Highlander Director Recalls the Time Sean Connery Was Almost Beheaded for Real

Highlander director Russell Mulcahy chats casting Christopher Lambert, working with the “gentleman” Sean Connery, and his thoughts on the Henry Cavill reboot.

Sean Connery in Highlander
Photo: 20th Century Studios

Benjamin Franklin once famously claimed “in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” That might have been true in 1789 but, in 2022, it should probably be amended to include “remakes and reboots.” Remakes, reboots or whatever your preferred term may be, are increasingly commonplace in the world of moviemaking. It’s more common than most realize too. All that obscures that fact is that many have simply proven so bad that, without a VHS/DVD bargain bin to go to, they’ve been consigned to nothing more than distant memory. Who remembers the remakes of Jacob’s Ladder or Point Break, for example? 

So when news first broke that Highlander was set to become the latest beloved cult classic to get rebooted for a modern audience, there was understandable apprehension. After all, there was an undeniably unique alchemy to the success of the original film. Something that’s never quite been captured on film again and something which has ensured thatt, 35 years on, it remains beloved by fans the world over. 

Russell Mulcahy was a key component of that 1986 success. Though the Australian director would go on to helm several major Hollywood movies, Highlander was his first crack at the big time, coming two years after his wildly entertaining horror flick, Razorback, which centered on a giant boar hunting and killing people in the Australian Outback.

Razorback may have been out there, but Highlander’s central concept was similarly inventive: a film about a group of sword-wielding immortals locked in a centuries-long battle with one another for “The Prize.” Death, for an immortal in Highlander, could only come through being beheaded and, oh boy, did the heads roll.

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Mulcahy had spent much of the time between Razorback and Highlander directing a string of promos for some of the biggest bands of the 1980s. Speaking to Den of Geek in 2022, he recalls how that experience helped shape the style of Highlander

“I had just come off doing a whole lot of music videos for bands like Duran Duran and Thorn EMI [who funded Highlander] gave me free rein, creatively. There was very little input,” Mulcahy says. “So when I made the film, I was getting a lot of visual terminology and references from my music videos which helped give the film a different look at the time.” 

That terminology centered around fast cuts and a prominent soundtrack which was a combination of composer Michael Kamen’s score and the efforts of Queen, who Mulcahy had initially approached about contributing a title song.

“I met Freddie Mercury a few times in the music world,” Mulcahy explains. “When I suggested Queen, I initially thought it would be one song, like how they did with Flash Gordon. So we put together a 20 minute reel of highlights. The band turned up to the cinema and watched it. They came out and said, ‘We’re going to write you five songs.’ I was like, ‘What? Okay…’ That was a great day. I even convinced Freddie to do ‘New York, New York.’”

Mercury’s ode to Sinatra was joined by the several other songs on the film’s soundtrack including “Princes of the Universe,” “Gimme the Prize (Kurgan’s Theme),” “One Year of Love,” “Don’t Lose Your Head,” “Who Wants to Live Forever,” and “A Kind of Magic.” 

While not all of these were written for the film, Queen were so enthralled at what they saw that the band began to take an active role in helping blend Kamen’s score with their own contributions.

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“We became very close partners in post-production,” Mulcahy says. “It was the perfect marriage. When a song finished, the score would take off with an orchestration of it. Kamen has just done Brazil, and Queen and Freddie in particular had this operatic quality. It just worked.” Mulcahy has a particular appreciation for the track “Who Wants to Live Forever,” the song that plays as our immortal protagonist Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) watches his beloved wife, Heather (Beatie Edney), die of old age.

“It conveys the epic, tragic, romance of the film,” says Mulcahy. “It’s a very sad story in a way and that song encapsulates that emotion so well.”

Originally written by Gregory Widen as a class assignment on a UCLA undergraduate screenwriting program, Highlander was initially titled The Dark Knight and, perhaps unsurprisingly given its title, featured a much darker tone. By the time Mulcahy had begun work on the movie, it had undergone significant rewrites, yet the director was immediately drawn to the original germ of an idea for the project.

“It’s just a wonderful story,” Mulcahy says. “The script just grabbed me when I first read it; the romance, the tragedy, the action, the wonderful villain. Great characters, great story.” The tale of how Lambert landed the role of MacLeod is also the stuff of Hollywood legend in its own right.

“I was in the office at Gower Studios, and we were still casting,” Mulcahy recalls. “I was flipping through a magazine and, bang, there’s Christopher Lambert in Greystoke with these burning eyes, and I just said, ‘Guys, this is him.’” Up until that point, Lambert was known for the Luc Besson film Subway and the aforementioned Greystoke, an ‘80s reimagining of the Tarzan stories. That would soon change though. “He couldn’t speak a word of English but he was just perfect, his whole persona, everything was just right. He looked timeless. He had this haunting quality about him.”

The Highlander director confirms other notable names were considered for the part but, once he locked eyes with Lambert, there was no going back. 

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Says Mulcahy, “Various people were touted for the role. Jeff Bridges and a few others, but Lambert just had this unique quality, and I also thought it was important not to have a recognizable face.”

Recruiting the film’s biggest star was an altogether different story, however. Mulcahy said Sean Connery had already signed on to play Juan Sánchez-Villalobos Ramírez by the time Lambert was cast. An Egyptian immortal who befriends and ultimately mentors MacLeod, the character did not resemble the usual part played by the legendary Scottish actor. Nonetheless, it became one of his more cherished genre roles, and one which provided Mulcahy with fond memories of working with Connery.

“The first time I went to meet him was at the Savoy Hotel in London,” says the director. “I knocked on the door of his hotel room, nervous, thinking ‘I’m about to meet 007!’ We had the most wonderful afternoon together. Cucumber sandwiches and tea, and just chatting away. We got along from the word go.”

Connery was only contracted to seven days on the film but his time on-set proved eventful nonetheless, particularly during one fight scene that saw Ramirez go toe-to-toe with Highlander’s central villain, the Kurgan, played by a young Clancy Brown.

“I remember day one with him was in the castle in Scotland where the Kurgan comes in and attacks him,” Mulcahy says. “It was Clancy Brown’s first day and he was very anxious. We rehearsed him bursting through the door and then coming down and chopping the table in half. But when the cameras were rolling, he burst through the door and he didn’t slice the table in half; he basically swung his sword across the candelabra and nearly took off Sean’s head.”

According to Mulcahy, a visibly furious Connery then immediately stormed off the set and removed his costume before calling a meeting. Mulcahy says his first thought was “oh my God, we’re about to lose Sean Connery.” Fortunately, the profuse apologies of Brown, coupled with the suggestion they make use of Connery’s stunt double helped smooth things over. Despite this, Mulcahy remembers the James Bond actor as a “complete pro with everyone on set.” 

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“As long as you had your shit together, Connery was a blessing,” Mulcahy adds. “A wonderful, wonderful gentleman.” Even so, the director recalls the hectic schedule of shooting required to cram all of Connery’s scenes into that seven-day period.

“We’d shoot Sean Connery and shoot Sean over Chris’ shoulder. Then we’d shoot Chris’ close-up weeks later with a double. I remember on his last day in the afternoon he came to me and said: ‘You’re not gonna finish with me are you laddie? You know if you don’t finish with me, I get another £250,000.’” 

Mulcahy had other ideas though. “We set it up so we had three cameras, all different sizes, on him. I was like ‘Put your hat on, turn around, raise your sword, smile, look angry’ and I ran him through about a minute of just Sean doing different things and some of those spots are in the movie. It got around to just before 4 o’clock, and I was like ‘that’s a wrap’ and he just said, ‘You bastard.’”

In what is a major twist to the uninitiated, Kurgan ends up killing Ramirez in MacLeod’s home in one of the most dramatic and unique scenes in the movie. 

“When we shot it, it had this comic book quality to it,” Mulcahy remembers. “It was risky. We had this backdrop of painted clouds. It has this kind of 1930s Frankenstein feel. It was very stylized but it worked.” The scene evidently had an impact on the crew, with the director recalling how they rose to applaud when the scene ended. 

Though Connery undoubtedly brought a sense of gravitas to proceedings, Highlander also benefited from a memorable villain in the Kurgan. Brown and Mulcahy collaborated to create the idea of a villainous knight, now living in 1980s New York and what he might evolve to become.

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“In the beginning, he’s the Dark Knight but by the 1980s, he’s trying to blend in and the only way he can do that is by becoming this punk who has no morals or ethnic and is a nasty piece of work with a warped sense of humor,” Mulcahy says. “We chatted constantly about it. And he just grew into the part. The whole shaving his head and getting a tattoo on it was his idea. He went through a real process to become The Kurgan.”

Though The Kurgan would not live to see another Highlander movie, Ramirez, inexplicably, would with Connery returning for another supporting turn in Highlander II: The Quickening (1991). Lambert, meanwhile, would return for three more sequels, as well as the pilot of the spin-off TV series starring Adrian Paul, which would ultimately span an astonishing six seasons and 119 episodes. In fact, Highlander has spawned cartoons, comics, and anime with a lore and fandom to rival the biggest and best out there. So what is it about Highlander that keeps people coming back?

“Something about it resonates,” Mulcahy says. “It’s this great, tragic love story with these terrific characters and this great passion for their quest. It’s got a shocking villain and it’s a lot of fun. The Queen music elevates it. It just ticks a lot of boxes.” 

Studio bosses will be hoping that enduring appeal can be parlayed into the proposed remake with John Wick’s Chad Stahelski reportedly directing and Henry Cavill taking over from Christopher Lambert.

Mulcahy has one piece of advice for the new team: “Don’t overdo it with the CGI. Practical effects over CGI.” He also backed Cavill for the main role. “He loves the character, and I think he would do an extraordinary, wonderful job. He has that same brooding quality about him that Christopher has.”

Though nothing is certain, something tells us this won’t be the last we hear of Highlander.

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The Highlander 4K Collector’s Edition is out now from Studiocanal