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Laramie Movie Scope:
Highlander: 10th Anniversary DVD Collector's Edition

A silly cult movie that is fun to watch

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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March 21, 2001 -- One memorable time I saw "Highlander" was back in the 1980's during a science fiction convention in Denver. I know what you're thinking, and no, "Highlander" is not science fiction (at least the first movie wasn't) it is fantasy. The kids whooped and hollered all the same. It was great fun, even though we were watching it on a big screen TV with about 400 lines of resolution. It is a silly film, but it is fun to watch.

After that, came three or four sequels and a TV series, attesting to the hard fan core of this over-the-top epic. For some reason, I was unable to resist when I saw the DVD for sale in a pawn shop recently. It was the deluxe collector's edition, widescreen digital THX-remastered director's cut, no less, and it was in mint condition. I watched the whole thing and then I watched it again, this time listening to the comments from the director and the producers (Peter S. Davis and William N. Panzer).

The comments were a real eye-opener regarding the scenes cut from the original U.S. theatrical release. When I first saw the director's cut, I thought I was watching the wrong movie at first, because one of the scenes cut from the U.S. release is at the very beginning of the movie. I'd never seen it before. It showed a wrestling match. The script called for a hockey game, but the NHL bowed out of the project, because it did not want hockey to be portrayed as a violent sport (who are they kidding?).

Watching the hockey game is Connor MacLeod (living under the assumed name of Russell Edwin Nash), a 16th century Scot who happens to be immortal. He gets up to leave (that's where the U.S. version starts) and quickly gets into a sword fight in the parking garage of Madison Square Garden. It is the beginning of "The Quickening" when the immortals gather to battle it out until only one survives. An immortal can only be killed one way, by beheading.

In a series of flashbacks, we go back to the early years of MacLeod (played by Christopher Lambert) and see how he found out he was immortal and how he was trained by Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez (played by Sean Connery). Wait, you ask, Connery is a native Scot, why is he playing an Egyptian-Spaniard instead of a Scot? Curious casting, that. Connery, seen only in the flashback scenes, has a somewhat limited role in the film. All of his scenes were shot in just seven days.

In the modern era, MacLeod is tracked down by a smart police forensic scientist, Brenda J. Wyatt (played by Roxanne Hart). In the olden days, his heart was won by a bonnie lass named Heather (played by Beatie Edney of "In the Name of the Father"). In both modern and ancient times, his enemy was the same, a big, evil guy named Kurgan (played by Clancy Brown of "The Hurricane," "Dead Man Walking" and "The Shawshank Redemption"). We have romance, sex and violence. There are numerous sword fights in the film which are generally well-staged by sword master Bob Anderson (who, by the way is choreographing action scenes for "The Fellowship of the Rings").

Aside from Connery and Clancy Brown, there's not much acting talent in the film. Lambert has limited emotional range, but he does look good on screen. The special effects are not great, but then this was not a big budget movie. Most the principal filmmakers never made much of a splash in the industry before or after this film. An exception is the film's editor, Peter Honess, who went on to work on the classic film noir detective tale, "L.A. Confidential").

I think what makes this film memorable is Honess' editing and some of the interesting techniques used by director Russell Mulcahy. He was one of the early directors to use a lot of music video (that was his main background before directing this film) techniques in a feature action film. In fact, Mulcahy said some of the tricks he used in "Highlander" were actually done with video and then transferred to film because the technology did not exist in 1985 to do what he wanted to do in a pure film medium.

Mulcahy is especially fond of flashy jump-cuts. In one scene, we go from a modern day to the 16th century in what appears to be a single upward pan of the camera, jumping from New York to the Scottish Highlands. In another scene we make a similar jump back in time from a modern fish tank to an underwater scene in Scotland. In another cut, we zoom in on the pupil of MacLeod's eye in modern day and zoom out again to see him in the past. In another sequence of scenes, we see MacLeod's early sword training as a virtual music video within the movie.

While none of these techniques was new when the movie was filmed, most action films of that era did not look as much like music videos as this one does. It was pretty flashy stuff for 1986, when the film was released. The pop group Queen originally signed on to do one song for the movie and ended up writing all the songs for the soundtrack. That didn't hurt the film's popularity. The late Freddie Mercury's rendition of "Who Wants to Live Forever" is a highlight of the soundtrack. While Mulcahy argues his use of flashbacks to tell this story was somehow groundbreaking, it is actually the same technique as that used in the popular 1972-75 TV show "Kung Fu," starring David Carridine as Kwai Chang Caine. That classic show featured a multitude of flashbacks showing Caine's training as a youth at a Shaolin temple in China. Because Master Po called Caine "Grasshopper" in many of these scenes I always think of flashbacks like these as grasshopper flashbacks. The "Highlander" flashbacks are pure grasshopper flashbacks.

Among the more interesting scenes added to this director's cut (this scene was also in the European theatrical version) is a scene from World War II which explains Connor's relationship to Rachel Ellenstein (played by Sheila Gish). Mulcahy felt this scene was necessary, although it was not part of the original script. He paid for it out of his own pocket and had it filmed after principal photography had ended, using one of his music video crews. This scene was then cut from the U.S. theatrical release. The scenes added to the director's cut don't really add much to the film. A scene with a bunch of back flips is downright silly, but Mulcahy really likes backflips, I guess, because he put them back into the first sword fight scene in the film. The director's cut had five minutes of additional footage not seen in the original U.S. theatrical release.

The deluxe collector's edition of "Highlander" was made in 1996, on the 10th anniversary of the film's theatrical release. The DVD uses the original theatrical inter-positive for a scene-by-scene color-corrected telecine transfer. The THX (TM) re-mix was made from the original six-track stereo masters which were converted to Dolby (TM) digital 5.1 format and AC-3 encoded. More dynamic range was added to the soundtrack, too much for my TV. I had to use the "sound logic stereo" setting on my set to compress the dynamic range. Otherwise, the talking was too soft or the rest of the soundtrack was too loud. The aspect ratio looks more like 1.85:1, not the 2.35:1 listed on the cover. The photos include a "slide show" which the viewer can watch using frame advance. This includes script revisions, publicity articles, and a list of the scenes cut out of the U.S. theatrical release, as well as a multitude of publicity stills. Some have complained about the picture quality of this DVD, but I thought it looked fine. The worst part of the sound is the opening monologue read by Connery. As Mulcahy said during his comments, it sounds like it was recorded in a bathroom. It is muffled, with a lot of echoes. By and large, this is a good DVD, especially for "Highlander" fans. It rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy this movie in DVD or VHS format, as well as the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. This particular DVD is currently out of production, but you can still get used copies from some sources, including the link to Amazon.com provided above. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2001 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)