Tuesday, 8 June 2021

The Wicker Man (1973)

The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy and written by Anthony Schaffer, is one of the most admired British horror movies of the 70s. In fact, it is possibly the single most admired British horror film of that decade. There are even those who claim it to be the greatest British horror film of all time, and it’s a claim that has some validity.

There are now three different versions of this film in existence. There’s the 87-minute theatrical cut, the 99-minute director’s cut and now a 94-minute “final cut” has emerged which is claimed to be the closest to the original intention of the film-maker. It doesn’t matter which version you prefer because the recent Studiocanal 2-disc Blu-Ray release includes all three cuts.

The Wicker Man was made in 1973 and then, due to problems with the distributor, it simply vanished from sight. It was pretty much unseen until the end of the 70s. When people finally did get to see it, in a very unsatisfactory form, its greatness was soon recognised and its reputation has since grown steadily as better prints became available.

Sergeant Howie of the West Highland Police (Edward Woodward) arrives by seaplane at the tiny island of Summerisle to investigate a report of a missing child, Rowan Morrison. When shown photographs of her nobody on the island will admit to having ever seen the girl.

Sergeant Howie is a devout Christian. He is a little on the priggish side but he’s sincere and well-meaning. He is shocked to discover that the inhabitants of Summerisle are pagans. There is no longer a church or a minister on the island. Christianity has been banished entirely.

Presiding over this pagan society is Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). He’s a jovial enough fellow and much-loved but he has all the power of a mediæval lord. Summerisle is a kind of petty kingdom which recognises no authority other than Lord Summerisle.

Sergeant Howie realises that the islanders have been lying to him. They do recognise Rowan and he’s sure that they do know what happened to her. Howie isn’t certain what happened to Rowan but he is beginning to have dark suspicions that she has been murdered. His suspicions are both correct and incorrect.

Howie is determined to solve the mystery of Rowan’s disappearance but he’s not going to get any coöperation at all from the locals. In fact they will hinder his investigation at every step.

Howie simply cannot deal with this pagan society. It offends him as a Christian but his response to Summerisle is a little more complex than that. This is 1973 and Howie has obviously dealt with non-believers before. The people of Summerisle are not just touchy-feely New Age neo-pagans or hippies play-acting at paganism. They are hardcore pagans. They worship nature, which leads them to worship sex. They take their worship of sex to extremes. They are every bit as extreme in their beliefs as Sergeant Howie.

Howie is not just a Christian, he is a policeman. It’s not just the paganism of the islanders that shocks him but also their obvious contempt for the police and for any authority other than Lord Summerisle.

Howie may be bigoted in the sense that he will not and cannot accept the very different religious beliefs of the islanders but they’re just as bigoted against his Christian beliefs. This is a clash of cultures in which neither side is capable of understanding the other and neither side is willing to respect the beliefs of the other side. There is intolerance on both sides.

That’s what makes this film so interesting. Depending on your own point of view you may be inclined to sympathise with either the Christian Sergeant Howie or the pagan islanders but whichever side you sympathise with your sympathies and prejudices will be challenged. Howie might be wrong to reject the islanders’ beliefs out of hand but he’s not wrong about everything. He might be right to reject the extreme beliefs of the islanders but he’s not right about everything either.

This rôle was tailor-made for Edward Woodward. He was always extremely good at playing characters who were much too tightly-wrapped, with their emotions much too tightly suppressed. He could not only do this, he could do it with a certain amount of subtlety and could give you the impression that the character was suffering from a great deal of inner turmoil. He could also give the impression that if such a person started to unravel he’d probably do so in a big way. And somehow he could make an audience care about such a character. The Callan TV series gave him a great opportunity to play such a character. Sergeant Howie is a very different man from tortured professional killer David Callan but both men are emotionally repressed and have difficulty in relating to others, not because they don’t want to but because they’re simply not able to.

Christopher Lee apparently considered this to be the best movie he ever made. He certainly makes the most of his rôle. Lord Summerisle, like Howie, is right about some things and wrong about others. He’s neither a simplistic villain nor a simplistic hero.

Britt Ekland is excellent as the innkeeper’s sexy daughter who tempts Sergeant Howie. Is she a free spirit trying to liberate Howie or is she a cruel temptress who enjoys torturing him by flaunting her sexuality at him?

There’s an impressive supporting cast including Diane Cilento, Aubrey Morris, Ingrid Pitt and Lindsay Kemp (who taught David Bowie mime).

Since this movie deals with a society that takes the worship of sex to an extreme there is of course a certain amount of nudity and sex but it’s absolutely integral to the theme of the movie and cannot in any way be considered gratuitous.

Britt Ekland’s ambiguous nude dance of seduction is certainly memorable.

The film was shot on location in Scotland and looks stunning. The music is excellent. There are a lot of old Scottish folk songs but the lyrics have been altered to give them a more overtly pagan feel. The music plays a major rôle is establishing the atmosphere.

This is a very literate horror film. There’s no overt horror until the end but the atmosphere, which starts out colourful and liberated, slowly and inexorably grows more sinister. The ending is a horror tour-de-force.

The Wicker Man is a provocative horror but it’s more than just a horror movie. It’s thematically complex and intelligent. It deals with belief and it deals with other important themes (although to reveal the most important theme of the movie would be to reveal a major spoiler). Anthony Schaffer’s script is brilliant and it’s only at the end that you realise just how brilliant it is as everything comes together perfectly and with a sense of inevitability and you finally realise what the story is really about.

It has to be said that there are problems with the Final Cut - it’s missing some very important early scenes which are important not only for what they tell us about Howie’s character but they’re also vital thematically. Those scenes are included in the Director’s Cut. The Final Cut looks terrific but the Director’s Cut has to be the preferred version.

The Blu-Ray presentation includes a host of extras including an audio commentary (for the Director’s Cut) featuring Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee and director Robin Hardy.

Very highly recommended.


tom j jones said...

Awesome film. And also an awesome review - lots of people miss the ambiguity of the film, and think it's just a critique of Christianity. Summerisle makes clear that his ancestor brought paganism back to make his workforce happier, and therefore more productive i.e. for capitalistic reasons, at least as much as patrician altruism. Because of the horror of the ending, people also miss the ambiguity there - there's no guarantee that this act will actually solve the island's basic problem.

I've not seen the Final Cut, or the theatrical version, only the Director's Cut. It is a brilliant film - I'm not a horror fan, but I see no reason why it wouldn't be the best UK horror movie of the 70s. The performances are every bit as good as the perfect casting would lead you to expect. It's also very well-paced. But ...

I actually see the distributor's point. How would you market a film like this, and who to? I do sometimes wonder how many of the people who praise it, would have gone to the cinema to see it in 1973, even if they'd had the chance. With a few noticeable exceptions, British cinema was not in a good place - we tend to only remember the good films, not the stuff that actually got trailered when we went to the pictures, much of which was dire - and it would have needed a first-class marketing campaign to catch the public's attention, without giving the ending away.

Keep meaning to get the Blu Ray, but something else always seems to grab my attention first lol

dfordoom said...

Because of the horror of the ending, people also miss the ambiguity there - there's no guarantee that this act will actually solve the island's basic problem.

Yes, and if it doesn't that cuold lead to some very interesting consequences.

It's easy to focus on the brilliance of Edward Woodward's performance and to overlook the fact that Christopher Lee's performance is so fascinatingly and effectively ambiguous. How much does Lord Summerisle really believe in the paganism stuff?

I actually see the distributor's point. How would you market a film like this, and who to?

Yes, an excellent point. It was a movie that was probably never going to have a chance of being a mainstream success. It just doesn't have enough horror movie elements, but it probably would have seemed like too much of a horror movie for art-house audiences.