Friday, 6 December 2013

The Myth of 'The Wicker Man'.



Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward), a Scottish policeman of high Christian ideals and intolerant attitudes, is lured to the remote, godless island of Summerisle by a mysterious letter reporting the alleged disappearance of a schoolgirl.  Appalled by the loose sexual attitudes and pagan practices of the island’s inhabitants, he becomes the hapless victim of a sinister game orchestrated by the resident autocrat, Lord Summerisle (Sir Christopher Lee).  As events reach a horrifying conclusion, he comes to realise that the hunter is really the hunted...

The legends surrounding The Wicker Man are part of the film's mystique.  A victim of industry politics, it was despised by studio executives and met with blank incomprehension when it was produced in 1973.  With director Robin Hardy barred from the cutting room, it was crudely pruned back to support feature length and eventually released in a double-bill with Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Back.  Star Christopher Lee became The Wicker Man's greatest champion, claiming that it was the best film he had ever made and complaining to anyone who would listen about the desecration of his masterpiece.  Rumours and conspiracy theories abounded about missing scenes, boardroom machinations and cans of excised celluloid buried deep beneath the M3 motorway.


These mysteries were solved to a limited extent by the appearance of The Director’s Cut in 2006.  Rediscovered sequences (obtained from Roger Corman in the USA) were spliced back in to recreate what Robin Hardy claimed were his original intentions.   Taken from a video source, the restored scenes were of distractingly poor quality, but were nevertheless welcomed by fans, who continued to hope that even more footage was waiting to be found.   There was therefore much excitement when, after a well-publicised search for missing materials, it was announced that The Wicker Man – The Final Cut was to appear in time for the film's fortieth anniversary.  

Surprisingly, The Wicker Man – The Final Cut turned out not to be anything new.  Shorter than The Director’s Cut, it is the previously known 'middle version’, assembled by Hardy in 1979 for American distributors Abraxas.  Given a limited theatrical run in the States, it was later broadcast by BBC 2 as the opening part of its Moviedrome series introduced by Alex Cox in 1988.  The current release has been sourced from a good quality 35mm print found at the Harvard Film Archives and is intended to be definitive. In interviews however, 84 year-old Hardy has not ruled out making further changes, so it would seem that the title The Final Cut is a provisional marketing tag rather than a name that relates meaningfully to the film.


So how do the versions compare?  First of all it must be said that, although not perfect, the visual quality of The Final Cut is vastly superior to that of The Director's Cut.  Some graininess remains in the nighttime sequences, but this is tolerable.  While it is not so long as its predecessor, this 'new' version contains all the key elements and tells a coherent story; something that the Theatrical Cut failed to do.

The biggest difference from The Director’s Cut is the omission of opening scenes on the mainland that show Howie interacting with police colleagues, which it plain that he is an object of their derision on account of his sexually-repressed religious views.   While many miss this sequence, I am inclined to agree with Hardy's opinion that it unnecessarily spells out aspects of Howie's character that viewers will quickly pick up from his behaviour on Summerisle.  He is depicted as a freak, out of step with his peers, reflecting perhaps Hardy and Shaffer's concern about how such an austere protagonist would be received by a 1970s’ audience.  From a personal point of view, I find that having Howie's personality defined in this way at the outset removes the pleasure of learning about him as the film progresses.  Interesting though it is, this section is really just 'special feature' material.

Sadly, The Final Cut is missing the black title card that reads:


With its playful suggestion that we are about to watch a documentary, this announcement is typical of the quirky touches that make The Wicker Man so unique and points to the confusion of genres that make it the ultimate 'cult movie'.  It also indicates the ethnographic care with which Shaffer and Hardy constructed Summerisle's pagan community.  Its loss is mitigated slightly by the inclusion of the 'Nuada' sun god image that is used highly appropriately at the beginning and end as the film's logo.

Before he sets out for Summerisle, we are shown a flashback sequence of Sergeant Howie at Holy Communion.  In interviews, Hardy has explained that he considered it be important that this scene was included at the beginning of the film so that it connects to the climax, emphasising the theme of religious sacrifice. In the butchered Theatrical Cut, the shots of Howie taking the sacrament are added later on to illustrate his spiritual conflict during the attempted seduction scene with 'landlord's daughter' Willow MacGregor (Britt Ekland). I must confess a personal preference for the way the Theatrical Cut opens with Howie taking off in his seaplane and flying over the island. It is interesting to note how Hardy prioritises symbolism over pace.


Most importantly, The Final Cut clearly shows both nights of Howie's stay at Summerisle's inn 'The Green Man' and gives us an introductory sight of Lord Summerisle during his nocturnal visit with a young lad to be sexually initiated by the voluptuous Willow.   This includes his bizarre recital of a Walt Whitman poem over scenes of copulating snails.  An entire song that was criminally removed from Theatrical Cut, the beautiful 'Gently Johnny', has been restored.  On the negative side, there are some cuts that disrupt the music’s integrity, affecting the equally important 'Willow's Song'.

As mentioned, The Final Cut is undoubtedly the best-looking version of the film and, whether or not one prefers it to The Director’s Cut (and a perfunctory survey I have conducted among Wicker Man fans shows that the majority do not), it provides an ideal opportunity to reassess the film on its fortieth anniversary.  

In recent years The Wicker Man has been badly served by an ill-advised remake and follow-up; Nicolas Cage's ludicrously misogynistic 2006 version swiftly became an Internet joke and Hardy's own 'spiritual sequel' The Wicker Tree failed artistically in every respect that the original succeeded in. 


So what makes The Wicker Man so special?  Hardy and Shaffer originally conceived of it as an extension of their mutual interest in 'game-playing' and as a break from the Gothic clichés of 'Hammer horror'.  Inspired by the ''Obby 'Oss' festivities at Padstow in Devon, Hardy turned his attention to Sir George Frazer's classic yet controversial work of comparative mythology, The Golden Bough.  Leapfrogging through twelve dense volumes, he and Shaffer lifted religious and folkloric customs from disparate times and places to create an anachronistic amalgam to fit their ingenious plot, changing things and adding their own inventions when necessary.  The result is surprisingly successful; a manufactured Pagan belief system that feels authentic and strangely familiar.  The solar-mythological theme lends the story a deep archetypal resonance that lifts it into another dimension.

In the key scene in which Howie eventually meets up with Lord Summerisle, we learn that the island's Pagan religion is a bogus imposition, introduced by Summerisle's grandfather, a free-thinking Victorian scientist.   Attracted by the island's volcanic soil and its 'profuse source of wiry labour', he decides ‘to rouse the people from their apathy by giving them back their joyous old gods' so that they can toil happily in his orchards growing the new strains of apple that, like a Victorian version of Monsanto, he has artificially developed to produce fruit in this unpromising environment.

The current Lord Summerisle lays claims to genuinely believe in the island's reconstituted Paganism:

'What my grandfather had started out of expediency, my father continued out of love.  He brought me up the same way; to reverence the music and the drama and rituals of the old gods.  To love nature and to fear it, and to rely on it and to appease it where necessary.'

Given that he is no ignorant villager and knows the real, scientific explanation of why apples grow on the island, is he to be trusted on this point?  Clearly the religion (in which he personally plays a key part) plays a huge ideological role in cementing the absolute control he seems to exert over the island's inhabitants.


Modern scholars have rejected The Golden Bough’s central thesis, along with the romantic notion that modern-day folk customs such as the 'Obby 'Oss are remnants of prehistoric religious practices.  The historical veracity of the 'Wicker Man' itself is open to challenge, as the only surviving account of Druidic beliefs and rituals is furnished by Julius Caesar, who may have had his own imperial motives for inventing or distorting things.  At any rate, Caesar's account of the 'Wicker Colossus' merely states that the preferred sacrifices were convicted criminals, whereas Hardy and Shaffer provide their own formulation:

'A man who would come here of his own free will.  A man who has come here with the power of a king by representing the law.  A man who would come here as a virgin.  A man who has come here as a fool.'

Given the context, these things do not matter.  It is easy to imagine that Summerisle's religion may have been concocted by a Victorian patriarch from the folkloric materials available to him.

The casting of The Wicker Man is superb.  The role of Lord Summerisle offered Christopher Lee an ideal opportunity to climb out of his Hammer Count Dracula rut, and he does so effortlessly, combining urbane charm and creepiness in equal proportions.  He is splendidly matched by Edward Woodward, whose total immersion in the role of Neil Howie is so convincing that people are sometimes surprised to learn he was not a Scotsman in real life.  Woodward gives a physical performance, deliberately ordering his police uniform a size too small to give the impression of pent-up muscular stiffness that could be an object lesson in Wilhelm Reich’s theory of character-armour.  He achieves the feat of first alienating the audience, but then turning it around in the final scenes, so that viewers completely empathise with him in extremis.  He is the linchpin of the film.


The supporting actors are also excellent, from the Scottish locals recruited to play Summerisle fishermen to the splendidly odd choice of Lindsay Kemp (Britain's foremost mime artist and one-time mentor/lover of the young David Bowie) to play camp publican Alder MacGregor.  Despite the lack of family resemblance, 'big name' of the moment Britt Ekland is appropriately nubile as his daughter Willow (even if her voice needed dubbing and the bottom on display is not really hers).  Diane Cilento also stands out as Miss Rose, the village school teacher and apparent paramour of Lord Summerisle. 

The one talent to be wasted is that of 'Hammer Glamour' goddess Ingrid Pitt, allegedly brought in against Shaffer and Hardy's wishes as a backfiring ploy to curry favour with the distributors.  Cast in the frumpish role of the Librarian, her sexuality is only exploited in a surreal 'Carry On' style scene in which Sergeant Howie comes across her naked in an old-fashioned tin bathtub.

Alongside Woodward and Lee, The Wicker Man's third star is undoubtedly Paul Giovanni, the composer of the soundtrack.  His contribution is so large that the film has been mischievously described as a 'stealth musical'.  It would not be the same without the songs and tunes that convey plot and atmosphere so effectively.  Eclectic and innovative, the soundtrack is inspired by everything from Scottish 'mouth music' to Victorian parlour songs and is distinguished by some unusual instrumentation and arrangements.  

Mainly diegetic, the music’s organic qualities are enhanced by the fact that its performers actually appear in the film.  Generically, it is a prime example of the type of folk rock explored by Michael Faber in his flawed yet fascinating book Electric Eden. The two songs recorded by Pentangle for Roddy McDowall's psychedelic folk-horror Tam Lin (also filmed in Scotland and released in 1970) are predecessors, but Giovanni's work is original and groundbreaking. Not all the songs are truly traditional, and some contain 'de-Bowdlerised' versions of folk lyrics penned by Anthony Shaffer's more famous playwright brother, Peter.  The tone varies from the coarse ribaldry of 'The Landlord's Daughter' to the haunting nuances of 'Willow's Song' and 'Gently Johnny', both of which exquisitely convey sensual yearning in keeping with a prelapsarian era of sexual freedom. 

Throughout most of the film, Sergeant Howie acts as a distorting lens, his rigid and unsympathetic personality colouring our view of the people and events he witnesses. Amused by his bumbling attempts to solve the mystery of Rowan Morrison, we are drawn into complicity with the islanders, although it is only at the end that we discover the extent of their manipulation.  Everything has been preplanned and scripted at Lord Summerisle’s behest to entrap their victim.

Still, from a modern perspective, are Howie’s responses really so unreasonable?  In many ways Summerisle harks back to the sexist values of the 1970s.  Would we feel comfortable when the male customers of 'The Green Man' crudely regale young Willow MacGregor with 'The Landlord's Daughter' and she smilingly plays along with them?  Would we really be happy to stumble across a graveyard full of what now would be called 'doggers' on an evening stroll?  How would we rate a school where a segregated class of pubescent girls is taught the virtues of phallic worship?  How on earth, in the post-Sir Jimmy Savile era, would we respond when Lord Summerisle leers out of the window at a group of naked teenagers and urges us to 'be open to the regenerative influences'?  


We may smirk at Howie's sexual discomfiture when he hears the landlord's daughter slapping her shapely physique against his bedroom wall, but would it really be sensible for him to succumb to her advances?  Quite apart from his religious beliefs, not only has he recently become engaged, but he is also a police officer on active duty.  If he gave into temptation, he would be opening himself to blackmail on an island where everyone is potentially a suspect in the case of a missing young girl.

An intriguing aspect of The Wicker Man is the way in which it inverted the social attitudes of its time.  The ‘traditional’ community of Summerisle mirrors the so-called ‘permissive society’ that was seen as a threat to public morals by religious conservatives in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  In September 1971, the ‘Nationwide Festival of Light’, led by Christian luminaries such as Mary Whitehouse, Lord Longford and Cliff Richard, lit bonfires and torches on hilltops across Britain and culminated in a 400,000 strong rally in Trafalgar Square.  In the words of journalist and Christian convert Malcolm Muggeridge;

The purpose of the festival is that… the relatively few people who are responsible for this moral breakdown of our society will know that they are pitted against, not just a few reactionary people, but all the people in this country who still love this Light – the Light of the world.

By way of contrast, on Summerisle it appears to be Sergeant Howie who is the interloper whose alien values threaten the established order.  That is until the final scene, when we learn that the islanders have carefully selected him for his very peculiar characteristics.


The Golden Bough caused much controversy when it first appeared in 1890 because Frazer dared to include the Christian story in his ‘Study of Comparative Religion’, inviting the reflection that Jesus was merely another example of the dying and reviving god that he believed to have been central to most mythologies. Wedded to the earth goddess, this solar deity symbolised the agricultural cycle, dying at harvest time and being reborn in Spring.  His story was enacted through the sacrifice of a sacred king.  Shaffer and Hardy make this proposed link between Christianity and Paganism the centrepiece of their plot.

Shortly before Howie is bundled off to be burned in the Wicker Man, there is a short exchange between him and Lord Summerisle that shows there is a serpent in the latter’s twisted Eden.  Semi-mockingly, Summerisle offers Howie a religious ‘win-win’ scenario that makes the parallel between Christianity and Paganism explicit:

'For believing what you do, we confer upon you a rare gift these days - a martyr's death.  You will not only have life eternal, but you will sit with the saints among the elect.'

Rejecting this, Howie directly challenges the watching crowd:

 'You can wrap it up any way you like; you are about to commit murder!'

Pointing out that killing him will not restore their crops, he adds:

'Well, 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.  If the crops fail, Summerisle, next year your people will kill you on May Day!'

The ‘Christian copper’ has done his research well in the island’s library.  We see Lord Summerisle’s features momentarily cloud over with fear and uncertainty as he realises, evidently for the first time, the precariousness of his position.  Summerisle’s feudal system is as riven by contradictions as any class-based society.  The future of a ruler who claims 'to love nature and to fear it' is dependent on the continuing ability of his Victorian grandfather's science to grow fruit in an unnatural environment.


It is only in its closing scenes that The Wicker Man truly becomes a horror film.  The contrast with the preceding comedy creates an abrupt disjunction that emphasises the sheer ghastliness of Howie's fate.  He rises in moral stature as we empathise with his shock at the way he has been betrayed and his emotional pain as he realises he is about to die.  The Wicker Man itself is a hideous and stunning artifact, its blank, featureless head gazing sightlessly out to sea from its cliff top location.  The terror of the ending is total.  Howie's desperate prayers and psalm-singing rage against the rising conflagration, hopelessly competing with the sound of the roaring fire combined with the screeching of terrified animals as the islanders sing their rounds of ‘Sumer Is A-Cumen In’ with determined heartiness.  

It is the totality and the paradoxical innocence of the wickedness that are horrifying.  All of the islanders participate in the sacrifice and not one of them shows any awareness that what they are doing is wrong.  Instead, they are positively enjoying the party atmosphere.  It is reminiscent of a 1930s lynching postcard from the American Deep South; young courting couples holding hands and smiling for the camera as black bodies swing from a tree.  A grand day out for all concerned – apart from the victims.


Right at the end of The Wicker Man, something remarkable happens.  In a serendipitous feat of filming, cinematographer Harry Waxman captures the colossus’s head collapsing into the fire to reveal the evening sun behind, just as it is about to sink down into the sea.  It is an iconic shot, achieved without any special effects.  On the soundtrack, the roaring of the flames subsides and a fanfare of trumpets cuts through. In an awe-inspiring moment, we are drawn away from the human drama and like primitive man, are exposed to the primeval force of nature that creates and destroys all life.   Here is the source of the solar myth that has refracted through different cultures to create the scripts played out by all the characters of the film.

Reviled at its creation, The Wicker Man is now recognized as a seminal piece of cinema.  As Howie himself might choose to put it: ‘The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner.’ (Psalm 118:22)  Although it has come to be seen as a defining example of the newly invented genre of ‘folk horror’, it really stands alone in its cross-generic strangeness and magnificence.  With its death at the hands of conniving studio bureaucrats at the nadir of the British film industry, followed by its subsequent cult status as a ‘midnight movie’ and rebirth as an established classic, it has acquired a solar myth of its own.  Even after the release of The Final Cut there is a lingering feeling of incompletion, as though further mysteries are waiting to be solved, greater glories to be uncovered.





5 comments:

Lipwak said...

A good look at The Final Cut. Nice to hear that Hardy is not ruling out a better version. I thought he had.

The only thing I’d comment on is the part about Summerisle being a sexist community. I’d say it was pretty “liberated.” Willow was being praised in The Landlord’s Daughter, not diminished. They all adored her. We haven’t progressed to the point where it’s alright for people to have sex in public but I’d say there are plenty of people who’d like that to be the norm. Same with the school. We’re such prudes here in this country. Just saying the words penis and vagina are only now becoming “normal.” I don’t think LS leered at the young girls. He just wasn’t a prude like Howie.

i’d say they were pretty progressive. And Howie fit in pretty well as the foil to that.

Mikey_C said...

Thanks for your interesting comments.

Re. sexism - I had been reading a Neo-Pagan response to 'The Wicker Man' which argues that Howie is doomed by his rejection of 'feminine wisdom'. But consider Summerisle's feudal set-up, ruled over by the Lord of the Manor. You can't get more patriarchal than that! Added to which there's no evidence on the island of women engaged in anything other than traditionally 'female' occupations; barmaid, schoolmistress, librarian... So far as I can see, Willow is valued purely for her sexuality. You could say that everyone 'adored' Jayne Mansfield in the 1950s, but that was undeniably a sexist era (although Jayne was a proto-feminist in the way she pursued her own career and did more than her fair share for the sexual revolution).

Don't get me wrong - I am very strongly opposed to Mary Whitehouse and Co. (how ironic that they lit torches and bonfires!), but there were sexist aspects to the 60s/70s era of sexual liberation that we are sadly becoming more aware of in the UK, with the sad spectacle of men being hauled through the courts for alleged crimes of 40 years ago.

I must admit that I have become more sympathetic to Howie over the years. It started off when I read in the novelisation that he is a Socialist. That gives another slant to his dislike of Lord Summerisle. Then I thought about the reasons why Summerisle's atheist grandfather re-introduced Paganism - basically as a scam to exploit the island's workforce. Not exactly progressive!

Of course Howie is highly obnoxious in his uptight views and personal demeanour, and this tends to put us on the side of the islanders until we realise what is really going on at the end.

My perception of 'The Wicker Man' has changed over the years. The first time I watched it (probably stoned!) I thought that the nasty policeman got his just desserts. Then I went through a spell of thinking that Howie and Summerisle were more or less equivalent to one another with their religious dogmatism. Now I am convinced that Lord Summerisle doesn't really believe in Paganism; he knows the success of next year's crops is really down to the continuing strength of his artificially-bred apple strains and not to appeasing the gods. Otherwise why would he look so worried when Howie reminds him of this fact?

If Summerisle doesn't actually believe in the sacrifice, then he is nothing more than a common-or-garden murderer prepared to kill just to maintain his own privileged position. Howie, on the other hand, is genuinely trying against all the odds to rescue a young girl he believes is under threat. So on a moral level I'm afraid Xtianity wins hands down in the film.

Which makes me very curious as to why many Neo-Pagans seem like it so much, when they are portrayed as the baddies. I think it is because of the archetypal themes taken from Frazer. If I find the time and energy, I would like to explore this idea more, possibly looking at other uses in popular culture, although it may result in a book to rival 'The Golden Bough'!

Carla Mae said...

This was a really interesting read. A very insightful take on the BEST FILM EVER MADE.

Regarding the thing about Britons sacrificing criminals rather than kings, I would like to suggest the whole king sacrifice element of the film may have come from Scandinavia. There is a passage in Ynglinga saga about an ancient Swedish king who is killed by his subjects after both animals and men are sacrificed but the harvest does not improve. Although, obviously, there´s little suggestion that the people of Summerisle would have sacrificed their own islanders, the actual text of Ynglingasaga is very similar to Howie´s speech about how Lord Summerisle would be next, and that only a king will do. Just a thought. It can be read here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domalde

Mikey_C said...

Thank you for your kind comments, Carla. I shall certainly explore the Scandinavian saga you mention. Apparently Robin Hardy researched the full twelve volume edition of Frazer's 'The Golden Bough', so this could well have been quoted in that (I only have the one volume paperback edition!).

katherine campbell said...

Hi there,

This was a very good read, thanks! Firstly in response to the comments here, I think it is especially interesting to look back at the period in light of the hugely disturbing revelations of corruption within not only the entertainment industry but the establishment in general.. The extent of which has been investigated we can assume is only the tip of the iceberg. There is also the possibility of occult practices in a lot of the organised activities of the time (which witnesses have stated implicating Jimmy Saville in group practices), which could of course just be some sick individuals ruthlessly acquiring and exploiting power, and pursuing further 'pleasures/highs/I don't know what', though I think the level of cover-up and conspiracy requires more of an investigation than that to say the least. The exploitation of women and youth in general is something to be weary of in a society with so many problems and confusing messages, not to mention the revelation that those in power may have had more of an interest than realised in the commodification of sexual objectification and exploitation. I may have thought at times that 'sexual liberation' might come with a more 'progressive' society, but perhaps the presumption that people naturally want to so openly share their ideas of their own sexuality or availability isn't necessarily the case, and the dangers of such presumptions, even in a society that doesn't have the predatory problems we have, is that people are encouraged to share their sexuality in a public arena (of discussion even) before they have decided for themselves. Perhaps sexuality isn't necessarily something people want to give words to or compare, perhaps it's completely subjective and yet incredibly intimate and private between people. I'm open minded to the more 'liberated' view as well though and whilst I totally think sex education has been necessary in the face of sexually repressive times, I'm just wary of the other extreme. And so whilst also not being on the side of Mary Whitehouse and co (and look at what's happened to Cliff Richard) I am also finding myself more and more sympathetic to Howie's 'prudishness' and certainly to the fact that he is ultimately a benevolent man who cares enough about truth and goodness to have such strong faith. And Edward Woodward is indeed wonderful. Another interesting point you made, in reference to perhaps real conspiracies, is that if Howie had succumbed to Willow's advances then he would have made himself open to blackmail.

I think it's interesting to look at the idea of imposition of religion by the powerful, the creation and belief in myths and the role/game playing in society that pertains to the narratives created by the powerful...

Also, yes, the shot at the end of the sun is incredible, and terrifying. What it leaves you questioning is immense and chilling, like staring into a lonely abyss where there are no myths to project our awareness/consciousness and there is an awful loneliness in his betrayal. Perhaps there is a link between the violence against him and the shot of the sun.. It's an atrocity that he is stripped of his spiritual beliefs in the way he is murdered, and a violence against humanity. Perhaps to emphasise a connection in religions worshipping nature is to deny the human spirit. Or at least, nature is indifferent to our suffering.

Apologies for the length and rambling nature of this, and accepting this is months after publication, but it's just such a complex and interesting film!