Highlander, '˜a kind of magical mish-mash' of lore and odd fantasy

Clancy Brown, aka the Kurgan from Highlander, recalls his part in the cult film that has just been re-issued 30 years on, writes Alistair Harkness

Clancy Brown in Highlander. Picture: The Kobal Collection

Clancy Brown looks bemused. It’s Saturday night at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and the American actor is decked out in a kilt with all the trimmings to introduce a newly restored, high-definition print of Highlander, made to mark its 30th anniversary. As the film’s chief villain, the Kurgan, one might think he’d be giving this latest re-issue of the cult fantasy film the hard-sell, but Brown is being entertainingly honest about the film’s shortcomings.

“Usually they do 4K restorations for films like Lawrence of Arabia and 2001,” he quips, “but they’ve decided to do it... for this?” His voice rises in mock incredulity.

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He gets a knowing laugh, but he’s not being entirely ironic.

Clancy Brown. Photograph: Lloyd Smith © EIFF

“There are so many pictures deserving of a restoration that I didn’t think this would be one of them,” he confirms when we meet, sans kilt, a couple of days later. “After seeing it, I kind of get it. But I was a little surprised about it.”

What did he think after watching it again?

“It is weird,” laughs Brown. “And some of it is not expertly done. Yet for some strange reason it just all hangs together. It touches you. The visuals are gorgeous. It’s genuinely scary at moments. It’s genuinely campy at moments. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, and it’s breathtakingly startling at times. I’d kind of forgotten that. You see it all together and it is kind of a magical mishmash.”

First released in 1986, Highlander’s enduring appeal has always lain in its oddness, not its artfulness. This is a movie, after all, about a race of “Immortals” attempting to decapitate each other as they battle for supremacy through the ages. It’s a film that cuts inventively between present day New York and 16th century Scotland. It’s a film that features one-time rising French star Christopher Lambert as its titular clansman, Connor MacLeod, and a typically Scottish-accented Sean Connery as an Egyptian swashbuckler who goes by the Spanish name of Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez. It’s a film made when the rise of MTV was just starting to intersect with the film industry’s post-Star Wars determination to make only high-concept special effects movies. It’s also a film that tanked at the box-office but was sustained by the rise of home video and the success of its bombastic Queen soundtrack, the latter forming the bulk of the band’s subsequent It’s a Kind of Magic album, on which Brown’s dialogue was quoted extensively. “It was kind of weird being on the album,” says Brown now. “I didn’t see a dime.”

Clancy Brown. Photograph: Lloyd Smith © EIFF

He didn’t really see a dime from the film either. Indeed Brown has kept his distance from Highlander over the years. “I always knew it had legs as a cult film; I just stayed away from it because I didn’t really like the producers because of they way they treated the fans and the way they treated everything, really.”

He’s referring to Peter Davis and William Panzer, who went on to produce several dismal sequels and a Highlander television series. Brown, who was in his 20s at the time, disliked them from the off after they told him he was only being considered because Arnold Schwarzenegger had turned it down. “The producers actually told me that. They made it clear to me that their first choice was a really good actor,” says Brown, who has had a long career appearing in everything from Shawshank Redemption to SpongeBob Squarepants (he voices Mr Krabs).

Brown also disliked the way they simplified the Kurgan, turning him into a wise-cracking psychopath instead of the more nuanced villain 20-year-old screenwriter Gregory Widen had envisaged. “I sat down with Greg a lot and talked about it, but we were two 20-something dudes and didn’t really have any say in it.”

Brown did like director Russell Mulcahy, though. The pair met thanks to Sting, who’d recommended Brown to Mulcahy at a party, having recently acted opposite him on British horror film, The Bride. At the time Mulcahy was a pioneering promo director who had made the first video shown on MTV (the Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star) before going on to helm Duran Duran’s most elaborate videos including Rio and Wild Boys. But Mulcahy had also made the acclaimed low-budget horror film Razorback in his native Australia. “If you look at that movie, it had completely cheesy effects, but it was genuinely scary,” says Brown. “He knew how to make a movie without all the bells-and-whistles that you really needed to make these things back then.”

If the budget didn’t quite match Mulcahy’s ambitions – something he offset with innovative camera work – the producers paid through the nose for Sean Connery, who reportedly earned a $1 million for a week’s work. “He was a for-real movie star,” recalls Brown. “There was a certain way Sean liked to do things and he was not afraid to tell you.”

Brown doubts he made much of an impression on Connery, but he did get to kill off his character on screen. He worked more closely with Lambert. “He was just having the time of his life. And he had that cute French accent. The girls just fell over.”

Ah yes, the accent. Was the film’s incongruous casting much discussed on set?

“Do you think it was?” smiles Brown.

Though Brown has mixed feelings about the experience of making Highlander, his favourite parts of the movie remain those shot in Scotland. He did most of his scenes around Glencoe, though in truth, he says, he didn’t have much to do during that part of the shoot. “I hung out with some of the extras, who were all Scottish bikers, and drank with them until I couldn’t understand them. I left before it got really ugly. I also took a couple of sightseeing trips to distilleries and learned to love single malts. It was great. I love Scotland. I’m shocked at myself that I haven’t been back until now.”

• Highlander: 30th Anniversary Restoration will screen at Belmont Filmhouse, Aberdeen, 15 July, Filmhouse, Edinburgh, 18 July and Eden Court, Inverness, 29 August. It is also available to own from 11 July.