21. THE WICKER MAN (1973)

“I think it is a film fantastique in a way… a film fantastique can have almost anything in it, it’s based on facts but it can take flights of fancy which are still rooted to the truth, to the reality of the story, so the imagination can roam.”–Robin Hardy

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Robin Hardy

FEATURING:  Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland,

PLOT:  A devout Christian policeman flies to the isolated island of Summerisle off the coast of Scotland to investigate a report of a missing girl.  When he gets there, everyone denies knowledge of the girl, but he notices with increasing disgust that the entire island is practicing old pagan rituals and licentious sex.  As his investigation continues, he uncovers evidence suggesting that the missing girl was a resident of the island, and may have met a horrible fate.

the_wicker_man_1973

BACKGROUND:

  • Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer was a hot property in 1973 after adapting his own successful mystery play Sleuth into a 1972 hit movie with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, and penning the screenplay for Frenzy (1972) for Alfred Hitchcock.  His clout was so great that this film was released under the official title Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man.  He later adapted Agatha Christie novels such as Murder on the Orient Express (1974) for the big screen.
  • Director Robin Hardy, despite doing an excellent job on this film, did not direct a feature film again until 1986’s Wicker Man variation, The Fantasist.
  • Christopher Lee, who had just come to the end of his run as Hammer’s Dracula, donated his acting services to the production.  He was quoted in 1977 as saying, “It’s the best part I’ve ever had.  Unquestionably.”
  • The “wicker man” was a historically accurate feature of Druidic religions that was first described to the world by Julius Caesar in his “Commentary on the Gallic Wars.”
  • In Britain the film was released on the bottom half of a double bill with Don’t Look Now, perhaps the most impressive psychological horror double feature in history.
  • Shaffer and Hardy published a novelization of the film in 1976.
  • “Cinefastique” devoted an entire 1977 issue to the film, calling it “the Citizen Kane of horror movies.”
  • In 2001, an additional 12 minutes of deleted scenes were added to create a “Director’s Cut” version.
  • Some of the original footage is believed to be lost forever, including part of the scene where Sgt. Howie first meets Lord Summerisle.  The original negative was accidentally thrown away when original producer British Lion Films went under and cleaned out its vaults.
  • The climax was voted #45 in Bravo’s list of the “100 Scariest Movie Moments.”
  • The 2006 Neil LaBute remake starring Nicolas Cage had as little as possible to do with the original story, was universally reviled, and was even accused of being misogynistic.  Some argue that it is so poorly conceived and made that it has significant camp value.
  • Hardy released a “spiritual sequel,” The Wicker Tree, in 2011.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The wicker man itself (although, for those of a certain gender, Britt Ekland’s nude dance may be even harder to forget).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Hardy and Shaffer create an atmosphere like no other; it’s an encounter of civilized man with strange, primeval beliefs.  Select scenes are subtly surreal—observe how the villagers break into an impossibly well-choreographed bawdy song about the innkeeper’s daughter preternaturally designed to discomfit their sexually repressed guest.  Other weird incidents are more outrageously in the viewer’s face: the vision of a woman breastfeeding a child in a graveyard while delicately holding an egg in her outstretched hand.  Almost invisible details such as the children’s lessons scribbled on the classroom blackboard (“the toadstone protects the newly born from the weird woman”) saturate the film and reveal how painstakingly its makers constructed a haunting alternate world of simultaneously fascinating and repulsive pagan beliefs.  The rituals Sergeant Howie witnesses don’t always make sense (and when they do, their significance is repulsive to him), but they tap into a deep, buried vein of myth.  The viewer himself undergoes a dread confrontation with Old Gods who are at the same time familiar and terrifyingly strange.

Original trailer for The Wicker Man

COMMENTS: CONFESSION: The version reviewed here–horrors!–is the 88 minute theatrical release that initially won most fans hearts, not the 2001 restored Director’s Cut version, which I have not seen.  Since I give this version of The Wicker Man the highest possible rating, the additional footage could only detract from the viewing experience, although I have every confidence it does not.  It’s still preferable for a first time viewer to see the cut that better captures the maker’s intent.

As Sergeant Howie flies his hydroplane across the coast of Scotland on his way to the island of Summerisle to investigate a report of a missing child, he passes over a weird landscape of of buckled hills with jutting phallic rock outcrops, but nothing he sees on his flight is as bewildering and exotic as what he encounters when he lands.  The Wicker Man is a thriller that sets up a sense of strangeness and mounting unease that builds to a devastating climax.  The movie conceives a twist ending of the best kind; even if you guess the “trick” before it happens, it’s power is not diminished, both because it is so brilliantly and unexpectedly executed and acted, and because it so perfectly yet ambiguously caps off the movie’s deeper themes.  At its heart, The Wicker Man is story of the clash of two dogmatically opposed cultures, as represented by Edward Woodward’s stern and judgmental Christian officer and Christopher Lee’s suave and manipulative Lord Summerisle, the puppet master behind the new, sexually free pagan society of the island.

Because The Wicker Man is formally a mystery story about a missing girl, the plot can’t be discussed in detail without the risk of spoiling the film for new viewers.  Besides the triumphant script, however, there are many praiseworthy elements that must be cited.   The performances of the two leads, who spar and play off each other with a hostility barely hidden under a thin coat of gentility, are superlative and drive the second half of the film.  (Note the final jab that Woodward’s Howie gets in on Lee’s Summerisle–a wound that may linger past the conclusion of the movie, and indeed could eventually prove fatal).  The original compositions by Paul Giovanni are fascinating and perform the amazing trick of transforming Celtic folk music into something terrifying.  Britt Ekland’s seductive nude dance, even though accomplished with the help of a body double, is a minor masterpiece of eroticism.  The details of pre-Christian Druidic rituals are impeccably researched, and, like a comparative religion textbook brought to chilling life, the script dramatizes the contrast of the Old Religion’s literal conception of sacrifice with Christianity’s civilized transubstantiation of the same idea into Christ’s symbolic sacrifice.

Ultimately, however, what’s intoxicating about The Wicker Man is that while it can be enjoyed for the simple and honest thrills and chills supplied by the detective story, Anthony Shaffer’s superlative script also offers plenty of intellectual meat to chew on, and alternate ways of interpreting the film.  Many view it as an attack on religious dogmatism and fanaticism of all stripes, and argue that Woodward and Lee battle to a draw for our sympathies.  I think that, especially viewed in the context of the zeitgeist of its 1973 release, the film clearly sides with Woodward’s Sgt. Howie, although it does so with the utmost reluctance.  In the end, The Wicker Man is a politically conservative film, although only in the most cynical sense.

Sergeant Howie is a marvelous character perfectly enacted by Woodward, and a brilliant choice to be the stand in for the viewer.  Howie represents God, the king, and Christianity: he is the symbol of authority and the established order.  But we do not like him, at least not initially, because he is humorless and judgmental. He makes a point of intolerance, at times taking more offense at the islanders’ abandonment of Jesus Christ than at the possible murder of Rowan Morrison.  Few viewers share his simple, old-fashioned, dogmatic faith.  Yet, there is something irresistibly admirable in his solidity, his dependability and his persistence to solve the island’s mystery; we feel we can trust him, even if we don’t like him.  We also must admire the fact that his faith is unshakable in the face of temptation and travails (in this respect, he appears far stronger than the islanders, whose faith comes easily because it’s never put to a serious test).  And, even if we are ambivalent about Howie’s character and wouldn’t choose to share a pint with him back on the mainland, on Summerisle we are forced into identifying with him, for we recognize his world and like him we are strangers to this Brave Old World.  We see the pagan isle through his eyes, and in the end we share his fate.

If we dislike Howie in the beginning but grow to identify with him, the opposite happens with the villagers.  Part of what makes The Wicker Man fascinating is the way it shuttles our sympathy between diametrically opposed characters as seamlessly as it reverses our plot expectations.  In the beginning, the islanders’ religious practices seem only mildly peculiar and harmless. Perhaps they prefer having midnight orgies in the graveyard and worshiping the phallic Maypole to listening to lectures in a stuffy cathedral, but in a society built on freedom of conscience, thought and religion, who is Howie to condemn them?  When the Sergeant presses them about their beliefs, their answers are reasonable and make him seem foolish, narrow-minded, and incapable of appreciating others’ perspectives.  Their independence from convention–which overwhelmingly manifests itself as sexual freedom—is alluring.  They appear joyful where Howie is dour.  No matter how appealing the island’s liberties may appear to us, however, that shadow that crosses the townspeople’s sunny faces when the subject of the missing girl comes up gives us pause.

It seems almost impossible not to recognize the pagan islanders–in their rejection of status quo norms, their embrace of sexual freedom, and their search for more ancient and mystical alternatives to the moralistic religion of their fathers—as stand-ins for the 1960s hippie counterculture, the “flower children” (indeed, all the female characters even have floral names like Willow, Rose and Myrtle). Although the hippies’ peace and love ideology seemed harmless at first, by 1973 the Manson family, the Altamont tragedy, rampant drug addiction, and unprecedented rates of unwanted pregnancies had graphically and demonstrated the tragic downside of the “if it feels good, do it” dogma.

Even if some of the hippies’ causes, like the endorsement of exotic alternative Eastern religions, were already losing steam by 1973, one counter-cultural rallying cry—sexual freedom—had clearly been heeded and absorbed into society at large.  The pagan religion of Summerisle, at bottom, is all about sex.  On the one hand, it’s about the sexual habits of vegetables, the fruiting of the crops (which are, notably, experimental strains that are “unnatural” to these Scottish islands).  On the other hand, the townspeople’s daily worship and activity seems to resolve almost entirely around sex, whether it’s Britt Ekland’s divine whore who initiates virgin boys into manhood, women who jump over bonfires naked hoping to become pregnant by parthenogenesis, or a cross-dressing Christopher Lee.  And, lest you think I am imagining that a concern about the dark side of the sexual revolution was on screenwriter Shaffer’s mind, listen to how he reacts in the 1977 Cinefantastique article when he’s asked if Sgt. Howie’s dedication to remaining a virgin until marriage would appear unbelievable at his age in this day and age:

…if you get some titters in the audience about that, maybe if you don’t imagine the world is in a very bad state, then I do.  The people who moan about the quality of life now compared to the way it used to be have only themselves to blame.  If you tear down a nice old building and put up some shitty supermarket, you cannot then complain that shopping is no longer any fun and your town now looks worse than it did.  It’s the same with sex… there is too much sex about… once it had it’s own mystery, but now it’s opened up, like a barnyard, so that within a generation or so, the act has become meaningless.

So, in part, at least, The Wicker Man is a film that expresses concern that our rejection of old (Christian) sexual mores may lead us to something unexpectedly horrible (unwanted children, disease, the breakdown of the family, all of which have come to pass).  Although Howie seems to be a representative of the ‘normal,’ ‘straight’ world in a strange new society based on ancient beliefs, in the sexual sense he doesn’t stand for the current status quo.  Rather, he’s a reactionary, clinging to discarded beliefs about the sacredness of procreation in a licentious world that has already come to pass.

But the script goes even further than merely commenting on changing sexual values and suggests that the wave of cultural change of the late 1960s and early 1970s, rejecting old settled ways and charting new courses based on new (or long discarded) stars, may lead to unintended horrific consequences.  The script makes this wider concern clear when Howie asks Lord Summerisle, “And what of the true God?”, the visionary replies “He’s dead.  He can’t complain, had his chance and in modern parlance, blew it.”  Summerisle’s observation, of course, is a paraphrase of the famous pronouncement of Nietzsche’s Madman, “God is dead.”  Nietzsche’s point was not to make a gleeful metaphysical statement about the Christian God’s non-existence, but to recognize that, with new competition from science and Enlightenment rationality, Christianity no longer played the central role in Western society that it once had.  Nietzsche prophesied that Christianity’s power would continue to erode in the coming decades and centuries; and with that erosion of religion’s ability to explain our place in the world, Christian morality would necessarily weaken as well.  The Madman’s rant was full of fear of the uncertainty about what might take Christianity’s place as the organizing principle of society: “What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?”

Festivals and sacred games. Summerisle offers a nightmarish answer to the question of what might replace the Christian order once it has been overthrown: a reversion to a state of anarchy, superstition and barbarism.  However much we may initially dislike the grim, judgmental and seemingly joyless Sgt. Howie, by the end of the movie we come to realize that his solid values of restraint, civilization, and humanity are not traits we should lightly sacrifice in our search for a new world order.  The devil we know is better than the devil we do not.  That this fundamentally conservative theme should be hidden deep inside a movie that has been embraced by the very counterculture it critiques is only appropriate in a movie that constantly deceives us, where nothing is ever exactly as it seems.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…possessed of a weird and paganistic story. Anthony Shaffer penned the screenplay which, for sheer imagination and near-terror, has seldom been equalled.”–Variety (UK) (contemporaneous)

“…as a meditation on the rise of New Age spiritualism, the movie is now, of course, gleefully camp and a tad reactionary.”–Kevin Maher, The Times (UK) (rerelease)

“Robin Hardy’s ultra-strange movie, best described as a ‘psychedelic pagan horror’… is played equally for laughs and whimsy. There’s naked cavortings, frequent detours into song, dance and surrealism: the islanders wear badger and hare masks and peep over walls like Beatrix Potter characters.”–Channel 4 (rerelease)

IMDB LINKThe Wicker Man (1973)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Wicker-man:  As of this writing, this unofficial site for the film is incomplete and has not been updated in over a year, but still contains a remarkable collection of information, interviews and articles on The Wicker Man.

Robin Hardy interview with “The Fortean Times”:  Interview with director Hardy.  WARNING: contains spoilers.

MungBeing Magazine: Ritual and Myth >> Revolting Literature:  Interview with Robin Hardy on The Wicker Man and his long-delayed thematic sequel, Cowboys for Christ

Paul Giovanni’s MySpace page:  Four songs from the remarkable soundtrack–“Corn Riggs,” “Willow’s Song,” “Maypole,” and “Gentle Johnny”–are available on the music director/composer’s page.

Gary Carpenter: The Wicker Man – Settling the Score: Associate music director Gary Carpenter describes his experience working on the soundtrack of the film

DVD INFO: The preferred version is the 2-disc special edition (buy), which contains both the original theatrical version and the director’s cut with 11 minutes of additional footage for comparison.  It features commentary by Robin Hardy, Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward (on the director’s cut), a promotional interview with Lee (an Easter egg uncovered by navigating to the wicker man on the “special features” menu), and two documentaries, the 35 minute The Enigma of the Wicker Man and the 50 minute Burnt Offerings.  Other reviewers indicate that the additional footage used to create the director’s cut has degraded and is not of the same quality as the theatrical footage.

The single-disc Anchor Bay release (buy) is now out of print but still available from many sellers and is the version reviewed here.  It contains the original trailer along with numerous TV and radio spots and The Enigma of the Wicker Man. No commentary is included.

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Filipe A.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

7 thoughts on “21. THE WICKER MAN (1973)”

  1. Thank you very much for this review. You’ve explored some aspects I had never thought about. For me it always felt right to sympathize with the pagan villagers, more than Sgt.Howie, even through the twist at the end. From that perspective it never occured to me that the film might also be seen as a quite conservative tale, intentionally or not. When I watched the Wicker Man for the first time all the pagan practices and rituals were fascinating. That might account for the fact that I actually found the film very uplifting and rarely think of it as an horror story.

  2. The film is open to many interpretations, and I notice that many people sympathize more with the villagers. From reading their interviews, I personally think that Shaffer and Hardy probably consciously intended either for both sides to look equally bad, or to leave it totally ambiguous. But I found this conservative reading fascinating and supported by evidence, and I wasn’t aware of anyone who’d explored this interpretation before, so I thought it would be a valuable contribution to the debate.

  3. Really excellent write-up. Totally reflects a lot of my exact thoughts and feelings about this film.

  4. How do you guys feel about the Final Cut version of the film? Would you guys say that for a first viewer it is the best version, or is the director’s cut better?

    1. I saw the theatrical version first so I will always be partial to it. It’s perfect as is. Despite my opening comments I wrote six years ago, I am not a fan of including additional footage just because it was shot. If anyone has a different opinion feel free to chime in.

    2. This site gives information about the various cuts: http://www.steve-p.org/wm/

      Essentially there are three versions: the short theatrical version, a long version released by Anchor Bay as a “director’s cut”, and the “Final Cut” which is similar to the director’s cut but doesn’t include footage that was unquestionably unnecessary.

      Having all versions several times, I am convinced that the short theatrical version presents the best experience for a first watch. Not is it the only version with all scenes in high quality, I feel the additional scenes slow down and provide explanation that is redundant to the narrative.

      SPOILERS FOLLOW:
      Along with minor changes, the longer versions introduce two major changes to the structure of the film.

      The first major change is scenes of Sergeant Howie on the mainland, participating in church services to establish him as deeply religious, and in the director’s cut establishing him as a virgin through dialogue from fellow police officers. I feel it works better if the narrative is restricted to the island and that his religiousness and virginity is revealed gradually by events.

      The second major change is an additional first night for Sergeant Howie. This first night has Willow sexually initiate a young boy and introduces Lord Summerisle who gives an anti-Christian speech. The shorter version uses the second night in place of this, and then runs the events of the next two days together. I feel the shorter version works better because a) it avoids breaking up Howie’s investigation, b) it makes sense that Willow would test Howie’s commitment to his faith the first chance she got so they could have got a different sacrifice if Howie had taken her bait, c) Christopher Lee’s speech is cool, but why is he disparaging people who are dutiful to God when he is involved in sacrificing a man to his own gods?

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