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THE WICKER MAN (1973)

“He brought me up the same way: to reverence the music, and the drama, and the ritual of the old gods; to love nature, and to fear it; to rely on it; and to appease it – when necessary.”





  Director:
 
Robin Hardy

  Starring: 
Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland, Lindsay Kemp, Ingrid Pitt, Russell Waters, Irene Sunters, Jennifer Martin, John Hallam, Allison Hughes, Geraldine Cowper

  Screenplay: 
Anthony Shaffer

Synopsis:  Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) of the West Highland Police, whose jurisdiction covers several islands off the coast of Scotland, receives an anonymous letter from Summerisle claiming that a young girl called Rowan Morrison has not been seen for several months. After attending church in the company of his fiancée, Mary (Allison Hughes), and taking communion, Howie sets out in his seaplane for Summerisle, where he has difficulty convincing the Harbour Master (Russell Waters) that he has a legal right to come ashore without consulting Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). Once on land, Howie shows to a group of curious locals a photograph of the missing girl, which was enclosed in the letter, but the men are unanimous in denying any knowledge of her, and even deny that there is anyone of the name of Morrison on the island. The sceptical Howie continues to question them, however, and at length one of the men concedes that there is a woman called May Morrison (Irene Sunters) on Summerisle. He directs Howie to the post office, where Mrs Morrison laughingly denies that any child of hers is missing. When a customer calls, Howie takes advantage of Mrs Morrison’s absence to question her young daughter, Myrtle (Jennifer Martin), who startles him by speaking of a Rowan – but who, under further questioning, explains impatiently that Rowan is the name of a hare. As night falls, Howie makes his way to the Green Man inn, where he requests a room and supper. The locals disgust Howie by breaking into a bawdy ballad about the landlord’s daughter – and all the more so because the landlord, Alder MacGregor (Lindsay Kemp) and his daughter, Willow (Britt Ekland), are not only present, but openly enjoy it. Finally, Howie interrupts the singing to ask about Rowan Morrison. As the girl’s picture is being passed around, Howie notices a series of framed photographs on the wall, each taken at the island’s yearly Harvest Festival and showing a local girl surrounded by the final harvest. Observing that the previous year’s photograph is missing, Howie questions MacGregor, who claims that it got broken. Willow takes Howie to the dining-room, where he finds to his dismay an unappealing supper, obviously straight out of a can. He asks for one of the famous Summerisle apples, and is incredulous when Willow tells him there are none available; that they were all exported. Later, Howie goes for a walk, and can only stare in disbelief at a nearby churchyard, where couples openly engage in sexual intercourse. Howie retreats to the inn and to his room, but finds no refuge. Through the open window, he hears a man’s voice calling to Willow in the room next door, introducing a young boy before sending him up to her. The conversation makes it clear that the man is Lord Summerisle; Howie listens in growing puzzlement as he and Willow speak of the day of “death and re-birth”; while in the bar, the locals sing softly a folk song about sexual initiation. As Howie tries to block out the noises coming from adjacent room by praying, outside, Lord Summerisle continues to talk, praising the wonders of the natural world, its richness and fecundity, and scornfully condemning those men who, “Lie awake in the dark, thinking over their sins.” The next morning, Howie makes his way to the school, where again he is confronted by the islanders’ frankly sexual ways: the boys dance around a May-pole as their teacher sings of the circle of life; while inside Miss Rose (Diane Cilento) instructs the girls in the significance of the ritual. The outraged Howie calls Miss Rose outside, warning her that he will be reporting the school to the authorities, only to be told bluntly that the police have no jurisdiction in such matters. Howie once more passes around Rowan’s photograph, and receives the usual denials, as well as being told that the room’s one empty desk belongs to “no-one”. When Miss Rose insists that he needs either a search warrant or permission from Lord Summerisle to see the school’s register, Howie angrily pushes her aside and seizes the document – and finds, in the list of enrolled students, the name “Rowan Morrison”....

Comments:  Cult movies – true cult movies – are born, not made; and The Wicker Man’s status as “cult movie” rests equally upon its content, the timing of its production, and the disastrous release history that almost saw this remarkable work lost altogether. By the early seventies, the British film industry as a whole was undergoing financial and structural upheaval. One company affected in this way was British Lion, which had been in existence since the late 1920s, and had seen its glory days during the forties, when Alexander Korda’s London Films bought controlling interest; acquisition of the famous Shepperton Studios followed, and for several years, as film-makers including Korda himself, David Lean, Carol Reed and Anthony Asquith plied their trade there, British Lion was at the forefront of the local film industry. However, changes to Britain’s quota production laws saw the company overreach itself financially and end up in receivership; the creation of British Lion Films Ltd., a distribution arm, steadied the ship for a time, but by the end of the 1960s, British Lion, like many local production firms, was in trouble again.

Crisis point was reached in 1972, when British Lion became one of the many companies bought by millionaire businessman John Bentley. Bentley’s acquisitions were purely profit-making ventures; he had no more personal interest in film-making than he did in billboard advertising or toy-making, two of his other well-publicised investments; but in buying British Lion, it was soon evident that he had also bought himself a fight. By dabbling in film production, Bentley had ventured where the public actually cared. His plan to raze Shepperton and replace it with a housing estate provoked a furious outcry, and soon he found himself in the position of having to placate the public generally and the unions in particular, who saw nothing in their workers’ futures but across-the-board unemployment. Needing, at least for a time, to operate his studio as a studio, Bentley appointed Canadian-born independent producer Peter Snell as British Lion’s new head of production, and told him to get a film, any film, into production. Snell took the opportunity to green-light and act as producer for a project to which he had already committed emotionally: an Anthony Shaffer-penned horror-mystery called The Wicker Man. Filming on the production wrapped during December of 1972, and by the early months of 1973, a preview print was ready for screening. In the meantime, however, John Bentley had decided that British Lion was more trouble than it was worth: the company had been resold to Woodfall Films, whose managing director, Michael Deeley, viewed the first cut of The Wicker Man and promptly declared it to be one of the ten worst films he had ever seen.

What followed was a nightmare of managerial interference and enforced compromise. The initial cut of the film was reduced from around two hours to 102 minutes. At this stage, Peter Snell, determined to get his baby out into the marketplace somehow, tried to negotiate American distribution for the film with none other than Roger Corman. Having retired from directing after an unhappy brush with studio film-making, Corman had gone on to found New World Pictures, and in the early seventies was operating his highly profitable new venture in a hilariously schizophrenic manner, turning out sex-and-violence exploitationers aimed specifically at the drive-in market while simultaneously acting as the US distributor for the likes of Bergman, Godard, Herzog and Kurosawa. (Corman’s explanation? Those were the films he wanted to see, and nobody else was importing them.) Although, as he would later put it, “No-one ever got rich making a deal with Roger”, what Peter Snell saw of Corman’s operation he liked: his imported films were intelligently marketed and aggressively advertised; they always reached the right audience. Snell contacted Corman, offered him The Wicker Man, and sent him a print of the 102-minute version.

Meanwhile, British Lion was busy doing its perverse, mystifying best to destroy The Wicker Man altogether. Initially having no intention of releasing the film at all, the company’s hand was in a sense forced when someone (probably Christopher Lee) managed to get The Wicker Man entered in the Festival du Film Fantastique in Paris, where it took the Grand Prize. Michael Deeley was furious – officially because the public screening threatened various distribution deals under negotiation, more likely because it interfered with the film’s tax status – but began grudgingly to prepare the film for release....after a fashion.  First cutting it again, from 102 minutes down to 87, as well as re-ordering a number of the remaining scenes, British Lion then did something unheard of as late as 1973: it issued the film as the bottom half of a double-bill beneath Don’t Look Now, which Peter Snell had earlier purchased for distribution. (And which Deeley also hated.) Although The Wicker Man’s London screenings were entirely unadvertised, Christopher Lee, the film’s tireless champion, took the unprecedented step of phoning all the critics he knew and begging them to see it. Many did, and generally positive reviews – indeed, some of them glowing, even for the truncated version – began to reach the public. Michael Deeley was unmoved, however, and adamantly refused to screen the film outside of London.

It was at this time that Peter Snell – who had been removed from his position as British Lion’s head of production, but was stubbornly running out his contract – was negotiating with Roger Corman, but their agreement was forestalled when Deeley went over Snell’s head and sold the American rights to The Wicker Man to a company called National General – which went bankrupt only four days after the deal went through. National General’s films were subsequently sold to Warners, whose only interest in The Wicker Man was as a tax write-off. The studio screened their acquisition briefly in a few territories, just enough to satisfy the taxation requirements. The film garnered a strong positive review from Variety during this time, but Warners didn’t care: they buried it.

During the years that followed, Peter Snell and Robin Hardy bravely kept up the dispiriting battle to get their film to the public. It was Hardy who finally had some success, after he had relocated professionally to the US. Warners’ rights to The Wicker Man had in the meantime reverted to yet another tax shelter organisation, Beachhead Properties. They, in turn, auctioned the film off, and in the very first stroke of good fortune in its history, The Wicker Man sold to a small distribution company called Abraxas, headed by a film buff named Stirling Smith – who had, ironically enough, been one of the few people to see it during its brief Warners tax-shelter run. Soon afterwards, Robin Hardy’s search for his film led him to Stirling Smith, who then learned about the longer cuts. The two men decided to contact British Lion – which by this time had been sold yet again, this time to EMI – about obtaining the cut footage, with the aim of releasing a restored print. To his horror, Robin Hardy discovered that all the material related to his film that had been held by British Lion, including the original negative, had been lost or destroyed. To this day, no-one has taken full responsibility for this, and opinions continue to differ over whether it was simply an appalling accident, or an act of deliberate spite. Indeed, legend has it that, along with a great deal of other “unnecessary” material, the original footage of The Wicker Man was disposed of by being turned into literal landfill, and that today it lies beneath the M3 motorway, which passes near the entrance to Shepperton Studios....

Except, of course, there was one more print in existence, at least of the 102-minute version: the one sent to Roger Corman some years earlier. After some dancing around the issue (during which time he was presumably satisfying himself that there really wasn’t anything in it for him), Corman surrendered his copy of the film to Abraxas. At long, long last, The Wicker Man began to screen for the public, although in those pre-video days the audience that Abraxas, with its limited resources, could reach was necessarily restricted. Nevertheless, Robin Hardy, Stirling Smith, and Smith’s partner, John Simon, worked tirelessly to get the film art-house bookings, with Christopher Lee flying in to give interviews and make promotional appearances whenever he could. Slowly but steadily, the legend of The Wicker Man began to grow, culminating in a 1977 edition of Cinefantastique that devoted its cover and many of its pages to the same sad history that I have been recounting, and that cemented The Wicker Man’s position as one of those tormentingly elusive films that everyone had heard of but few had ever seen.

(Numerous books published around this time included tantalising stills from this famous “lost” film; my own childhood was scarred by a shot of Edward Woodward, who I knew from the police shows my parents watched, staring up at a bloody “Hand of Glory”.)

The coming of home video finally brought some relief to the adherents of The Wicker Man, although as it turned out, an unkind fate still hadn’t quite done with this ill-fated film. The 102-minute version was certainly released on tape; but when it was time to release it to DVD – the rights, in the interim, having changed hands several more times before finally, thankfully, falling to Canal+ – still more problems arose. Somehow, at some time, that original Roger Corman-held print had also been lost; all that remained was a 1-inch telecine copy made while Corman was considering the film’s distribution. Thus, the restoration envisaged could not be carried out. Instead, in spite of its poor quality, Canal+ used the telecine print to restore the missing footage, and reordered the existing scenes. Subsequently, a limited edition DVD was released containing both the 87-minute cut in pristine condition, and a “restored” version whose picture quality necessarily comes and goes. Mysteriously, this print runs 99 minutes, three shorter than the version shown in cinemas by Abraxas and then released to video. As far as I am aware, no reason for this discrepancy has ever been determined.

After all this, we can only ask the question, well, was it worth it? Remarkably, the answer is an unqualified yes. The Wicker Man is one of those rare films that manages to live up to its hype; not perfect, perhaps, but such an intriguing mixture of theme and character, so beautifully designed and filmed, and above all so intelligently written, that it finally succeeds in becoming greater than the sum of its parts. Not many cinematic pleasures can compare to that of coming to The Wicker Man knowing nothing about it....if, in these sad days of information overload, such a thing is possible any more. But even if the film has been spoiled in that way, much of the experience remains. Few films reward watching and re-watching as The Wicker Man does, as the significance of all those touches that you overlooked or misinterpreted or disregarded on a first viewing becomes clear. This is an extraordinarily integrated work. There is barely a shot, a word, a gesture that is without meaning, whether or not we recognise it at first glance.

The Wicker Man is also unusual in that it carries above its title the name, not of its director, or its producer, or its star, but its screenwriter – and rightly so. At the time of this film’s production, Anthony Shaffer was riding high as a writer, having found success and fame as the author of Sleuth. The core premise of that play, the clash of opposing viewpoints and the psychological battle between their proponents, is carried over into The Wicker Man, woven into the tale’s more overt “horror movie” aspects in a way that strengthens and enriches each. The third facet of the screenplay is perhaps the most unexpected, although again it was an important component of Shaffer’s earlier work: throughout The Wicker Man runs a vein of very rich humour, both overt and covert; much, admittedly, at the expense of poor Sergeant Howie, but also much at no-one’s in particular; the action is repeatedly punctuated by moments of delicious verbal and visual absurdity. Significantly, when you examine the restored DVD print and recognise what footage was previously cut, it is clear that many of those scenes were of humorous intent. Evidently the people doing the cutting didn’t understand that those scenes were meant to be funny; or perhaps they felt that the humour was out of place. If so, they could not have been more wrong. It is precisely the jocular air of the film overall that gives its final act its power, adding immeasurably to the shocking force with which the rug is pulled out from beneath Neil Howie and the audience alike.

While all of the cutting was injurious to a greater or lesser degree, in my opinion it was the removal of The Wicker Man’s opening scenes on the mainland that did the greatest damage. The cut print begins with Neil Howie’s arrival in Summerisle; bits and pieces of his background are subsequently filled in via flashbacks, but these interpolations do not allow us to know and to understand Howie as we must, if the film is to have its full impact. Most critically, these restored scenes show Howie within his religious community; we see him attending church with his fiancée, Mary; reading the lesson; and taking communion. Howie’s devout Christianity will be the fulcrum upon which much of the story rests, of course; but these scenes are not just about his religion; they are about Howie as a man, and the kind of life he leads. The church scenes are bookended by others of Howie on duty, and we are given equal reason to feel dismayed and sympathetic. On one hand, as soon as he opens his mouth we are able to recognise Howie as a fairly joyless authoritarian: his first words are, literally, “Get a haircut”; his first action, to order the immediate removal of some graffiti, however much he might approve its content (JESUS SAVES). But the scenes that follow make it uncomfortably clear that Howie’s behaviour is as much defence mechanism as choice. His subordinate, Constable McTaggart, rather than showing any loyalty or even just some professionalism, ridicules his superior officer openly, and invites others to do so also. That Howie is aware of this is obvious; and we in turn become aware that to an extent, at least, the man’s inflexibility is a necessary armour. The overriding sense of these scenes is one of Howie as a painfully lonely and isolated individual, an outsider in his own home.

So it is in the world at large, at least; within his church things are very different. Balancing the harshness of his outside life is a brief but lovely scene of Howie with his Mary; their fingers touching as they hold their prayer-book together; the exchange of a glance and a smile that reveals the feeling between them. In the overall scheme of the film, this short sequence is one of the most critical. The sanctuary that Howie finds in his religion is evident, and we are allowed to see also that beneath the hard exterior, he is a man capable of deep emotion, albeit emotion held sternly in check, always subservient to his duty to God and man.

Also critical are the various reactions to the anonymous letter that summons Howie to Summerisle. It arrives at the police station courtesy of the local post-boy who, seeing correspondence from such a source, suggests that Howie has, “A bit o’ skirt over there.” This draws a contemptuous guffaw from McTaggart, to whom Howie’s religious devotion, and his celibacy in particular, are rich fodder for crude jokes and sniggering. (Although he dismisses the notion that Howie has a secret girlfriend, McTaggart still sniffs the letter, checking for perfume....just in case.) McTaggart and the post-boy shake their heads over the mystery of, “What she sees in him”, with the latter opining that the future Mrs Howie will spend, “More time on her knees in church than on her back in bed!” This witticism elicits an appreciative roar from McTaggart, for whom the idea that a strong religious feeling and strong sexual desires might coexist is, clearly, ridiculous. While the clash of Howie’s Christianity and the islanders’ paganism is the focus of the tale, this footage adds texture and complexity to the conflict, as well as providing a sharp reminder that the irreligious are sometimes apt to be just as narrow-minded and judgemental as they like to accuse their more devout brethren of being; and that intolerance is intolerance, no matter what form it takes. That Howie himself is prejudiced against the people of Summerisle is, however, immediately evident, as he mutters darkly to McTaggart about the island’s lack of licensing laws and what they do there on Sundays – to wit, anything they like; the battle-lines are drawn even before Howie sets out in his seaplane, and they have very little to do with the missing Rowan Morrison.

On the production side The Wicker Man is uniformly brilliant, with much of its power emanating from the combination of its location shooting and production design, and the score composed and partially executed by New York-born Renaissance man Paul Giovanni. Although set on an island, and although aerial footage of the actual Summer Isles in the northern Highlands is used at the beginning, most of the film was shot around Dumfries and Galloway in the southernmost part of Scotland. (The area now has a thriving tourist trade thanks to this movie, about which it seems ambivalent at best.) While it is indisputable that the natural beauty of the settings of The Wicker Man lends an incalculable richness and credibility to its story, the film’s rush into production meant that it was necessarily filmed from mid-autumn into early winter; exactly the wrong time of the year to be making a film about the glories of spring and the fecundity of nature, particularly in Scotland! It was a situation that forced the film’s crew to exercise their ingenuity. While some footage of apple trees in blossom and of a verdant countryside was captured in pre-production, art director Seamus Flannery and his team eventually found themselves having to embroider their settings by pasting artificial blossoms and leaves onto barren branches, individually; for longer shots, they also created a series of blossom sprigs, which they could attach to new sets of bare trees wherever they went.

For the cast things were more difficult still. The whole production was at the mercy of the weather, with planned indoor shooting repeatedly being abandoned whenever the conditions cleared enough to make outside filming possible and profitable; Edward Woodward in particular was kept on the hop, eternally preparing for one scene, then having to perform something else entirely – and, during the filming of The Wicker Man’s climax (brought abruptly forward in the schedule thanks to rare, cooperative weather), even to work off cue-cards. The film’s last scenes occur on May-Day, with the joyous locals participating in the associated rites, all dressed in thin, summery clothing; the suffering of the actors may be imagined. At some points, cast members were forced to suck on ice cubes, to keep their breath from fogging as they spoke their lines. It is truly remarkable how seamless the finished product appears, and how little the actors allowed their extreme discomfort to impact upon their performances.

As Howie’s plane crosses the waters and he approaches Summerisle, we hear the first of the folk songs integrated into the film by Paul Giovanni, who wrote some original pieces (most notably, “Willow’s Song”), adapted existing themes and ballads, including some by Robert Burns, re-writing the lyrics where appropriate, and recruited students to play traditional instruments within the film, precisely so that they would not sound polished or rehearsed. His arrangement of “Summer Is Icumen In”, the oldest surviving song in the English language, plays a critical role towards the end of the film. Giovanni himself appears in The Wicker Man, performing and singing the ballad “Gently, Johnny” in another of the long-cut sequences. The film’s musical interludes – of which there are plenty; director Robin Hardy once famously declared that far from making a horror movie, he was making a musical – are not there merely to provide “atmosphere”, however, although they certainly do that. In the increasingly sexual explicitness of their lyrics, these songs are a vital part of the story as a whole, helping to define the nature of the life upon Summerisle, and ultimately becoming an important component in their own right of the challenge that Neil Howie finds waiting for him there.

Perhaps most important of all to the success of The Wicker Man, however, is the detailed and respectful research into Celtic pagan practices that Anthony Shaffer carried out before writing his screenplay, and the care taken in the film’s production design to evoke a way of life in which those practices are absolutely fundamental. As Sergeant Howie will soon learn to his disgust, fertility symbols are everywhere; even the sweets sold at the post office are unmistakably phallic in nature. Sometimes the screenplay calls attention to all this, as with Mrs Morrison’s treatment of Myrtle’s sore throat by forcing a frog into her mouth: “He’s got your horrid old sore throat now, hasn’t he? Can’t you hear him croaking?” Sometimes, they are simply there, as with the lessons in the use of charms, written on the school blackboard; or the jars of preserved animal embryos and foreskins in the chemist’s shop; or the ubiquitous imagery of the hare. As we follow Howie about the island, the omnipresence of these charms and symbols slowly becomes obvious, as indeed does the faith that the locals have in their power; something that, in their raucous behaviour and teasing reception of Howie, is not immediately apparent.

When Sergeant Howie arrives at Summerisle, his hackles are already up, and the welcome he receives does nothing to lay them, as the Harbour Master refuses to recognise his legal authority to come ashore, in the absence of written permission from Lord Summerisle. “Very particular his lordship is!” the man shouts placidly across the intervening waters, as Howie fumes. His later entrance at the Green Man is the cue for the regulars to burst into a bawdy ballad, in what is clearly intended as an act of deliberate provocation, albeit a joking one. The inn scenes are important in providing shadings for Howie’s character. He puts up with the locals’ treatment of him for a surprising length of time (this scene was significantly shortened in the cut version, depriving us of this mark in Howie’s favour, as well as of the sight of his amusingly unconvincing assumption of indifference in the face of this public ribaldry); we see that he is capable of enjoying a quiet beer; and also that he does in fact have a certain dry sense of humour, at least judging from his reaction to the dubious supper provided for him by Willow MacGregor. (“Broad beans in their natural state are not usually turquoise!”) But subsequent events deprive Howie of any willingness to be either tolerant or good-humoured towards the Summerisle residents. His after-supper walk ends abruptly when he is confronted by the sight of several local couples engaged in very public sex – in the churchyard. (In an unnerving addendum, one naked woman sobs alone, sitting astride a grave as the other women straddle their lovers.) Every feeling outraged, Howie retreats into the inn, but finds no refuge in his room. As he kneels by his bed to pray, he is disturbed by the sound of voices: a man’s voice, calling up to Willow in the room next door, begging leave to introduce to her a young man....

While the signs and symbols of the islanders’ beliefs may bother Howie, he is able for the most part to dismiss them as childish nonsense; but the local attitude to sexuality and sexual practices is something else, an affront to Howie’s most profoundly held beliefs. For Howie, a sexual relationship is abhorrent other than within a church-sanctioned marriage, something consecrated and intensely private; for the people of Summerisle, sex is the fundamental principle of life, a pleasure as well as a necessity, something to be openly celebrated and enjoyed; while sexual initiation is neither a component of a life commitment, nor something to be conducted in secrecy and shame. It is, on the contrary, a community event. It is Lord Summerisle himself who brings the novice, Ash Buchanan, to the Green Man Inn, both of them attired formally in their dress kilts. After his ritual introduction to Willow, the boy enters the inn and passes unembarrassed through the gathered crowd on his way to Willow’s room; while the locals themselves wait and listen, their eyes upon the ceiling, and then begin to sing. Howie himself is unable to do anything but listen to the noises emanating from the next room; even his most fervent prayers cannot drown them out.

But the assault upon Howie’s sensibilities has barely begun. The next morning, he asks directions to the school from Willow and resumes his search for the truth about Rowan Morrison. He finds the schoolboys of Summerisle out on the green, gathered around a maypole; a structure covered with a series of distinctly phallic projections, which one boy (the new initiate Ash Buchanan, although the point is not emphasised) uses as footholds when he climbs the pole to crown it with a laurel-wreath, while his schoolmaster sings a round about the circle of life (“....and on that girl, there was a man, and from that man there was a seed, and from that seed there was a boy....”), and the other boys perform the traditional ribbon-dance. Howie then storms into the schoolhouse, where to his horror he finds the girls clapping along with the schoolmaster’s song, while their own teacher, Miss Rose, instructs them in the significance of the boys’ ritual. (We get one of The Wicker Man’s funniest touches here, in the form of a girl who simply cannot remember her lessons in phallic symbolism, much to her teacher’s exasperation.) Howie pulls Miss Rose outside and threatens her with the law for her part in the “degeneracy and indecency” of Summerisle and the “corruption of the young” in particular, via the “filth” that the children are taught in school – only to have her strike back smartly that their education policy is well beyond his jurisdiction....and also none of his business.

It is Miss Rose who makes the first, inevitably futile attempt to explain to Howie the nature of the local religion; that they do not commonly use the word “dead” (she mouths this); that they believe in reincarnation, and that when human life is at an end, the soul returns “to trees, to air, to fire, to water, to animals....” Howie can only demand disbelievingly, “Do you teach them nothing of Christianity!?” – and finds Miss Rose’s eminently reasonable reply (“Of course, in comparative religion.”) just about the final straw.

Whatever we ourselves make of the Summerisle practices, and however we might sympathise with Howie’s own convictions, it is undeniable that here he begins to show the harsher and less forgivable side of his religious nature, not just in his repeated declarations that his way is God’s way is the only way, and his increasingly strident denunciations of the locals, but in his practice, when his personal beliefs are challenged, of threatening the party responsible with the civil authority that he represents. It is also made clear here that Howie is a man not just of blinkered vision, but one painfully lacking in imagination. He is unable to comprehend that anyone could, truly and sincerely, believe in something so different from what he himself believes; and in his mind, to be different is to be profoundly wrong and sinful. (When Lord Summerisle later insists that the islanders are “a deeply religious people”, Howie nearly has a heart attack. To him, the word “religious” means one thing and one thing only.) It is when Howie’s investigation leads him to the castle home of Lord Summerisle that this conflict between faiths reaches a crisis, not least because on his lordship’s lawn, within a stone circle, a group of naked adolescent girls is dancing around and leaping over a fire, all under the supervision and guidance of Miss Rose. Having been shown into a room within the castle, Howie wanders over to a window to take another good, long look at those girls – although when his lordship, rising from an armchair where he has been observing this unseen, hopes politely that Howie has been “refreshed” by the sight, the denial is swift and brusque.

Christopher Lee has always cited The Wicker Man as his favourite amongst his films. Such was his commitment to the project that he forwent payment for his participation, in order to help keep the budget as low as possible; while throughout the film’s subsequent travails, he was both its vocal advocate and a very active participant in the many thwarted attempts to get it to the public. The attractions that this role offered to Lee are very obvious, particularly coming on the back of a string of prop Dracula roles that required of him nothing more than the wearing of red contact lenses and the occasional fangy snarl. In starkest contrast, the part of Lord Summerisle is absolutely pivotal to The Wicker Man, a cleverly written, nuanced character role that Lee absolutely inhabits; and one that as a bonus, provided a wonderful vehicle for his voice. (He also spends much time in a kilt, and sports an amusingly “mod” hair-do.)

We are first introduced to Lord Summerisle when he brings Ash Buchanan to Willow MacGregor. He lingers afterwards below her windows – hers and Howie’s – and as the camera rests on the sight of two snails mating, his lordship speaks in the darkness, rhapsodising over the natural world, and scorning men, some men, who kneel to others (“One of his own kind, who lived thousands of years ago”), weep for their sins, and, “Make me sick, discussing their duty to God.” The words are crooning, almost hypnotic, vaguely threatening – and to Howie, of course, insulting. Later, when Howie visits the castle, Lord Summerisle takes care of the film’s exposition; there is quite a deal of it, but we don’t mind listening; not to that voice. And best of all, when Howie visits the castle a second time, he finds his lordship playing the piano and singing a lusty ballad in a very fine baritone. (“The Tinker Of Rye”, all about the hole in her kettle, and what he’s trying to do with his nail.... Yes.)

From the audience’s point of view, Lee’s participation is, perhaps, a slightly mixed blessing – it is, after all, Christopher Lee, so we are immediately suspicious – but the Lord Summerisle he creates is unforgettable: urbane, erudite, supercilious, genial – and deeply ambiguous. He also gets a great many of the film’s funniest lines, most of them, it must be conceded, with Howie as their butt. In the face of Howie’s outrage over the girls and their “divinity lesson”, for instance (“But they are – are naked!”), Lord Summerisle raises uncomprehending eyebrows:

“Naturally. It’s much too dangerous to jump the fire with your clothes on.”

His lordship goes on to explain that the lesson is in fact about parthenogenesis – the girls hope by it to be made fruitful, to carry a child of the gods – and when Howie protests, retorts with the obvious anti-Christian slap-back. Howie is still reeling from this when Summerisle delivers the crowning blow, insisting simply that Howie’s “true God” is dead: “He can’t complain; He had His chance, and – in modern parlance – blew it.”

This scene serves to remind us of the time at which The Wicker Man was produced, and the social upheaval reflected in the films of that era, including the serious debate over the possible death of conventional religious belief – like Neil Howie’s. It was in 1966 that Time dared to pose the question, “Is God Dead?”; the issue in question featuring prominently in Ira Levin’s novel, Rosemary’s Baby, published the following year, and in its screen adaptation a year after that. The early seventies were awash with cinematic considerations of the state of Christianity; and while The Exorcist may have chosen to come down upon the side of the church, many of its copyists did the opposite. This was also, of course, the time during which film companies like Hammer, their films once so daring and cutting edge, were dying an embarrassing death, their old-fashioned ways and insistence on the triumph of good becoming increasingly unviable in a cinematic world that was routinely letting evil win, and showing little interest in the reestablishment of the status quo....when indeed it wasn’t suggesting that the status quo was evil. The Wicker Man takes a different path from most of its brethren, dealing with a revival of “the old ways”, the pagan beliefs that preceded Christianity, and which died out, or were killed off, by the coming of it and its proponents. Or were they? Such practices linger on, in May-Day or Halloween celebrations; in superstitions, which we may follow even when we don’t really understand their origins. This is the point that Lord Summerisle makes; that the old ways never really died; they simply lay fallow, waiting to be revived.

And revived they were, by the present Lord Summerisle’s grandfather over one hundred years earlier, in an act not of faith but of pure self-interest. The gentleman was, we hear, “A distinguished Victorian scientist; an agronomist; a free-thinker.” Having developed his theories about crop propagation and the derivation of new strains, he set about proving them in the most direct manner possible, buying the island of Summerisle and using it as a laboratory for his experimental cross-breeding program – and the people as his source of labour. The island, then a Christian community, was a bleak and barren place, the people starved and suffering; in pursuit of his ends, his lordship gave them back “their joyous old gods” and, perhaps more to the point, clothed and fed them; and with the successful cultivation of the island under his lordship’s guidance, as was promised, with new fertility and verdancy all around them, and a new prosperity and comfort in their lives, the islanders regained their old beliefs, conveniently for his lordship making their labour a part of their religious practice.

The history of the Summerisle family comprises a perfectly credible three-generation evolution of mindset. The first Lord Summerisle, clearly, had no belief in “the old ways”, but taught his people to do so and turned their faith to his advantage; his son, raised in paganism, was himself a true believer, like the people; and his son, the current lord---well, who knows? A pagan agnostic, perhaps, who isn’t quite sure one way or the other. This Lord Summerisle’s manner makes it impossible to judge how seriously he takes the creed he preaches; his rollicking, vaguely sarcastic tones suggest that, as opposed to his grandfather’s pragmatism and his father’s faith, he views the whole thing primarily as a very good joke; or at rate, that he thinks that something is....

Perhaps part of the reason for his manner, or at least his manner to Howie, is how poor a showing the resident faith put up in the face of the island’s reversion: the ministers, we hear, simply fled; the church, as we have seen, has since fallen into disrepair and ruin. As with very nearly everything he encounters on Summerisle, Howie is unable to take the history recounted to him as anything other than a personal insult. When his lordship is reflecting on his own upbringing, Howie interrupts roughly, “He brought you up to be a pagan!” The response, inevitably, is not hurt or anger, but amusement. “A heathen, conceivably,” Summerisle corrects him gently. “But not, I hope, an unenlightened one.”

Intriguingly, at this point Howie chooses to retreat – as of course did the island’s ministers before him. Instead of taking up the banner for his faith, Howie reverts to the question of Rowan Morrison, claiming that his only interest on Summerisle is one of the law. His lordship is equally unmoved by the threat here implied, sending Howie on his way with permission to do whatever he likes, and a cheerful, “What a pleasure it’s been, to meet a Christian copper!”

Howie’s backdown in the face of Summerisle’s implicit challenge is not the only evidence of cracks in the police officer’s personal armour. We have seen before this, in his reaction to Ash Buchanan’s initiation at the inn, and in the way that he was drawn to look at the girls in their “divinity lesson” – and the way that he kept looking, all through his argument with Lord Summerisle – that Howie’s experiences are affecting him in a way he can barely stand to acknowledge. The greatest test, however, is before him....

While the casting of Christopher Lee in The Wicker Man was understandable from all points of view, we do have some reason to question the presence of Ingrid Pitt, certainly in so minor a role, and in particular Britt Ekland. The film-makers have since admitted that Ms Pitt was cast chiefly because at the time she was involved with one of the higher-ups at Rank; it was hoped that her involvement would help sell the film to them, although of course as things turned out the film never got that far. However, Ingrid’s horror background – and her willingness to do nude scenes – make her a welcome participant. Britt Ekland’s presence is something else, an obvious commercial concession; this film’s only one. Ms Ekland certainly looks the part as Willow, and has just the right insouciant attitude; but all of her lines had to be dubbed in post-production, as she was unable to master a Scottish accent; and her most important scene required the participation of a body-double, either because of her agent’s concerns, or because Ms Ekland had just discovered that she was pregnant, and didn’t want the lower half of her body on screen, depending on who you listen to. Be that as it may, the scene in question is nevertheless quite extraordinary, and Ms Ekland’s contribution certainly helps to make it so.

As Sergeant Howie doggedly pursues his investigation, it becomes increasingly clear to the viewer, if not to Howie himself, that his encounters with the various aspects of the Summerisle faith have been anything but accidental. Most obviously, with all those rooms in the inn to choose from, why was Howie given the one next to Willow’s? It is upon his second night on Summerisle when, exhausted, frustrated and increasingly disturbed by the implications of his investigation, as he lies in the darkness of his room, Howie is confronted by a temptation that even he is unable either to ignore or to deny. It is Willow, of course. His lights are out; hers are on; we see that their rooms are not merely adjacent, but that there is a connecting door. There are musicians in a room nearby; and as they begin to play, she, stretched naked on her bed, begins to sing....and to slap her hand, rhythmically, insistently, upon the wall of Howie’s room....

Willow MacGregor’s attempted seduction of Neil Howie is a scene of staggering power and eroticism. As Willow sings, she rises from her bed, stroking the furniture and walls with her hands and body, and interweaving her fingers. She gestures with her arms, reaching out, drawing in – come here – then presses herself against the door separating her room from Howie’s, pounding on it, then writhing against it. She steps away, caressing a wooden figurine, an owl, before moving to the window with her hands cupped together and flinging them wide, as if releasing a trapped insect – or a spirit. Then she again begins to slap upon the walls, harder this time, more urgently; slapping herself, too, her naked body, as she dances....

Heigh ho / I am here / Am I not young and fair? / Please come say, How do? / The things I’ll show to you / Would you have a wondrous sight...?

And Neil Howie? His eyes open in the darkness at the first slap upon his wall. The song reaches him clearly, envelops him. He rises slowly, moving as if somnambulant – or hypnotised – and touches the door that separates him from Willow. He reaches shakily for the door handle – and turns it – then hurriedly slams the door again as Willow draws near on the other side. He backs away, clutching at a chair for support and he burying his face in his hands, wiping away the sweat. When Willow slaps the wall nearest to him he turns, helpless, and approaches it, pressing himself against it full-length, stroking it. This is a man wracked in body and soul, suffering through the most profound agonies of temptation. But his faith stays strong, and he resists....

(It is perhaps worth mentioning, since the creators of horror tales so often co-opt this date for their own particular purposes, possibly without understanding its original significance, that the temptation of Neil Howie takes place on the night of 30th April – Walpurgis Night.)

One of the many wonderful things about The Wicker Man is the way it manages its shifts in tone; or perhaps it would be more correct to say, the way it weaves its various tones around one another. It is very easy to get side-tracked by life on Summerisle, just as Neil Howie does, although possibly not from quite the same perspective; by the fascinating details of their ways; by (let’s be honest) the casual nudity and sex. It is, likewise, an effortless transition to begin siding with the residents against Sergeant Howie. It is not that we don’t understand his feelings and beliefs; but his refusal to accept that people have the right to think differently from himself, his lecturing and threats, his declamations, make him seem narrow-minded and confrontational, and ill-mannered, besides. He is, to his cost, one of those individuals who does his own cause as much harm as good; who tends to provoke exasperation, and eye-rolling, and cries of, “Oh, lighten up.” It is entirely unfair, and it is entirely understandable....

The really sad thing, though, is that sincere as Howie so plainly is, he appears to gain little happiness or peace of mind from his faith, and comfort only of the very coldest kind; the kind that comes from reflecting that everyone but him is going to hell. (Not so much, You’ll be sorry when I’m dead, as You’ll be sorry when YOU’RE dead.) For the Summerisle residents, meanwhile, happiness seems to flow from their belief; music, and song, and dancing pervades every aspect of their lives; they laugh, and joke – although not always kindly: they are, after all, just as set in their ways as Howie, even if they show it differently, and the amusement they derive from this stranger in their midst is an expression of intolerance just as much as Howie’s frank disgust. Still, the fact remains that Summerisle gives the impression of being such a cheerful, convivial place, particularly with Neil Howie planted in the middle of it for contrast.

So why is it, as we stumble about the island in the wake of Sergeant Howie, enjoying its many beauties and its laughing, singing people, that we begin to be aware of a mounting sense of dread?

Well, probably because, in spite of all that cheerfulness, and the dancing, and the singing, and the preparation for May-Day, that there is still a missing child to be accounted for – and none of the residents seem particularly eager to do it. We might lose patience with Neil Howie and his strait-jacketed ways, but when it comes to the fate of Rowan Morrison, we can only be firmly on his side. Right from the moment that Howie first sets foot on Summerisle and shows Rowan’s photograph to the Harbour Master and his cronies, there is something off about the locals’ reactions to his investigation. Howie is even told at first that there is no-one on the island at all of the name of “Morrison”; further probing elicits the fact that, yes, there is, and at the post office; they just “forgot”. Mrs Morrison’s own denial of Rowan’s existence should be an answer, except that her daughter, Myrtle, seems to have different ideas on the subject. Blank stares, head shakes and silence greet most of Sergeant Howie’s inquiries, but he is not convinced.

Nor, for that matter, are we; though at the same time, we have become a little suspicious of Howie’s own motives. It is clear by the time that he bails up Miss Rose at the schoolhouse and demands to see the student register that he is determined to find proof of something criminal, anything that he can use as a weapon against these people and their heathen ways; and we have seen, too, his tendency to use Rowan Morrison as a fall-back position, whenever one of the locals confronts him with something for which he has no immediate answer or defence. However, there is no arguing with the fact that Sergeant Howie does find Rowan’s name in the register. Miss Rose’s explanation, embracing the islanders’ beliefs and Rowan’s transmutation into a hare, contains no direct reply to Howie’s questions; and when he is likewise unable to get a straight answer out of her about whether or not Rowan was buried in the churchyard – here Miss Rose stops to consider judiciously whether, since the building adjacent is no longer a church, you can really call it a “churchyard” – he storms off to see for himself.

The churchyard – the yard, as Miss Rose would have it – presents a bizarre tableau. It is in disrepair, and overgrown. The graves have, not crosses, but headstones, bearing inscriptions that cause Howie to draw back in revulsion. (Here lieth Beech Buchanan, protected by the ejaculation of serpents, catches his eye.) Trees are planted over them. A woman sits there, holding out an egg as she suckles her baby, and looking on in bewildered alarm as Howie, faced by a pagan alter at which offerings of fruit have been made, furiously sweeps the whole lot aside – and then, unable to help himself, fashions a cross out of two bits of wood and leaves that there instead.

But he finds what he’s looking for: an unmarked grave with a young rowan tree upon it, and someone to give him that straight answer: the grave-digger, who confirms with cheerful casualness that it is indeed Rowan’s, and that she has been there “six or seven months”. Subsequent questioning of the local doctor reveals that the girl was burned to death, and that, yes, he signed a death certificate. This sends Howie to the public records office (run by Ingrid Pitt, with her hair in Leia-buns and billed only as “the librarian”), where, after the usual stalling – “”You’ll need permission from his lordship!” – he finds that there is in fact no record of Rowan’s death.

It is this discovery that propels Howie into his first encounter with Lord Summerisle, from which he emerges with his beliefs pummelled, his feelings outraged, and what he went there for: permission to exhume the grave. He does so, with the help of the grave-digger, and finds within....a dead hare. Beside him, the grave-digger laughs convulsively....

And so back to the castle, where Lord Summerisle and Miss Rose sing bawdy ballads and sip wine, and hardly react when Howie throws the dead animal between them. His lordship reflects on Rowan’s love of the March hares, while Miss Rose offers up another serving of calm theological quibbling, countering Howie’s charge of sacrilege with, “Only if the ground is consecrated.” In the face of their indifference, not to say amusement, Howie begins to lose his grip on his temper, declaring openly that he believes that Rowan was murdered – “under circumstances of pagan barbarity” – and that he intends returning to the mainland the next day, to report his suspicions and demand a full inquiry. Lord Summerisle only smiles, agreeing that perhaps it would be for the best if Howie did leave before the May-Day celebrations took place, since he is guaranteed to find them offensive.

It is night when Howie returns to the village. The streets are dark and deserted, as are most of the businesses – except the pub – and the sergeant takes the opportunity to do a little official breaking and entering. He forces his way into the chemist’s shop, which is also the local photographic laboratory, and goes searching for a copy of the missing Harvest Festival photograph. It finds it, and learns two ominous facts: that the previous year, for the first time in over a century, the Summerisle crops failed; and that the Festival, though a poor festival it was, was presided over by Rowan Morrison. Lord Summerisle’s words begin to echo in Neil Howie’s memory – how he and his people treat nature; that they love it, and fear it, and rely on it, and sometimes appease it – and a suspicion begins to take shape....

May-Day dawns bright and fair. The celebrations start early, with children parading in groups through the village and carrying shrouded forms that represent Death, in a ritual supposed to banish it from their midst. Neil Howie’s own steps take him to the public library. His suspicions have firmed to a point where he must admit and confront his own ignorance. Like many of us, he recognises the components of the pagan worship but does not understand their meaning. He goes to the library to research his subject, and naturally enough finds no shortage of books on the subject. In fact, he’s probably reading the school texts.

And so he (and we) learns about the people around him, and their ways; how “Celtic man lived and died by the harvest”; about the various participants in the May-Day ritual, and their significance: the hobby-horse, who heads the procession, and chases the girls; the man-woman, usually played by the community’s leader, responsible for jokes and teasing; Punch, the man-fool, a “privileged simpleton”, king for a day; and the swordsmen, who follow the procession performing dances and using their swords to create the symbol of the sun god. Above all, though, Howie learns of the rites of sacrifice, intended to propitiate the goddess of the fields; to thank her in times of plenty, and to beg her intervention when the crops failed. In the good times, offerings of fruit and animals were sufficient, but in bad, a human life was required. Sometimes this would be the king, or local ruler; more often the community’s “most beloved virgin”, usually chosen during the previous year’s Harvest Festival and then hidden away, so that their purity could not be sullied before the sacrifice. The victim might die in a variety of ways: by drowning, or ritual beheading by the village swordsmen, or by being burned.

And as he reads this, Neil Howie becomes very certain of two things: firstly, that Rowan Morrison is still alive; and secondly, that she will not be for very much longer.

Clear in his own mind about the truth of Summerisle, Howie heads for the harbour and his plane; for the mainland, and help. Except that the engine won’t start. And the radio isn’t working.

It is, of course, very easy to be wise after the event about Sergeant Howie and what he should have done, and when he should have done it; but clearly it was not until the previous night that he became certain that danger, real danger, was lurking on Summerisle, behind all the smiles and laughter, and that very morning before he began to understand the nature of it. Even Howie could not have expected intervention from the mainland, based only on his disapproval of the local behaviour. And now? What is he to do? We’ve seen no evidence of another radio on Summerisle, or a telephone, or indeed any modern convenience – except electricity, and Lord Summerisle’s progressive grandfather probably had that installed. (Most buildings still use gaslight and lamps.) Convinced that Rowan may still be saved, Howie returns to the village, determined to find and rescue her if he possibly can. In a back alley courtyard, he sees a group of people preparing excitedly for the day’s events: Oak, a burly villager (who earlier earned Howie’s disapproval by roughhousing in the pub), is the hobby-horse; while Alder MacGregor wears Punch’s cap, bemoaning the fact that each year, his costume seems to grow a little tighter. Lord Summerisle addresses the crowd, explaining the route of their procession, and that it will culminate in “a holy sacrifice”, one offered up to “Nuada, our most sacred god of the sun”, and to “Avellenau, the beloved goddess of our orchards.” This speech also tells Howie that he has until three o’clock to find the missing girl.

 

His first stop is the post office, where he makes a last desperate plea to Mrs Morrison – not perhaps, all that carefully phrased: “In the name of God, woman!” – but receives in return only a gentle admonition to return to the mainland and stop interfering in things that are really no concern of his. Howie then warns her that he intends to search every house in the village if he has to, and to have anyone who interferes arrested as an accessory to murder. But Mrs Morrison only shakes her head. “I’m afraid....that you’ll simply never understand the true nature of sacrifice,” she tells him, more in sorrow than in anger.

And with that Sergeant Howie really does lose his head, plunging into the threatened search in a desperate, panicked, unthinking way that is about as far as you can imagine from his usual rigidly formal behaviour, and which not only grows increasingly absurd the longer it goes on, but makes him a not-unwarranted target for the locals’ ridicule and disrespect, as he blunders in and out of festival preparations, practical jokes and sexual activities – and has a close encounter with “the librarian”, naked in the bathtub and sucking her thumb.

Finally, exhausted, humiliated and empty-handed, Howie retreats to the inn. He is resting in his room when a frantic whisper between the MacGregors reaches him, with Alder insisting that Howie be kept away at all cost, and Willow protesting something that Alder wants her to do; something about a “Hand of Glory”. He quickly feigns sleep. He hears Willow near him, and then another whispered conversation between her and her father. As soon as he is sure the coast is clear, Howie opens his eyes – and sees what Willow left in his room....

Cue flashback to childhood trauma. The Hand of Glory, for those who don’t know, is a candle charm partially constructed from a dead man’s hand, preferably the hand of a murderer, and preferably the left. Amongst the powers ascribed to it is the ability to render anyone it is presented to unable to move. Earlier, Howie’s search led him through the undertaker’s establishment. He didn’t find Rowan, but he did find a body in a coffin – from which the left hand had been removed. As Howie knocks the thing beside his bed to the ground in horror, we see that the source of this hand may have been guilty of a sin other than murder: at some point, its wrist was slashed.

Howie’s attention is then caught by a glimpse of Alder MacGregor, retiring to his room on the next landing to don his Punch costume....

The Summerisle May-Day procession is perfect in its detail – almost. All the participants are there: the girls, who run on ahead, dancing and laughing; the men, some masked, some playing musical instruments; the swordsmen, who dance a mock-fight; the capering hobby-horse; the man-woman – Lord Summerisle, in wig and dress, yet somehow menacing rather than comic – and, of course, Punch; although a very uncertain Punch; a Punch who doesn’t seem quite sure what to do, and indeed is rebuked by Lord Summerisle for his lack of energy. “Play the fool, man!” his lordship hisses at him. “That’s what you’re here for!” Punch obediently livens up a little, waving around his air-filled bladder on a stick. The girls, meanwhile, sent on ahead, now wait excitedly to be “pursued”. However, Miss Rose, Willow and the librarian break from the pack and dance back, each on them carrying a pair of lengthy wooden tongs, with which they eagerly attack poor Punch, pinching him hard and encouraging him to smack their behinds with his bladder in return. Punch seems a little more enthusiastic about this than he was about his dancing. Meanwhile, the hobby-horse chases after the other girls, who shriek and giggle as, one by one, he covers each of them with the skirt of his costume, so that they may be made fortunate and fruitful. Then the procession moves on, and Punch becomes aware of a small cart at the back of it; a cart carrying a figure wearing a hare-headed costume, garlanded with a wreath of flowers.

When the procession reaches the stone circle on Lord Summerisle’s grounds – where the divinity lesson was held – things take a slightly sinister turn, as the swordsmen perform a ritual movement to create the symbol of the sun with their swords, and then hold it out flat. The villagers, starting with Lord Summerisle himself, each pass beneath and straighten up, so that the swords rest around their throats. Even the non-pagans amongst us can recognise this: “Oranges and Lemons”; although when it uses swords instead of children’s arms, the accompanying chant of, “Chop, chop!” makes it seems anything but a game. Indeed, Punch tries to back away, only to be seized by Lord Summerisle – by the nose, nearly losing his mask. “Everyone must go through, MacGregor!” chuckles his lordship. “It’s a game of chance, remember!” Left with no choice, Punch does – safely. But behind him in the line is the figure in the hare mask; and when this person enters the deadly circle, the chanting stops. There is a silence, and then the blades slash viciously together....

A head rolls; the figure collapses. Punch starts forward involuntarily, but Miss Rose forestalls him, kneeling by the motionless figure....

....which then throws back the rest of its costume-head and sits up, laughing merrily. The villagers relax, applauding as the girl, Holly, is acclaimed by Lord Summerisle, who leads on to the next scene in the procession, the seashore. There waits a cart laden with barrels of ale. Lord Summerisle climbs up, offering the ale as a “libation” to the god of the sea. He plunges an axe into the first barrel, his attendants rolling it into the surf as the villagers chant.

“And now,” concludes Lord Summerisle, “for our more dreadful sacrifice; for those who command the fruits of the earth.”

And behind him, up a rocky slope, there is a cave. In its mouth stands a girl in a white dress; flowers in her hair and about her neck; her hands bound.

Rowan Morrison.

Analysing the closing stages of The Wicker Man is a job better suited to a theologian than to a film critic, particularly in terms of the reward that Neil Howie's steadfast faith and resistance of temptation win for him. At any rate, deciding who wins and who loses (no-one? everyone?) is certainly beyond the scope of this review. These final scenes are incredibly powerful, and not least because of the way that the film’s themes coalesce so brilliantly here, as Neil Howie makes one last, frenzied attempt to get through to the islanders. He argues the law – that however they wrap it up, what they are planning to do is murder – and he argues science: Summerisle was never meant to bear crops, and their failure is due to the inevitable collapse of the artificial environment created there; it isn’t about “nature”. Then, as his panic increases, he argues religion, telling the people to their faces that there is no such thing as the sun god, or the goddess of the fields; that their beliefs are wrong; exactly what Lord Summerisle told him earlier about his religious beliefs, and which evoked in him such pain and fury. And at the last, he tells them that his God withered their crops, as a punishment.

And then, in the extremity of his desperation, Neil Howie achieves a stroke of genius. He turns on Lord Summerisle, a condemnatory finger outstretched.

Don’t you understand? – that if your crops fail this year, next year you’re going to have to have another blood sacrifice? And next year, no-one less than the king of Summerisle himself will do!

We see from Lord Summerisle’s face that this blow has struck home, and deeply. Even at this late date, we are not quite sure that his lordship sincerely believes in the local faith, but we know that his people do....and we know that he knows it, too....

What a rare, rich pleasure it is, to come across such a thoroughly intelligent horror movie as The Wicker Man; and indeed, you can tell that it is a thoroughly intelligent horror movie from the number of people out there who want to dispute the fact that it’s a horror movie at all. Personally, I don’t know how anyone could sit through its closing ten minutes and still argue the point. This is horror; true horror; the kind that lives not in old dark houses, or condemned prisons, or abandoned summer camps, but in the recesses of the human mind, and the human soul; the kind that you're just as likely to find out in the open, dancing in the sunshine, as lurking in the shadows of the world. There is a astonishing power about The Wicker Man, and also an astonishing purity. It never at any time takes sides, nor once tells the audience what it ought to be thinking or feeling; it shows courage in its handling of religious belief, revealing to us its glories, and its dangers, too. And it never loses its sense of humour, not even at the end; at least, not from a certain perspective. If The Wicker Man has a moral, it can only be, Be careful what you pray for.

 

I spent considerable time in the introductory section of this piece talking about The Wicker Man in terms of its writing and production, but when all is said and done this is very much an actor’s film; another of its pleasures, and another rarity in the world of the horror movie. Of course, it was Christopher Lee who was the film’s name star; he got the flashy role, and he’s fabulous in it; but Edward Woodward is remarkable as Neil Howie, bringing all sorts of nuances to what might have been a very two-dimensional role, and with his shifts in tone and expression, telling us things about the good sergeant that he would not want us to know, if indeed he admits them to himself. Towards the end of the film, Woodward’s conviction and passion reaches a pitch of perfection that is rarely encountered, and makes these scenes both absolutely chilling, and deeply, deeply moving. But really, there’s scarcely a weak link anywhere in The Wicker Man; this is one of those exceptional films where you can feel everyone concerned rising to the occasion.

An exceptional film. And yet there were those who devoted much time and effort to trying to suppress it or destroy it; not for its content; not because it offended or frightened them; just because....well, for no good reason at all, as far as I can determine, beyond a love of bastardry. At this distance, with our DVDs held to our hearts, we can afford to shake our heads and give a twisted smile about it all; but the truth is, we were horribly close to being deprived of this film altogether, and there’s nothing funny about that.

 

But these days, The Wicker Man’s place in the world is secure. It sits comfortably on lists of “The Greatest British Films” and “The Greatest Horror Films”; sometimes, even of “The Greatest Films”. And of course, it has recently been paid the ultimate modern back-handed compliment, that of an unnecessary, crassly stupid and frankly embarrassing re-make, one which actually manages to miss completely the point of the film it was based upon. (But which, if it inspires even a few people to seek out the original, has some right to exist, I suppose.)

And, do you know? – there’s a strange irony hidden in The Wicker Man’s tortured history. I mean, look at it this way: so many of the people involved in its creation made professional and financial sacrifices to get it made, only to have the film as a whole sacrificed, and to the pettiest of human gods, commercial interest and hubris. But the true believers kept their faith, and made more sacrifices, and as a result the film was re-born, and has been gathering new acolytes ever since; so that today, it has finally achieved its goal of cinematic immortality.

It’s enough to make you wonder if those pagans weren’t onto something....

Want a second opinion of The Wicker Man? Visit Stomp Tokyo and The Bad Movie Report.

This review is a part of the B-Masters’ examination of the counter-culture in all its forms:


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----posted 14/05/2009