Cine-East Film Club Presents #23: 1973, The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy)

by George_East on September 22, 2013

Sergeant Howie: What religion can they possibly be learning jumping over bonfires?

Lord Summerisle: Parthenogenesis.

Howie: What?

Summerisle: Literally, as Miss Rose would doubtless say in her assiduous way, reproduction without sexual union.

Howie: Oh, what is all this? I mean, you’ve got fake biology, fake religion… Sir, have these children never heard of Jesus?

Summerisle: Himself, the son of a virgin, impregnated, I believe, by a ghost…

In a comment thread discussion a week or so ago about film re-makes, Jackie South suggested that The Wicker Man might be a good film for a Cine-East Film Club presentation.  As it happens it is also a film that is about to get a cinematic re-release in a new director’s cut (billed as ‘The Final Cut’).  Last week, I was lucky enough to get to see the premiere of this new cut, with the director, Robin Hardy, in attendance at the British Film Institute.   Given all of this, it seemed the ideal choice for this week’s film.

Before moving on to the film itself, I think that one thing that we can all agree on is that this is a film in which (unlike, say, 3.10 To Yuma) the re-make really is a stinking pile of unforgiveable crap, that would be better off erased from cinematic memory.  This will be the one and only mention of it in this presentation.

For me, I think, like many film fans of my generation, The Wicker Man was a film I first saw in my teens on BBC2’s now long gone and very much lamented, Moviedrome series of introduced films.  I still remember  Alex Cox’s introduction and the tale of how the film had been butchered by its producers, British Lion, and how the original reels had been dumped in the pile holes for the M3 and his view that it was one of the great lost films of British cinema (as it happens Hardy himself cast serious doubt on the M3 story in the Q&As after the film last week).

Despite this butchery, the film absolutely knocked me sideways, then.  I had never seen anything like it.  Its combination of the  stranger-out-of-place horror film, starring that stalwart of the classic British horror movie, Christopher Lee, with a folk musical seemed to me not only to be utterly original for its time, but still remains something which has not, to my knowledge, ever been matched.  And the first time you see it, the ending, despite all of the clues on the way, is devastating.

From the film’s beginning, with the opening credits over Sergeant Howie’s plane flying to Summerisle while Paul Giovanni sings Corn Riggs, Hardy creates an atmosphere of other-worldliness that infuses the entire film.  This is not the uptight wee free Highlands represented by Edward Woodward’s Howie, we are immediately signalled, this is a very strange place indeed.   The film, even in its most extended version – which is not the new version, by the way, but the 2001 DVD version, is not very long.  The longest version is only 100 minutes.  Yet Hardy weaves in folk songs throughout – other than the song over the titles, all are diegetic – the songs are integral to the story and are sung and played by characters in the film.   This gives the sense of song being part of the means of communication and culture of Summerisle.  It is a collective culture, which is fully realised but wholly alien to anything we have seen before.

So when Howie first meets Willow (Britt Ekland), the voluptuous daughter of the landlord of the pub he stays in, the entire pub sings the bawdy The Landlord’s Daughter­, including her father.   The sexualised lyrics embarrass Howie, but for the landlord himself, MacGreagor (Lindsey Kemp) and Willow, it is just part of the piss-taking cat and mouse torment that the islanders will put Howie through.  Similarly the whole pub joins in the ritual of the teenage Ash Buchanan being sent up to Willow by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) to lose his virginity, banging out a rhythm on the pub tables, to Giovanni’s beautiful singing of Gentle Johnny.   Unlike most films the father is in no way protective of his daughter’s sexuality, he actively encourages it.

On the outside of this is Howie – upright and uptight – watching in disbelief the pagan rituals of school boys dancing around a maypole while school girls bang their desks under the encouraging eye of their teacher, naked women jumping over a bonfire in a fertility ritual and young couples fornicating in the open at night outside the pub.

Howie, isn’t, I think, us.  The audience is and is expected by Hardy to be more wordly.  However, in the clash of these two worlds, Howie’s is more us.   When the school teacher, Miss Rose (Diane Cilento), explains that the dead hare found in Rowan Morrison’s exhumed grave is the reincarnated form of Rowan Morrison herself, there is little doubt that she believes that this would be possible.  This is, of course, to us, nuts.   But as the great Anthony Shaffer script is keen to underline, it is no more nuts than Christian theology.  The old gods may have only, we are told, been reintroduced as a matter of expediency by the current Lord Summerisle’s Victorian grandfather, but three generations later they are more real and present than any Christian God.  A God, in a memorable line in the film, who has had his chance.

The more interesting question though is whether Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) himself believes it all.   The key conversation between Howie and Summerisle when they first meet suggests that Summerisle is more than aware that it is all nonsense – what first the islanders followed because they were being paid, they came to follow because they believed, but Summerisle knows and understands that his grandfather only reintroduced the old Gods out of business expediency.   The first Lord Summerisle was, it is emphasised, a scientist, who rightly figured out that the gulf stream would enable fruit crops to be grown successfully on Summerisle, not some pagan guru.

Summerisle’s own beliefs are left ambiguous, but they may be, for him, no more than necessary lip service, as he understands that, as Howie reminds him in their final conversation, if the harvest on the island fails in the following year, as it has disastrously done this year, then the islanders won’t be turning to an outsider for their sacrifice:  only the Lord of the island himself will be sufficient to assuage the gods.     Summerisle’s actions and orchestration of the events can therefore be read as no more than a cynical and desperate survival strategy for himself. After all, there is only one of him and a lot of true believing islanders.

The weaving into the story of elements of the Golden Bough, Robbie Burns’ poems to give it Scottishness and ancient druidic religion (the Wicker Man itself is referred to in ancient Roman texts) combines to make Summerisle feel like, at once, a real and unreal place.  The islanders’ pagan culture is never played for laughs or shown through ironic distancing.    Indeed in one bit, during the house-to-house search that Howie conducts for Rowan, the film switches for a short sequence into a documentary style as we see the baker with a large bread figure, who he explains is John Barleycorn.

There are, if you think about it, some curious plot questions – such as why Willow tries to seduce Howie, given that the islanders need him to be a virgin at the time of the sacrifice (there is no suggestion at the end that resisting temptation was part of the requirement) or why he is encouraged by Willow, Mae Morrison and others to leave Summerisle (admittedly his plane is sabotaged), when they undoubtedly need him to stay, or how the sabotage of the plane squares with the fact that he is required to be there of his own free will.   This is particularly curious given that the sacrifice must under the tenets of the islanders’ religion take place on May Day – there is no fall back plan, if Howie renders himself by his acts ineligible. However, these holes (if that is what they are) do not do more than raise some discussion points when you think about the film afterwards – they in no way pierce the bubble of the alternative reality created by The Wicker Man.  Anyway, we can hardly be expected fully to understand the ways of the Summerislanders.

The Wicker Man remains one of the most singular achievements of British cinema.   Over the course of the next few weeks there will be the rare opportunity to see it on the big screen.  You would be foolish not to.

For what it is worth and for those of you familiar with the different versions of the film, the new version  is essentially the 2001 DVD Director’s Cut extended version without the majority of the prologue in the police station and police car.  There are a few other bits added back in here and there, and a few scenes during the house to house search by Howie have also been removed.  The legendary ‘apple scene’ much spoken about by Christopher Lee is still missing so perhaps the Final Cut may not be final after all…

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Jackie_South September 22, 2013 at 11:54 pm

I think the Willow seduction scene is meant to be both testing whether he really is the committed virgin he insists (rather than an uptight hypocrite who would weaken) and a cruel tease of his resolve.

The first time I watched the film as a teenager, I remember watching the finale thinking what an idiot- if only he’d given in to temptation, he could have avoided the grisly end.

In that sense, it is a great counter-poise to the traditional horror morality, where it is the teenagers who eschew chastity that get killed off and the pure virgin who survives.


George_East September 23, 2013 at 7:00 am

The problem though, surely, is that if he gives in, then they don’t have their sacrifice. It has always seemed a somewhat high risk strategy to me, given that May Day is the next day and they have no alternative lined up. As the film makes clear Howie’s resolve is sorely tested by Willow, so on the face of it she almost messes the whole thing up.


Jackie_South September 23, 2013 at 3:50 pm

Perhaps the idea is that it ensures that in the mind of the islanders they see him as a (at least subconsciously) a willing sacrifice – further demonstrating his free will in arriving to his final destination.

Of course, Howie doesn’t know the rules of the game, but then isn’t religion like that often?

It probably IS really a plot flaw, but one of the beauties of the film (and other British films of that era) is that the untied loose ends leave you with those sort of questions to think about and debate.


Multiplex September 23, 2013 at 7:56 pm

Great post George.

It looks like it was the first ever Moviedrome film, which makes it even more special.

‘In 1988, the BBC planned to spearhead the very first film of the first Moviedrome season with a screening of the Long Version which researchers claimed to have tracked down in America. The copy from America had yet to arrive when the Radio Times for that week was prepared, grandly announcing the discovery. A reel of NTSC format broadcast videotape arrived from America a week or so before the screening containing a somewhat ropey copy of the film. Realisation dawned on the Moviedrome team that what they had been sent was only the compromise Middle Version – not the original Long Version as promised. Fortunately, Alex Cox’s (somewhat unenthusiastic7) introduction to the film was recorded near enough the transmission date to explain that some scenes were still missing.’

As promised, here’s the full list of films from Cox & Cousins, hardly a film below 8/10…


George_East September 23, 2013 at 8:26 pm

Wow – the first ever Moviedrome! I would certainly have guessed it was in the first season as I know it was pre-university and I can remember watching it at home, but not sure I would have guessed that. It is a long time ago mind.


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