The Wicker Man - An Appreciation
Come. It is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man.
With dark endurance, Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer’s cult classic The Wicker Man refuses to lie down and die.
Its production a riot of mishap, misdirection and misunderstanding, the distinctly unusual and devoutly eccentric tale of a pious detective led to his sacrificial doom for the fruitful sake of a pagan people on a remote Scottish island, has justly become one of the most renowned cult classic films of all time. With personality clashes on location, chance and risk governing the shoot, gargantuan ineptitude on the part of bemused distributors and such ill-fortune awaiting its release that one could only assume that it was the subject of a curse, the film has weathered many a storm and gone on to attain the kudos and criticial acclaim of what is very possibly the best and cleverest, and most disturbing British horror film ever made.
Even the idea that it could be considered a “horror film” is subject to interpretation, such is it complex enigma. That it is a dark masterpiece of haunting resonance is beyond question, though.
With several versions to fall back upon, and footage apparently lost within the concrete obelisk of a motorway underpass, and with the various personalities who worked upon it still unable to agree on many aspects of what went on, the controversies seem set to continue. Which, in this case, can only be a good thing. For part of the glorious and iconic stature of The Wicker Man is that it continues to provoke, to shock, to arouse and to consternate in equal measure, the lack of its apparent “completeness”, as it were, only adding further succulence to its fervent longevity. Like the search for the full Metropolis, and the quest for the missing footage from some of the Hammer classics, it has become a sort of crusade to locate and reinstate the fabled extras from Hardy’s film. StudioCanal now put out this fairly definitive package on Blu-ray, with the major selling-point the inclusion of what has been tantalizingly titled The Final Cut, which is a 4K scan of the 35mm release print that Hardy and American distributors Abraxas put together back in 1979 after the shorter UK version and the longer US cut had both been given their chance to shine in the Summerisle sun, and was found languishing in the Harvard Film Archives. However, fans need to temper their expectations because this version is, in fact, shorter than the Director’s Cut that we have already enjoyed and a makes for a leaner, perhaps meaner experience.
But, according to Robin Hardy, this version now “restores the story order to that which I had originally intended”and “fulfils my vision of what it was intended to convey to the audience.”
Thus, folks, there is nothing here that committed fans have not already seen. But it is just in much better shape. Well, a lot of it is … though some elements, admittedly, still look awful.
Summoned to a remote Scottish island to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a young girl, devout Christian policeman Sgt. Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) discovers a pagan community presided-over by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). Shocked by their liberal and highly sexualized customs, Howie finds his search for the lost Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper) thwarted at almost every turn. The islanders don’t take his investigation seriously, and their beliefs are very much at odds with his own, challenging his faith every step of the way. Howie soon finds that he is waging a spiritual war with this secular and ferociously close-knit breed, his frustrations spearheading towards Lord Summerisle, himself. As the islanders begin their preparations for the May Day festivities, Howie learns that their crops failed disastrously the previous season … and he begins to suspect that poor Rowan has been abducted in order to be sacrificed to their ancient gods to ensure a successful harvest this time around. Thus, his investigation becomes a race against time to save the girl and get off the island.
The game’s afoot.
Famously, Anthony Shaffer was a trickster and a gamesman. He had a Machiavellian sense of humour and cunning brain. If he could implant devious side-swipes and elaborate hoaxes at the expense of his own friends, then what mischief could he conjure for a fictitious victim? The story of Sgt. Howie’s investigation on the rugged island of Summerisle is his greatest and most insidious game of all. After penning the mighty Sleuth, which was, itself, nothing more than a painstakingly fabricated masquerade, he found himself the perfect subject with which to trick, trap and endlessly tease his main character and, as a consequence, his audience. The entire plot is a Pandora’s Box that opens up, swallows the curious and refuses to let go until its dreadful yet bliss-filled conclusion.
Although they enjoyed the Hammer Films very much, Shaffer and Hardy weren’t too keen on the rules that they, and most other British fantasy productions followed. They loved the horror genre but longed to give it a shot in the arm and to make something that didn’t adhere so rigidly to the same old format. They sought to take the trappings of the macabre and to turn them inside-out, to wrap them around a venture that would tangibly lead the audience on a merry dance. A wild goose chase. A fool’s errand. It is a specifically English way of thinking – flowered with Druidic splendor, and fermented with medieval musings. A maze. But they needed names … and preferably names associated with the darker themes that the cinema had produced. Getting Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt, both highly established Hammer stars, to join their ranks, was definitely a winning move. Lee, who had long determined to extricate himself from the cape and fangs and red contact lenses of Count Dracula and to prove his versatility, was immediately smitten with the script and the part of the erudite Lord Summerisle. An extremely educated actor, and also someone of genuinely aristocratic stock, he is perfect as the man who rules the island with a benign but unwavering hand and an unshakable belief that what he and his people are doing is unquestioningly right.
The conflict lies not in the redoubtable faith that both Howie and the Summerisle-landers have in their respective religions, but in their unswerving denial to concede, even for a moment, that the other party may have a point. Lord Summerisle gently mocks the Christian faith – “The son of a virgin impregnated, I believe, by a ghost?” – but he is keen to have Howie understand that he is also bestowing upon him the ultimate gift that a man of his adopted faith could accept, that of martyrdom. He and his pagan people aren’t taunting the policeman’s beliefs, they are taunting him as aperson, someone who is locked and bolted-down with the stigma of his own staunchly inviolable virtue. It is real strength on Howie’s part … but it makes him the biggest and most obvious target of all. Although they would never put it in such terms … Sgt. Howie is their God-given totem.
This is not a horror film. It’s a way of life.
You could argue that the cannibal clan in The Hills Have Eyes or the butchers of Texas Chainsaw Massacre are just doing what they do in order to survive, but there is a mighty big difference between those inbred savages and Summerisle’s devoted and actually quite hedonistic followers. These people aren’t luring in outsiders just so that they can murder and devour them. These are not H.G. Lewis’ 2000 Maniacs and nor are they the hooligans of Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. They are not the opportunist thugs and depraved delinquents of Deliverance, and they are not descended from Sawney Bean either. These are actually good folks, who believe in their gods, their rites and their rituals as a form of life-affirmation … and they enjoy life, that’s for sure. They celebrate it with a sense of joyous liberation and a freedom that Howie and his doctrine, his rules and regulations, his systematic self-denial suppresses and cannot bow down to.
It is not even necessarily a confrontation between two forms of religion. Well, not just.
The islanders enjoy shoving their lifestyle in the good God-fearing Sgt.’s face, that’s for sure … but that is only because he makes it so damn easy for them to do so. He shouts, stomps his feet and wags an accusing finger at almost everyone on the island. He is not wrong … but then, nor is he right. This is the dilemma that he, and we face. For the pagans, it is all so simple. It is natural and, for the most part, it works. Some fans claim to side with the islanders simply because they, at least, have a sense of humour and seem capable of having a good time. When contrasted with their lovemaking in the fields and their masks and corn-dollies, and their endless phallic worship, Howie is too darned starched and hard-faced to relax even for a moment. His very discouraging attitude towards practically everyone who does not follow his own belief system would make him an outsider almost anywhere, which is something we would do well to remember … but it also makes him a damn fine policeman. And this should not be overlooked in the least.
Something else to remember is that this belief system, however ancient it is, is actually surprisingly new to the people of Summerisle, itself. It was brought over by the current Lord’s predecessor, who had turned his back upon the iron grip of accepted religion and the indoctrination of harsh, rigidly observed education and a corrupted science of harsh industry. He came to the island to escape from the industrial revolution and gradually, like some charismatic Rasputin (who Christopher Lee actually played in Hammer’s version of the story), set about reworking its spiritual mechanics from the inside-out. When the good folks of Summerisle took so readily to his ideology, the ministers and priests evacuated, and left their churches to fall into ruin. It is the reverse, you could say, of the witch-hunts … paganism driving out divinity as though it were a plague. And yet Lord Summerisle and Diane Cilento’s glamorous schoolteacher Miss Rose (who are clearly lovers) are both keen to report that they tell of Christianity and other faiths to the children in class so that they know of ideas other than just their own. There are religions nowadays, for real, that refuse such freedom as this.
Perhaps most shocking of all is the apparent joy that the island’s children have in aiding and abetting debauchery and human sacrifice. It is apparent just how much they understand of the ways of this pagan lifestyle, and how even the youngest derive pleasure in the merry-go-round that they are all leading this outsider on. A young girl plays dead to shock Howie, and then grins, giggles and runs away when he shows concern for her. Another girl laughs at the sadistic plight of a trapped beetle, anchored by string to a nail and turning in an ever-decreasing circle around it, Howie not realising that he is seeing a depiction of his own spiralling doom. Their singing is full of spirit and energy – precisely what Summerisle wants to promote – but listen to what they are singing about. Fertility, sexuality and the act of lovemaking. These are difficult subjects for adults to accept children comprehending even now, so imagine how uncomfortable such matters would have seemed back then. The Wicker Man may have been able to dress itself up as being a last clutching at the ribbons of Flower Power. It certainly held a few of the same concepts of a decade when all sorts of cults and fads were being explored. But just around the corner was The Exorcist and the use of children in horror films would forever lose its innocence after that. But that is another story, of course, yet the precedent was already being set by Hardy and Shaffer whose very naturalistic take on this alternative and risque lifestyle proved to be the core monstrousness of their taboo topic.
God’s Good Copper.
Edward Woodward has always been an outstanding actor. His Callan was a classic tough guy and his portrayal of the executed Breaker Morant lingers in the mind. Even what should have been a highly unlikely Brit maverick detective in the hit TV show The Equaliser turned out to be extremely addictive. But it is impossible to imagine that the first character that anybody thinks about when his name crops up isn’t Sgt. Neil Howie of the West Highlands Ullswater Constabulary, the deeply religious and virginal policeman doomed to burn alive within the giant Wicker Man. Woodward’s defiantly arch and reproachful one-man attack upon the island is as confident and courageous as Arnie’s single-handed assault upon a heavily defended enclave in Commando. His dutiful responses to all that he sees and hears around him and his sheer indefatigability in the face of mass paganism and deceptive trickery is stunningly well-portrayed. He strides about the island, eager to learn the ways and customs of these strange people, if only to swiftly remonstrate against them, and to investigate the disappearance, but he does so with the authority not just of the law, but of the Christian church too. His disgust at the apparent apathy and the evil complicity in both mass hysteria and combined lies, is the fire that ignites him, keeps him charging around the place and haranguing people who are not only perverting the course of justice but also, quite worryingly, who outnumber him. Woodward never backs down, never gives an inch. Initially, he is quite pleased to meet the locals. He admires what he thinks are chocolate bunnies in the sweet shop – they are hares, the apparent symbol of transmutation, but really signifying of the hunt he is the brunt of that we will see time and time again – and he even seems to enjoy the good-natured banter and singing in the pub … at least at first. But once he actually hears the lyrics and sees the bawdy behavior of the locals, look how his face changes expression, his eyes sharpening, his chin setting like stone. Woodward has a hard and stern face – so that obviously helps – but there is something much more deeply ingrained about Howie’s glowering attitude than simple glares and an accusatory countenance. As he watches, disbelievingly, as the naked girls leap over the fire in the stone circle, I love his reaction to the sudden appearance of Lord Summerisle from the chair behind him, and his entire exchange with the nobleman throughout the ensuing collision of mindsets. Summerisle happily explains all – or almost all - whilst Howie turns his own incredulity into dedicated, streamlined rage – the eye of a storm, wrathful yet disciplined.
If you watch closely, his demeanour mutates from polite authority, to vague bemusement, through dismay and rancor, and onward to begrudged acceptance that he can’t possibly compete with these people. Their reaction to the missing girl, who then turns out to possibly be dead and lying murdered in a grave is so appallingly blasé and alien to him that he simply doesn’t have the right words to chastise and castigate them. But, as this warped world keeps revolving around, I love the manner in which he begins to cast out threats of arrest to all who stand in his way. Watch how he shoves the mighty village strongman out of the way when he blusters his way back into the pub after witnessing an orgy taking place outside. As God-fearing as he is, Sgt. Howie is not a man to be trifled with. Give him someone to go up against, physically, and he’ll not be found wanting. But surround him with an explosion of immorality and he knows not which way to turn … other than to God.
When he forces his way back into the manor house and hurls the carcass of the hare that he found in Rowan’s grave upon the rug with a gruff lurching growl, you cannot help but side with him. He is heroic, and he is an avenger. I,personally, do not follow any faith … and it would be easy for me, a highly sexed creature by my own admission, to err along with the hedonistic attitude of the hormonal-charged pagans, but I do not. In this particular instance, they startle me and frighten me. Their oddness and eccentricity are things that I shrink from. No, for my part in this strange affair, I stand alongside Howie, a man who I would normally have no time for. No matter how hard-line and conservative and viciously moralistic he is, he is fighting to find a lost, or abducted, or murdered twelve-year-old girl. In my mind, there is no question of whose side I stand on. You’d hardly have a great time in Howie’s company, but he is upholding the law and, dammit, he is doing the right thing. When he clubs down the May Day Mr. Punch and takes his costume I feel like cheering. When he punches the guy on guard by the cave entrance, I’m right there alongside him, willing him to go the distance and take down as many of these people as he can. As champions go, he is one of the most unusual. The best saviours – or would-be-saviours- have a few hang-ups. The haunted, suicidal Martin Riggs, say. Snake Plissken had a real bad attitude and only one eye. Johnny Rambo was cursed with the compulsion to win a war that somebody else lost. And how many detectives have turned to the bottle after losing his partner in a bust that went wrong? Even Bond has been revealed to suffer from some psychological handicaps. But in Howie’s case, it is that he is too infernally righteous. We want him to win, but we’ll still curse him behind his back and have a good laugh at his stuck-up expense, even if he does.
“Heathens. Bloody heathens!”he curses during the fabulous montage of his search through the town, when all manner of tricks are played upon him. That he doesn’t simply go away and hide, or make a huge bonfire of his own to attract attention – how beautifully ironic would that have been? – is only more testament to his strength of character. He is like God’s Terminator. He absolutely will not stop. Ever.
As good as everyone is, Edward Woodward carries the movie upon his shoulders like Jesus carrying the cross. He was never better.
The Benign Bad Guy.
Shaffer really doesn’t play by the rules does he?
We have Christopher Lee, Count Dracula himself, playing the Lord of Summerisle, the pagan patriarch. The veritable leader of the dance. In the Director’s and Final Cut versions, our first glimpse of him is outside the inn of The Green Man, as he offers up the young Ash Buchanan to Willow for him to come of age between her legs, and Lee’s face is swathedhalf in inky shadow and half in silvery moonlight. Although he is the film’s villain, this is really the only occasion in which we see him in what amounts to a visual depiction of such, his queer half grin a satanic and vampirical holdover. But Lord Summerisle is anything but a bogeyman. In fact, as Lee plays him, he is a thoroughly likeable, interesting and urbane raconteur, someone, in fact, that we feel sorry for when Howie sees fit to have a go at him for encouraging such debauched ways. His passions and his heritage are linked in ways that Howie could not conceivably understand, although they both are as devout and as zealous as one another. Summerisle can see that … and Howie would if he only opened his eyes.
I have reviewed and discussed many of Christopher Lee’s performances, usually alongside his crypt-mate of Peter Cushing and I have always commented that he is not as good, nor as versatile as his long-standing friend. Well, I still stand by this, of course. Lee is, and always has been too regimented and aristocratic to really be able to play against type. But there is no mistaking that his performance in The Wicker Man is utterly tremendous – compelling, witty, charming and only sinister by virtue of circumstance. He is not playing a monster. Summerisle is most assuredly not an evil man. He is only doing what he must in accordance with their sacred rites … and all of this is to ensure that times improve for the community. Everything he does, he does for his people. If you look around the mansion house, it is clear, also, that his family has fought in wars and upheld family honours with pride. Even if the paganism is a relatively new concept in the history of the island, he does not forsake these elements of past valour. This is an element that doesn’t get any coverage beyond the visual evidence seen on the walls and in trinkets and prized objects that fill the rooms and halls, but there is a lot more to this man, and his kith and kin than we ever learn in the film, and this only makes him more intriguing, more fascinating.
Lee has often spoken grandly of Hardy’s film and of his part in it, and rightly so. Like Woodward, he has never been better, nor so prepared to inhabit a role with as much depth, texture and humanity. Summerisle sings. He dons a wig and he prances a merry dance as the final procession moves across the island. He reveals a definite love for his people and complete, though estranged, respect for his nemesis in Sgt. Howie. Where some critics have labeled the pair as being flipsides of the same coin, I think they are completely poles-apart. Yes, it may be that they both share a sense of devotion and duty, but their passions and their attitudes, their very mannerisms are totally alien to one another. Summerisle has plotted – and very complexly, too – to get the right person for the sacrifice, which means he has made a concerted study of the policeman and it is readily apparent, as a result, that he has gained a huge respect for the sergeant. He recognizes a man of honour, a man of his word and man who will not back down in the face of unavoidable calamity. This is the sort of defiance and humility that he can admire. It is not his way at all. Summerisle’s way of life is a strange combination of wild liberation and unshakable ritual. Only by strict adherence to age-old customs and practices can their freedom be granted. Howie, on the other hand, only finds freedom deeply within the discipline of the church. When he is at his most liberated – ie, when he is going about his police procedural and rampaging around the island – he is at his most restricted and confined, governed by rules and a sense of bringing order to this chaos. Both he and Summerisle are contradictions – one enjoying freedom and power only when at his most repressed, whilst the other promulgating ritual as a direct means to instill his fullest sense of harmony.
Both Lee and Woodward play off one another magnificently. Lee towers above Woodward, and despite some tricks to keep them a little more in-shot, there are some moments when this really stands out. But it only adds to the freakish confrontation between them. Lee doesn’t use his height to intimidate for one second, and Woodward abjectly refuses to become, well, belittled by his antagonist. There is grey anger in Howie’s eyes, warm mischief in Summerisle’s. Yet the two could indulge in frank and hearty discourse until the cows came home. The game is obvious from the get-go, and the more you watch the film the more you realize that Summerisle is playing him for the fool – the obvious Mr. Punch – with almost every sentence. Yet there is absolutely no malice in his actions whatsoever. Indeed, the only moment in the film when something of definitely sinister darkness is perpetrated against him is when Alder and Willow MacGregor plant the “handlestick” beside his bed. This is both a necessity to goad him into action and joining the procession in urged-on anger, and a little bit of fun on their behalf. I don’t believe for one second that its fumes are supposed to knock him out. Alder MacGregor becomes a sort of sacrifice too. The gag is even farther reaching than the sickening conclusion first implies.
I also find it amusing that Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle reverses the vampiric code of Stoker’s that an invitation be accepted before the ritual can be achieved. In the time-honoured tradition, a vampire must be allowed access to their victim’s home. At the conclusion of the film, Lee’s Summerisle announces to Howie that he has come of his own free will to the appointed place – albeit tricked and orchestrated every step of the way – and accepted the hand that Fate has dealt him. Two traditions and legends collide via the same iconic conduit. This wasn’t design … this was the closest you could get with The Wicker Man to a divine joke.
Of boobs and stunt-bums … and vandalized vocal cords.
The controversies and difficulties and myths that continually churn up from the well of The Wicker Man are boundlessly frothing, we know. But amongst the most amusing have got to be those surrounding the infamously sensual Willow’s Song sequence from Britt Eckland’s character, the landlord’s daughter, as she dances nude just beyond the wall and out of the reach of the spiritually and psychologically crippled Sgt. Howie, who can hear, sense and feel what is happening in the next room. The thirty year old Eckland, who had already caused quite a stir with her phone-sex scene in Get Carterwas two months pregnant by this stage, although she had only just found out – and courtesy of Diane Cilento, who had powers of Tarot-inspired womanly deduction – and was content enough to allow her breasts to be seen, but was not so keen for areas of her lower hemisphere to be glimpsed on-screen. The memories of all concerned, as with so much of the film’s turbulent production, get hazy and confused over precisely what happened next. We all know that a local nude dancer was recruited to play the raunchier, bump ‘n’ grind moments of cheek-slapping and heavy gyration. With a blonde wig on and with a much more rounded and curvaceous body to boast of, her inserts were quite obviously not Britt Eckland. It is claimed to be Lorraine Peters – the naked woman also seen weeping on the grave during a shocked Howie’s first night’s excursion around the town – and Jane Jackson also likes to take credit for it.
Some say that Britt knew all along about the stand-in. Some say that MI6-style covert operations were undertaken to get the bum-double in place without the Swede realizing. Some even claim that it was all down to her then-boyfriend Rod Stewart refusing permission for her rear to be filmed – something that Eckland, herself, says is ludicrous – and that he threatened to have the negative burned if they did so.
Whatever the reasons were – and a smaller bum than the makers wanted to promote seems most likely – the sequence is justifiably legendary and would form an illicit educational tool for many a lad during the seventies and beyond. Willow uses the entire room and her own body like a huge sexual drum, her routine rhythmic and hypnotic. But the power of the scene goes far beyond the simply titillating. It is a test and a trial, and one that Howie, only with the utmost devotion and self-control, is able to withstand. The fact that he cannot actually see her, only hear her, reveals an enormous amount about his own repressed imagination and how it bubbles to the surface so quickly in this place. Howie might have his Bible beside the bed, but there is something on the other side of that wall that offers far more than merely spiritual comfort … and, more than anything else he witnesses on the island, it is this moment that nearly breaks him.
We would think it strange that a father would happily allow his daughter to be the libido testing exam that each boy on the island must undergo, but this set-up is off-kilter right from the start. It is not beyond the realms that famed mime Lindsay Kemp’s camp Alder MacGregor, Willow’s father and landlord of The Green Man, has, himself, carnal knowledge of Willow.
All the women on the island are powerful creatures. They are fertile and they use their sexuality as weapons of coercion. Willow is the most potent, but Miss Rose is clearly an animal of startling ardor too, as is Pitt’s librarian bathtub-babe. But the Swede is the beauty who springs most to mind when a man thinks of Summerisle’s gulf-stream lushness.
Even if we don’t hear her own, Eckland caused other tongues to wag for various other reasons too. She didn’t like the weather, or the locals. She didn’t get on with Kemp, who was too eccentric for her tastes – although she would later state that she liked him fine enough and admired his talents. Even so, she allegedly threw a pint glass at him and she spoke to the press about her feelings towards the folks who had taken them in so warmly – they were drinkers and brawlers to a one, she claimed. The starlet would be further dismayed to discover that her voice would be dubbed-over for the entirety of the film as well, her Scottish accent not quite up to scratch. This becomes all the more unusual when you consider that Ingrid Pitt, a Pole with a heavy accent herself, remained undubbed, although being the apple of the producer Peter Snell’s eye meant that she got away with murder. Eckland was never supposed to sing the highly sexualized Willow’s Song – which would be vocalized by jazz singer Annie Ross - but the mystery over the dubbing is that nobody else seems to recall that it took place, least of all Robin Hardy, who maintains that the voice we hear throughout is Eckland’s. Well, she declares otherwise and, to be perfectly blunt, it isn’t her voice. It sounds nothing like her.
Such troubles aside, Eckland is stunning in the role … and her apparent unhappiness does seem to add a fragrance of dark devil-may-care to Willow’s personality.
A pastoral nightmare.
It is no secret that accomplished and award-winning DOP Harry Waxman also made life difficult during the shoot. Okay, it was the wrong time of year and autumn was turning into winter instead of spring into summer, when the story was set, and the light was never going to play ball, but the lensman should really have stuck to his job and done the best that was required of him. But Waxman questioned why Hardy wanted to show certain things at all. He didn’t understand the script, couldn’t find how to visualize the menace and the beauty of Summerisle all in one go. And yet, with the aid of the palm trees, the fake blossoms, the movable sprigs and the occasional bursts of sunlight between the sombre clouds, he accomplished wonders against the odds on location in Dumfries and Galloway. Perhaps because he didn’t get the drift of the story and the crucial conflict that he was to depict, he inadvertently crafted the least horror-like horror film of all. Singing in the moonlight. Dancing in the stone circle. Cavorting in the meadows. The Wicker Man is a pastoral miasma that doesn’t quite mask how cold it clearly is, but still creates the illusion of a land displaced in time, and thriving upon its own secretive fruitfulness.
Waxman underlines the violence in the air even when no fists are thrown. Howie’s altercations with Lord Summerisle; his grave-opening and his wandering about the desecrated churchyard with the grinning Aubrey Morris; his confrontations with Miss Rose and, obviously, his agonized extremis during Willow’s Song and then his attempted rescue of Rowan and flight through the cave system. All these scenes and more are simply, yet marvelously staged. Once the animal heads are on, the film becomes a lurking panto-clown – a sort of Scottish Don’t Look Now of barely glimpsed macabre jollity.(Both The Wicker Man and Don’t Look Now were released early December 1973.) The villagers suddenly seem able to act in-unison, and this is a very disconcerting sight indeed. With their animal masks on, they come to resemble the transformed denizens of some Lovecraftian port.
Some shots are superbly lucky in their ensnaring of the sunlight. Others literally make you shudder with the burgeoning wind from the sea. Summerisle comes to resemble a cross between The Prisoner’s Portmeirion and children’s TVBalamory!
He might just make it!
You know what? One of the real reasons that I keep on returning to this film is that I stubbornly, just like Howie, I suppose, believe that the policeman might just save the girl and make it out of there. As preposterous and as hopeless as we know his quest ultimately is, the film is structured and balanced in such a way that the sudden flurry of action – the clubbing of the landlord, the masquerade as the Fool, Mr. Punch, the flooring of the guard standing watch over Rowan, and the escape and evasion through the cave – actually seems like a properly heroic finale. Part of me always thinks that he might, just might find a way off that bloody island.
And as shocking and as fitting as the conclusion might be, the fact remains that Summerisle and his people are going to have some serious questions to answer at some point. Although we are told that this is the first time that the crops have failed, I think we can assume that they have been down this sacrificial road before – the whole thing is too well organized, too highly convoluted and much easily relished by all and sundry to be a fresh, one-off trick – the loss of a police sergeant from the mainland is not going to be overlooked. Of course, they could sink, or merely hide the seaplane and claim complete ignorance of his arrival, but that won’t really be enough to ensure their complete dismissal from any forthcoming enquiry.
And as Howie even states, Lord Summerisle clearly understands that if he cannot find a fitting sacrifice to ensure the fortune of the next season’s crops should this harvest also fail, then it will be he who has a date with the Wicker Man. This is one of the more subtle elements in the screenplay, but it is definitely implied that he, too, could find himself as a marked man. Much like the warlock Julian Karswell in Jacques Tourneur’s excellent Night of the Demon, he knows that his power comes at a price. But, unlike the egotistical Karswell, Summerisle would go to the flames for his people because he knows that this would be the right thing to do, and he would surely go unquestioningly.
Without reservation, the music and the songs are integral to the heart and soul of The Wicker Man.
Perhaps more than any other genre film, the shape and form of Howie’s flame-scorched sojourn on Summerisle is dictated by the folk shanties and curio ditties that American Paul Giovanni composed and often sang for it. With guitar, bassoon, tom-toms, violins, African thumb piano, Northumbrian pipes and Nordic Lyre he concocted seasonal sonnets and loquacious laments that reflected cultural harmony and bountiful bliss, and not without more than a little double entendre. The very bawdiness of some of the cues and the sensual beat of Willow’s Song, especially, would become as notorious as the visuals that often accompanied them. The folksiness of the music could have been off-putting, but it laces the film and the characters with depth and a true sense of time, place and relevance. There is tranquility and a deliberately intoxicating gentility to many of these songs. Gently Johnny is recalled by the softly heroic ballad Gently As She Goes in Alan Silvestri’s score for Robert Zemeckis’ CG-animated Beowulf.
The broad depth of Lee’s own voice is a joy to hear. I know he’s since sung with heavy metal bands, but here his crooning alongside Cilento in pure theatrically comic ribaldness, and the sheer pleasure he has with it is infectious. Of course, it works even better because the embittered Howie has just arrived to disrupt the impromptu party. It should be stated that although Lee has been quoted as saying about Giovanni’s contribution,“I think it is probably the best music I’ve ever heard in a film,” he has said the same thing about Franz Reizenstein’s score for Hammer’s The Mummy and Howard Shore’s The Lord of the Rings. But there is no denying the unsettling, yet soothing beauty of these bizarrely written and exquisitely played songs. Giovanni brought in music students to play the instruments and sing along with him, and they are seen in the film too, bolstering the sense of community, especially when they accompany Ash Buchanan’s (Richard Wren) fulfillment with Willow, as the ensemble sing in the snug beneath.
Burn, baby, burn!
The conclusion is devastating in its symmetrical neatness and brutal poetry.
As the tone changes and the game of cat-and-mouse draws to a close, a cold and implacable reverence falls over the film. I think the fact that nobody is laughing at Howie, or pointing their fingers and making the final fool out of him adds a darker edge to what is coming. That wicker giant, blank-faced and rather abstract stands like Fate against the horizon, a Canute-like edifice attempting in vain to hold back the sway of the seasons. With the various animals wailing and shrieking from within and the Sgt.’s Heaven-beseeching squalls rippling around the cliffs, it is hard not to think of the Wicker Man as a victim, itself. Like a snowman or a Christmas Tree, it has been constructed for one purpose and one purpose alone … and it is not supposed to survive. It, too, must perish.
The shape of the colossus and the geometry of its face would be rekindled in the appearance, bulk and expressionless visages of the robot mummies in Doctor Who and The Pyramids of Mars. The cubby-hatch into which Howie is bundled by the giany Oak (Ian Campbell) becomes a temple to the Sgt.’s last will and testament. His final prayers are not in defeat, but in supplication. The Wild Bunch faced their demise in a hail of bullets. Butch and Sundance gave a “what the hell?” final charge. Bob Hoskins’ classic gangster Harold Shand went through a myriad of reactions when he was whisked off to an unpleasant end at the climax of The Long Good Friday. Woodward’s last moments are just as powerful and filled with just as much defiance, albeit coming from a different perspective.
David Lean made his immortal edit from Peter O’ Toole blowing out at match to the great burnished orb of the desert sun and, remarkably, Hardy and DOP Harry Waxman accomplish something possibly even more memorable. With more luck on this one occasion than they had had during the entirety of the shoot, and the hellish period of cutting and distribution that would follow, the Wicker Man’s burning head collapses to reveal the glowing sunset far out to sea. The production crew couldn’t have wished for a more appropriate final lingering image.
As horrible as this all is, the sequence and the image of the effigy is also highly symbolic of hope. We can see what this act means to the islanders, and they are not jesting when they remark that Howie will be spoken of with reverence. In this final sacrifice they forgive him his cold and ruthless manners. For his part, Howie attempts to make his peace with God and beg for safe passage to eternal salvation having led a guilt-free life … but we hear those final, gibbous screams from the inferno, and it leaves a cold ball of pain and distress in the pit of your stomach.
Have we been Fools too? Or were we complicit in this act of sacrifice as much as the islanders? We can’t deny that Summerisle holds an attraction for us. The desertion of dogma and law is, unavoidably, something that a little part of us wouldn’t mind trying. At least for as long as the harvest holds out.
Alhough a sequel was made – Hardy’s own penned and directed The Wicker Tree, which even had the audacity to recruit Christopher Lee, who really should have known better – there was originally intended to be a follow-up that actually featured Sgt. Howie, who is miraculously rescued at the last minute (but the first of the new film), by a squad of policemen who arrive in another seaplane. After months of rehabilitation, he and another copper go back to Summerisle with the intention of arresting the Lord and his most ardent of followers. What follows is so vastly different in tone to the original film, and so utterly preposterous – it has Howie and Summerisle dueling their antagonised faiths and combating with dragons, eagles, witches and all manner of genuine magic – that it was simply unfilmable. Both Lee and Woodward were approached with the script, but neither could make head nor tail of it and, thankfully, the sacrifice of Sgt. Howie remains as we see it.
With typical Hollywood lunacy a remake was also undertaken, with Nicholas Cage taking on the duped detective role. You don’t need me to tell you that it was a complete travesty.
But remakes and sequels be damned, there is nothing in Cinema like The Wicker Man. Nothing. And the genre is all the richer because of its existence. Whatever version you see, original theatrical, director’s or final cut, the film weaves a spell that is all its own and challenges you on some very personal, moral and esoteric levels, whilst still enmeshing you within the confines of a deeply distressing, yet endlessly debate-worthy and exhilarating and erotic experience. Its legacy is profound. The tendrils of smoke from that roasting wicker cage have found their way into The Slaughtered Lamb pub from An American Werewolf in London and the insular attitudes of the denizens of East Proctor. John Boorman’s Excalibur and TV’s Games of Thrones owe some of their texture and arcane oddities to it.
Personally, I prefer the longest iteration of the film, the Director’s Cut. I like the material on the mainland at the start as it plays off against the conclusion, with Howie turning full-circle in ritual and anointment, becoming the very sacrifice he celebrates in church at the beginning. I think we need to see where Howie comes from and to that is better to understand that he does, indeed, have a life back there and, more importantly, a future. Now although this component is still intact, we lose the scenes back at the police station and the mention of the graffiti on the wall. Hardly vital material, I know, but it continues to establish Howie’s staunch outlook, and it reinforces the device by which he, personally, is summoned by the anonymous letter to come search for Rowan. Plus, in this version we get to meet John Hallam’s Const. McTaggart. I like John Hallam. He has a fabulous face and voice. He was one of Voltan’s Hawkmen in Mike Nicholl’s glorious Flash Gordon, the human villain in Dragonslayer and a terrified asylum attendant in Lifeforce. His McTaggart would be the one ally that the scorched Howie would have had in the planned but unflimed original sequel.
The Final Cut excises the Hallam/McTaggart material completely, yet retains Howie’s reading at the church. This version thankfully also maintains that the sergeant is on the island for two days and not just one as in the UK Theatrical, which throws narrative to the wind, to some degree.
Sheer magnificence, The Wicker Man withstands adulteration and scorn and bewilderment and never, ever loses its power to enthrall, ensnare, captivate and shock. It is lightning in a bottle. Unique. Unsettling. Haunting. And sensationally inspired.
And now, if I can further beg your indulgence, a weird little story.
Many years ago, I and my then-fiancée were on holiday in a very rural place. I’ll not say where. We were clearly the only visitors in this particular place, and we ventured into the local tavern for the evening. It was a cold night too and I was gagging for some local grog. Inside, there seemed to be everyone from the village. There was nowhere left for us to sit, but the fire was warm and inviting and the atmosphere strangely bewitching. I had joked previously about this perhaps being a Slaughtered Lamb type inn! A young blonde woman began to sing. She was sitting on a stool and she sang with a slow, warm and decidedly sensual voice. The song was some bygone shanty of cool but forbidden love in a barn … and she seemed to be directing the entire piece towards me. She faced me, open-legged and thumping her palm against her bare thigh. The effect was almost overwhelming. My fiancée was hardly as enamoured with this performance as I was, and she told me so. Very clearly, the rest of the men in the tavern – all rugby-player sized and thickly bearded compared to my diminutive five-foot-six – were also less than enthusiastic about her choice of intended rhapsodizing target and their glowering faces contained unveiled hints of violence that, even now, make me shudder. But the girl would not stop singing. Someone I couldn’t see was playing a guitar, and the whole thing was making me giddy.
My fiancée began to tug at my arm, obviously sensing that things were going to get very ugly, but I couldn’t move from the spot. I kept watching the girl’s hand gently thumping against her thigh, and her body slowly swaying. I’d barely even supped any of my pint, but I felt drunk and woozy. A male voice suddenly burst into my eye, nearly but not quite shattering my reverie, and told me to leave the place. Janet, my fiancée (and now my wife) began to drag me out of there. The girl’s voice … her damn beautiful voice … it filled my head. My pint was taken from me and the next thing I knew I was outside on the steps of the pub. I could still hear her voice. So sweet. So arousing. I tried to go back but the doorway was blocked by several of these locals.
I’ll tell you what, though … if the sudden distance and the wind that was whistling around us hadn’t begun to break the spell, I would have launched myself back in there, come what may. I fear I’d even have killed to get back to her.
Well, the reason why I have recited this tale is that, to this day, my wife will not watch The Wicker Man or listen to its soundtrack because Willow’s Song and Britt Eckland’s performance of the dance reminds her so much of this incident. Although the most practical-minded person that I know her to be, she insists that I was bewitched that night. For over twenty years now, I have longed to go back to that place … but it seems that ???? is now off the map for me. Friends of ours have been there, however, and they reported no singing or bewitching, but they did concede to perceiving a very curious attitude from the locals.
The Wicker Man, then. It’s effect is, indeed, very far-reaching.
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