Christopher Lambert plays swordsman Connor MacLeod from the Scottish Highlands, known as the Highlander, one of a number of immortal warriors who can only be killed by decapitation. After initial training by another highly skilled immortal swordsman, Ramirez (Sean Connery), MacLeod lives on for several centuries, eventually settling in New York City, managing an antiques shop. In 1985, he falls in love with a police forensic scientist named Brenda. He also finds out that he must face his greatest enemy, Kurgan (Clancy Brown), who wishes to kill MacLeod and to obtain "the Prize" – a special ability which is given to the last living immortal warrior, vast knowledge and the ability to enslave the entire human race.
In 1985, Connor MacLeod, also known as the Highlander, is confronted by fellow immortal Iman Fasil in a New York City arena parking garage. McLoed decapitates him, upon which an energy surge from Fasil, enters Connor and destroys several cars around him. Connor hides his sword just as police officers swarm the garage and arrest him.
Connor's history is revealed through a series of flashbacks throughout the film. In the Scottish Highlands in 1536, The Kurgan assists Clan Fraser against the Clan MacLeod in exchange for the right to slay Connor. In battle, the Kurgan stabs Connor but is driven off by the MacLeod clansmen before he can cut off his head. When Connor makes a complete recovery, his family and friends are convinced it is the work of the devil. They attempt to have Connor burned, but he is instead exiled by the clan's Chief as an act of mercy and he wanders about, eventually becoming a blacksmith.
The flamboyant Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez appears and tutors Connor in sword-fighting and the history of the immortals. Ramirez explains that they belong to a group of immortals, who can only be killed by decapitation. When one immortal decapitates another, the winner receives a transfer of power from the deceased called "The Quickening". Eventually, all the immortals must meet in "The Gathering" and do battle until there is only one left alive; the survivor will receive "The Prize". Ramirez tells Connor that the Kurgan, the strongest of the immortals, must not win the Prize, or mankind will enter an eternal dark age. One night while Connor is away, the Kurgan attacks, decapitating Ramirez. Some years later, Connor's wife, Heather, dies of old age in his arms. Ramirez had earlier explained that immortals cannot have children, but they chose to be wed nonetheless.
In 1985, the police release Connor after he denies knowing Fasil. One of the detectives, Brenda Wyatt, is an expert in metallurgy and recognises Fasil's sword as an extremely rare Toledo Salamanca broadsword. Later, Connor returns to the garage to retrieve his own sword but sees Brenda looking at the crime scene. She finds metal shards embedded in a concrete column.
Connor lives under the alias Russell Nash and is a wealthy antiquities dealer. Brenda tails Connor, but the Kurgan attacks them. The fight is interrupted by a police helicopter, and everybody flees. Brenda analyzes the metal shards and discovers them to be from a Japanese katana, dated about 600 B.C. but made with medieval-era technology. She makes a date with Connor in an attempt to entrap him. Connor recognizes the ruse, tells her to stop digging, and leaves.
Connor meets with fellow immortal Sunda Kastagir. They talk about "The Gathering" and joke about old times. Meanwhile, Brenda discovers that Connor has been alive for centuries; every few decades he fakes his death, signs his assets over to children who had died at birth, and assumes their identities. She confronts Connor, who demonstrates his immortality. After this revelation, Brenda and Connor become lovers. However, he breaks up with her shortly after, citing Ramirez's warnings about immortals forming attachments to mortals.
The Kurgan finds Kastagir, killing him. On Heather's birthday, Connor lights a candle for her in a Roman Catholic Church, as he has done every year since her death. The Kurgan arrives and informs him that only they two remain. However, by immortal tradition they cannot fight on holy ground.
The Kurgan finds out about Connor's relationship with Brenda and kidnaps her to draw Connor to Silvercup Studios in Queens. Kurgan and Connor begin a long battle, with Kurgan almost gainng the upper hand. But Connor is able to fight back with Kurgan coming to the conclusion that he cannot defeat Connor as he is the better swordsman. In the end, Connor defeats and beheads the Kurgan. He receives the Prize, which manifests itself as a massive Quickening. Now mortal and capable of having children, Connor returns to Scotland with Brenda. Connor now can read people's thoughts around the world, and promises to use his gift to encourage cooperation and peace.Christopher Lambert as Connor MacLeod, a 16th-century immortal born in Glenfinnan, Scotland near the shores of Loch Shiel. Under the alias Russell Nash, he lives and works as an antiques dealer in present-day New York.
Sean Connery as Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez, an Egyptian immortal. He serves as Connor's mentor in the ways of immortals.
Clancy Brown as The Kurgan, Connor's nemesis. A murderous immortal living under the alias Victor Kruger, he was a member of the Kurgan tribe. He travels to New York with the intention of killing the other immortals and claiming the "prize".
Roxanne Hart as Brenda Wyatt, a forensic pathologist investigating the string of beheadings in New York.
Beatie Edney as Heather MacLeod, Connor's second wife. After Connor is banished from his village, he starts a new life with her. She lives with Connor until she dies of natural causes.
Alan North as Lt. Frank Moran, Brenda's friend and boss.
Jon Polito as Det. Walter Bedsoe, Brenda's friend and fellow detective.
Sheila Gish as Rachel Ellenstein, Connor's middle-aged secretary and adopted daughter. Saved by Connor as a child during World War II, she is one of the few people who know of his true identity.
Hugh Quarshie as Sunda Kastagir, Connor's fellow immortal and friend. He is beheaded by the Kurgan during a battle in New York.
Christopher Malcolm as Kirk Matunas, a Vietnam war veteran who witnesses the duel between the Kurgan and Kastigir.
Peter Diamond as Iman Fasil, a French immortal. Connor beheads him after watching a wrestling match.
Celia Imrie as Kate MacLeod, Connor's lover in 1536. When Connor demonstrates immortality, Kate, convinced he is in "league with Lucifer", makes an unsuccessful effort to have him burned at the stake.
Billy Hartman and James Cosmo as Dougal and Angus Macleod, Connor's cousins and fellow leaders of the Clan MacLeod.
Corinne Russell as Candy, a prostitute that comes to amuse The Kurgan.
Gregory Widen wrote the script for Highlander, then titled Shadow Clan, as a class assignment while he was an undergraduate in the screenwriting program at UCLA. Widen sold the script for US$200,000.
According to William Panzer, joint producer with Peter S. Davis of the Highlander franchise:
Widen also used Ridley Scott's 1977 film The Duellists as inspiration for his story.
Widen's original draft of the script differed significantly from the movie version. The initial story of the film was darker and more violent. Connor is born in 1408 rather than 1518. He lives with his mother and father. Heather doesn't exist; Connor is promised to a girl named Mara, who rejects him when she learns he's immortal. Connor leaves his village instead of being banished. His alias is Richard Tupin and his weapon is a custom broadsword. Ramirez is a Spaniard born in 1100 instead of an ancient Egyptian born more than two thousand years earlier. The Kurgan is known as the Knight, using the alias Carl William Smith. He is not a savage, but a cold-blooded killer. Brenda is Brenna Cartwright.
Other elements were changed during the rewrite. Initially, immortals could have children; in the draft Connor is said to have had 37. In a flashback in the first draft, Connor attends the funeral of one of his sons. His wife (in her 70s) and his two sons, who are in their mid 50s, see him revealed as an immortal. Also, there are no quickenings in the first draft. When an immortal kills another, nothing special occurs. Nor is there mention of a "prize". When Connor finally kills the Knight, he feels a sharp burning pain. The viewer is then not told if he remains immortal.
The entire budget was put up by Thorn EMI. When brought to Russell Mulcahy, the title was The Dark Knight. Filming began in April 1985 with on location shooting in Scotland in May and returning to London in June and ended July after a two-week shoot in New York City. It took place in Scotland, England, and New York City.
Director Russell Mulcahy filmed it using music video techniques including fast cutting and pacy music.
Director of photography Arthur Smith actually filmed the scene in which fish fall out of MacLeod's kilt, but Lambert's kilt proved to be too short. Smith said, "I stuck part of a drain pipe above Chris's kilt out of camera range, and fed live trout down the tube." Smith also had difficulties shooting MacLeod meeting the Kurgan. It was raining that day and the crew had to use umbrellas and hair dryers to prevent water from hitting the camera lenses and appearing on the film. Smith also remembered that Lambert, who was near-sighted, "kept forgetting to take off his glasses as he came over the hill on his horse."
The filming of the parking garage scene took place in two different places. According to New York location manager Brett Botula, "the garage exterior is Manhattan, across from Madison Square Garden, and the interior is 'somewhere in London.'" The pro-wrestling match in the opening scene featured The Fabulous Freebirds vs. Greg Gagne, Jim Brunzell and The Tonga Kid.
The scene where the MacLeod clan sets off to battle is supposed to take place "in the village of Glenfinnan, on the shore of Loch Shiel" in the Lochaber area, but was actually filmed at Eilean Donan Castle, which is in the same general area but is really on the shore of Loch Duich, a sea loch near Kyle of Lochalsh and the Isle of Skye.
According to the DVD commentary, the film's climax was originally intended to take place on top of the Statue of Liberty. Then it was changed to an amusement park and finally changed to the rooftop of the Silvercup Studios building. The opening sequence was originally intended to take place during a National Hockey League game, but the NHL refused because the film crew intended to emphasize the violence of the match.
The scene in the alley where the Kurgan beheads Kastagir and then stabs the former marine, followed by an explosion, was filmed in an alley in England even though it was set in New York. The director was reluctant to set off the explosion in the alley because the windows were full of Victorian glass, but he was given permission to do so because that particular site was going to be destroyed in a few months anyway.
The opening voice-over by Connery has an echo effect because it was recorded in the bathroom of his Spanish villa, where he had been working on his Spanish accent for the film with a voice coach. It was played for the producers over the phone, and they approved of it because they could not discern the quality of the recording.
The Highlander original orchestral score was composed by Michael Kamen. The British rock band Marillion turned down the chance to record the soundtrack because they were on a world tour, a missed opportunity which guitarist Steve Rothery later said he regretted. The band's Scottish lead singer, Fish, had also accepted a part in the film but pulled out because of the scheduling conflict. The eventual soundtrack includes several songs by Queen, such as "A Kind of Magic" and "Princes of the Universe" (the latter also being used for the Highlander television series title sequence). Brian May was inspired to write "Who Wants to Live Forever" after watching the love scenes between Connor and his wife Heather, which the song ultimately accompanied on the film.
Despite a mention in the end credits, to date a complete soundtrack album for Highlander has not been released. Queen's 1986 album A Kind of Magic features several songs from the film (although sometimes in different arrangements): "Princes of the Universe", "Gimme the Prize (Kurgan's Theme)" (the album version includes snippets of dialogue from the film), "One Year of Love", "Don't Lose Your Head", "Who Wants to Live Forever", and "A Kind of Magic". The album and single edits of "A Kind of Magic" feature a different mix from the one in the film; a 2011 re-release of the album includes the long-unreleased Highlander version of the song. The album does not include Queen's recording of "Theme from New York, New York", which features briefly in Highlander. "Hammer to Fall", a Queen song heard playing from a car radio in one scene, was from an earlier album, The Works.
The 1995 CD Highlander: The Original Scores includes five cues from Kamen's Highlander score (along with six cues from Stewart Copeland's Highlander II score, and four cues from J. Peter Robinson's Highlander III score). Furthermore, a rearrangement of an excerpt from Kamen's score (specifically, the beginning of the track "The Quickening") was used as the theme music for New Line Cinema's logo indent in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Upon initial U.S. release, Highlander was not well-received, but it gained wide and persistent popularity in Europe and other markets, as well as on home video. It has since become a cult film in both domestic and non-domestic markets, leading to four sequels, a television series, and various other spin-offs.
The film grossed $2.4 million on its opening weekend and ended with $5.9 million in the US. Internationally, the film grossed $12.9 million.
Highlander holds a 70% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 33 reviews. Metacritic rated it 24/100 based on seven reviews.
Danél Griffin of Film as Art awarded the film four stars (out of four), saying: "The key to Highlander's success is in its approach to its subject matter. What could have been a premise that breathes cliché is given a fresh approach due to Mulcahy's unique directing style and a cleverly-written script. [...] Highlander is certainly a classic film that will continue to be cherished and watched as the world of movie making continues to grow and change. It is a triumphant example of the art of cinema, and watching it reminds us all of why we like going to the movies in the first place." Christopher Null of FilmCritic.com gave the film four and a half stars out of five, writing: "Highlander has no equal among sword-and-sorcery flicks." Null later called Highlander "the greatest action film ever made," saying that it features "awesome swordfights, an awesome score, and a time-bending plotline that only a philistine could dislike".
Matt Ford of the BBC gave the film three stars out of five, writing: "From the moody, rain-soaked, noir-ish streets of late 20th century America to the wild open spaces of medieval Scotland, Mulcahy plunders movie history to set off his visceral fight scenes with suitably rugged locations. [...] What the film loses through ham acting, weak narrative, and pompous macho posturing it more than compensates with in sheer fiery bravado, pace, and larger than life action." Dean Winkelspecht of DVD Town also gave Highlander three stars out of five, writing: "The film's slow pace and dated look will turn away many a new viewer [...] However, there is a certain appeal to the film that brings back many for a second or third helping. I have learned to appreciate the film over the years, [and] the film's story is unique and entertaining."
Also giving the film three stars out of five, Adam Tyner of DVD Talk wrote, "The screenplay spots a number of intelligent, creative ideas, and I find the very concept of displacing the sword-and-sorcery genre to then-modern-day New York City to be fairly inventive. The dialogue and performances don't quite match many of the film's concepts, though. The tone seems somewhat uneven, as if Highlander is unsure if it wants to be seen as a straight adventure epic or if it's a campy action flick." IGN, awarding Highlander a score of 8 out of 10, wrote: "This 80s classic has a lot going for it. The hardcore MTV manner in which it was filmed is common these days, but was groundbreaking then. This movie features some of the best scene transitions committed to celluloid. [...] To this is added some fun performances by Connery and especially Clancy Brown."
Leonard Maltin gave the film one and a half stars: "Interesting premise made silly and boring... Former rock video director Mulcahy's relentlessly showy camera moves may cause you to reach for the Dramamine."
The video was a hit in the United States. The theatrical release of Highlander II: The Quickening in 1991 significantly increased the rental activity on Highlander even though the sequel was not a box-office success. Highlander was first released to DVD in the United States in 1997, in a "10th Anniversary Edition" Director's Cut that contained the international uncut version of the film. A "15th Anniversary" edition was released in Australia in 2001, which also contained the International cut of the film.
Highlander was again released in 2002 in two editions: a special "Immortal Edition" with several extra features (including several Queen music videos and a bonus CD containing three Queen songs from the film) and a standard edition, both of which contain the International uncut version with remastered video and DTS ES sound. On the June 17, 2009 French distributor StudioCanal issued the film on Blu-ray with identical releases following in Germany, UK, Holland, Australia and Japan. The U.S. director's cut is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray in North America from Lionsgate under license from the film's current owner, StudioCanal. 20th Century Fox, the theatrical distributor, remains the television rights holder.
A novelization of the film was written by Garry Kilworth under the pen-name "Garry Douglas". It expanded more on the movie by telling how the Kurgan met his first death and describing his training with an Arabian Immortal known as "The Bedouin," whom he eventually kills. The novel also reveals how the Kurgan gets his customized broadsword and his battle with an Immortal Mongol before meeting MacLeod in 1536. The novel also introduces an alternate scene showing Connor and Kastagir meeting in the Subway before meeting at the Bridge. Connor and Kastagir's relationship is portrayed differently than it is in the film. In the novel, despite both being Immortals, they are passive friends who can talk about anything without fighting.
The novel also reveals how Heather came to find out about Connor's immortality from Ramirez. The ending of the book is also expanded by revealing that Connor went back to his antique shop to say his final goodbye to Rachel before leaving for Scotland. Once he and Brenda arrive in Scotland, they tour for two months, and then open an antique shop in Camden Alley. On one occasion, he returns to the Scottish Uplands alone and stares at the remnants of his home with Heather. There is no croft there, but he finds a few stones from the fallen tor and locates the burial place of Ramirez and Heather. He finds two timbers and fashions a crude cross, telling Heather that she would like Brenda, because "She is much like you."
The film was followed by five sequels: Highlander II: The Quickening, Highlander III: The Sorcerer, Highlander: Endgame, Highlander: The Search for Vengeance and Highlander: The Source.
In March 2008, Summit Entertainment announced that it had bought the film rights to the Highlander franchise and was remaking the original film under the title Highlander: The Reckoning. As of March 2017, the filming has not yet begun.