The universe of Highlander has been explored on TV, in animation, in novels, and so on. But did Highlander’s best possible spinoff actually exist as a song?
The universe implied by 1986’s Highlander certainly doesn’t lack exploration in depth. There have been several movie sequels, and in the early ’90s the franchise shifted to the small screen, presenting us with what may well have been the only worthy follow-up, Highlander: The Series (your mortal mileage may, of course, vary). That series ran six seasons and spawned its own spinoffs – Highlander: The Raven and an animated series set in an oddly futuristic setting – and dovetailed back into reviving the movie franchise with characters from the television iteration of the story. There have been novels, as well as a sadly short-lived audio series produced by Big Finish Productions. Really, the biggest paradox of the franchise is that the first movie ends the Game – the battles between Immortals through history that end when there is only one survivor to whom is entrusted the wisdom and power gained by all of the Immortals who fell before them – only to have every subsequent entry in the saga tell us, “Well, maybe that wasn’t the end, just an end.”
But what if we’re overlooking the most spinnable-offable thing of all? And what if that potential spinoff arrived in musical form a year before Highlander itself premiered in theaters? And what if that potential spinoff gave away the game by also having a title that begin with “high-“?
I am, quite obviously, talking about the 1985 Johnny Cash/Kris Kristofferson/Willie Nelson/Waylon Jennings supergroup’s debut single, Highwayman. And no, I’m being absolutely serious. Keep Highlander’s milieu of eternally-battling Immortals in the back of your head and listen to this chart-topping country classic again.
Clearly, this song is describing four other Immortals. A whole year before we met Connor MacLeod, these Immortals were swashing their buckles in plain view.
Let’s break it down by each singer’s character.
The Highwayman (Willie Nelson) – he fesses up in the very first verse to wielding a sword (“many a soldier shed his lifeblood on my blade“), just before dropping the song’s first plainly obvious Immortal bombshell (“the bastards hung me in the spring of ’25, but I am still alive“). Boasting up front of his misdeeds in history, Willie’s Immortal may be the most dangerous of the bunch.
The Sailor (Kris Kristofferson) – again, this man cops to arising after his death at sea (“I went aloft and furled the mainsail in a blow / and when the yards broke off they said that I got killed /
but I am living still“).
The Dam Builder (Waylon Jennings) – here we have an Immortal who is trying to blend into the background of mortal men, trying to hold down a normal, if hazardous, job (“I slipped and fell into the wet concrete below / they buried me in that great tomb that knows no sound / but I am still around“). Interestingly, this man may be going out of his way to avoid the Game (“I’ll always be around, and around and around and around…“), or may be overly confident of his chances of surviving it.
The Pilot (Johnny Cash) – this is the biggest head-scratcher of the bunch. The video shows us a combat jet pilot, while the lyrics – perhaps metaphorically – take us into more fanciful territory (“I’ll fly a starship / across the Universe divide“), before presenting us with the puzzle that he may or may not have died his first “temporary” death and is simply tired (“I’ll find a place to rest my spirit if I can / perhaps I may become a highwayman again / or I may simply be a single drop of rain / but I will remain“). However, that first realization – that bolt-from-the-blue awareness that another Immortal is nearby – must have already occurred to this man, because he’s already aware that “I’ll be back again, and again and again and again…“
But the interpretation of the lyrics of Cash’s verse is really important as far as when in the saga his character exists. If he literally flies a starship, he may belong to the more futuristic end of the franchise, and maybe he’s encountered Quentin MacLeod of the animated series. If, on the other hand, the video is correct and he’s a jet pilot, this Immortal may have bumped into Connor or Duncan MacLeod.
The sailor is even more of a total mystery; we get no clues as to what lives he has lived since. Or are all of these lives lived by the same man? In which case, we’re talking about a Time Lord, not an Immortal, and I need to write a whole different article.
Perhaps all of these characters lived, died, and fought all of their battles long before the end of the game depicted in the 1986 movie that begins the Highlander franchise proper, or perhaps they rub elbows with members of the MacLeod family in adventures yet unseen. The real question here, however, is… can you imagine Willie Nelson or Waylon Jennings in place of the Kurgan?
And there, my friends, is the crossover you never knew you needed, but now need to scurry off and start working on that fanfic or novel that needed some inspiration.