it suited home cinema better, or maybe the film’s approach to its unique narrative was simply ahead of its time. Whatever it was, Highlander had shown the first signs that it could endure even the harshest of times.

25 years on and the same road is about to be travelled down again as the pieces slowly begin to fall into place for the Highlander reboot. Writers have been hired (and fired if you believe everything you hear), as have directors, which is no surprise. If history has taught the producers of the quarter-of-a-century-spanning franchise anything, it’s that the blend of genres is something that is incredibly difficult to get right. To pull this remake off, they’ll need to measure the right ingredients carefully to ensure that they capture the original film’s enduring appeal. Because to be honest, they haven’t managed to do that in 25 years of trying.

Five years after the release of the first movie, a sequel finally emerged. With blossoming VHS sales and a growing fan base, Highlander 2: The Quickening was to be a sure-fire success. Director Mulcahy reteamed with stars Lambert and (Sean) Connery, this time taking the production to Argentina where the largest sets since Tim Burton’s Batman were built to portray a dystopian future which Connor MacLeod (now an old man) must once again save from dark forces.

But, with the finale of the first movie wrapping MacLeod’s story up with a nice, neat tartan bow, the tale was left with nowhere to go. So, naturally, they turned their eyes to space and made all of the immortals aliens. Naturally. It was a bold move on the producer’s part, but there was no escaping the fact that this decision answered questions that nobody was asking. Part of the inherent ‘magic’ of Highlander was that you didn’t know where immortals came from. For fans of the original, learning that they came from space was just – for want of a better word – silly.

But the sequel’s problems didn’t end there (if only). Having seen Mulcahy’s final cut, the decision was made to take a butcher’s knife to the reels, hacking and shuffling scenes around in the name of ‘pacing’. The result was an all but incoherent mess (albeit a very pretty and expensive-looking incoherent mess). Once again, Highlander found itself floundering at the box office. In the years that followed – like its predecessor – Highlander 2 gained something of a cult status, especially after Mulcahy was brought back in to ‘re-tool’ a new cut (dubbed the ‘Renegade Director’s Cut’), excising the aliens and far-flung planet in favour of time-travel. To date it remains a beautifully shot fantasy movie. But a true Highlander movie it isn’t.

If the reboot can take anything from Highlander 2’s many faux pas, it’s that this time the film will need to leave some options open as the credits roll. While this may make for a slightly unsatisfactory ending, it will at least stop any subsequent movies going off on mad tangents. Although, that said, sometimes having a sequel that is purely ‘more of the same’ isn’t really any better.

In 1994, producers tried once again to follow on from the 1986 original, this time completely ignoring tales of extra-terrestrial sword-wielding immortals (and, bizarrely, also side-stepping the TV series which was running at the time). The result was Highlander 3: The Sorcerer (also known as ‘The Final Dimension’ in the US). Having clearly had their fingers burned with The Quickening, the decision was made to play it safe. Actually that’s putting it mildly. For all intents and purposes, Highlander 3 was all but a re-telling of the first movie, only with worse acting and the world’s most annoying child actor thrown in for good measure.

This lazy attitude did nothing to bring in a new audience and served only as a mediocre cinematic meal to sate the appetites of the franchise’s loyal fan base. Unsurprisingly, the film only managed to live up to the promise of its forbears, failing to make its budget back at the box office. And while its TV counterpart went from strength to strength, it seemed as if the days of Connor MacLeod’s immortal battles had finally had their day.

So if going off at a tangent didn’t work and staying true to the original didn’t either, where else could the big screen series go? For that they would have to turn their focus to the small screen.

Highlander: The Series was a surprise hit. Duel funded by US and European partners, the show (which featured Connor’s kinsman, Duncan MacLeod – played by British-born actor Adrian Paul) found a loyal fanbase in fans of the original film and in those with a penchant for open-shirted men with long hair and big swords. But while the series appeared to be little more than a showcase for star Paul’s rippling torso at the start, as time went on the writing revealed a more enduring appeal. In essence, the show managed to capture that evasive ‘magic’ that had made Highlander so popular in the first place. So when the show finally came to an end (after an impressive six years on air) it seemed like a no-brainer to utilize this successful formula to breathe life back into the film franchise.

Having six years of character development under your belt is a luxury that most big screen characters don’t often get. And in a sense, the upcoming reboot will have 25 years of history to draw from. But as the fourth entry in Highlander’s feature saga proved, too much back-story can also work against you.

Highlander: Endgame arrived in 2000 and once again it attempted to ignore its predecessors… including the original film.  While attempts had been made to link the first movie into the timeline of the TV series, the idea that Connor had accidentally missed hundreds of immortals still in need of a head-chopping, sat badly with fans. Many, instead, opted to allow the two to exist in different ‘universes’. So, imagine how much fun that was when bringing the two together.

Accepting that Connor hadn’t won the prize (and never would, thanks to a jaw-dropping bit of beheading in the third act), Highlander: Endgame brought Adrian Paul’s Duncan to the fore, re-teaming him with Connor one last time as they attempted to stop an evil immortal from claiming ‘the prize’. But that wasn’t all. More threads than you’d find in your average kilt were woven into a film that simply tried to do too much. This, coupled with communication problems with the Romanian crew, a bad case of bronchitis for one of the leads and producers fiddling in the editing room meant that, once again, a Highlander sequel failed to live up to its full potential. It did, however, manage to fair better than previous entries and, as such, all but guaranteed that we’d see at least one MacLeod on screen again.

In fact, Endgame appeared to herald a revival of the franchise as a whole. Riding in on the back of the film came news of several new projects including an anime film, console game and even a new TV series (featuring teenage immortals). But they couldn’t leave it there. There was also news of a new movie that would attempt to explain the origin of the immortals. Here we go again.

There are no words to describe the atrocious mess that wound up being Highlander’s fifth cinematic entry (if you consider a premier on SyFy cinematic). Despite some positive early vibes – thanks largely to Hellboy scribe Peter Briggs’ leaked storyboards and excerpts), producers decided to go with another script which thrust Duncan into a dystopian future where he would come up against what can only be described as a demon jester in fetish gear.

Highlander: The Source was a muddled mess, but this time there were no valid excuses to keep the franchise buoyant in the eyes of fans or the public alike. It killed Highlander stone dead, taking with it the console game and the proposed TV series. The anime movie survived and served as an interesting (if, again, totally unconnected) chapter, but everything else was sucked into the vapid black hole that The Source had left behind.

But, as we know, incredibly the story doesn’t end there.

If four critically panned sequels can’t dampen the good will that the original movie created, then surely that says something about the original Highlander. There can be precious few movies in existence that can absorb so much crap and still come out smelling of roses. And with that in mind, it’s no surprise that the producers are playing the final move available on their chessboard. The reboot.

With a quarter of a century’s worth of lessons to learn from, we can only hope that the new movie – now under the directorial care of 28 Weeks Later’s Juan Carlos Fresnadillo – will tread carefully within the footsteps of the first film. If it does so, it could wind up accomplishing something that ‘the powers that be’ have been attempting for the last 25 years: a successful continuation of the Highlander mythology. With the opportunity to bring in a new generation of fans – not to mention sell bags of merchandise – the stakes are high. But maybe, just maybe, they’ll get it right this time. If not, they’ll have once again validated their own prophecy… that in the end, there can be only one.

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