Written by Anthony Shaffer (based on Ritual by David Pinner)
Music by Paul Giovanni
Directed by Robin Hardy
A British Lion Film
Starring: Edward Woodward (Sgt. Neil Howie); Christopher Lee (Lord Summerisle); Britt Ekland (Willow MacGregor); Diane Cilento (Miss Rose); Lindsay Lemp (Alder MacGregor); Irene Sunter (May Morrison); Ingrid Pitt (The Librarian); Aubrey Morris (The Gravedigger); John Hallam (P.C. McTaggart); Geraldine Cowper (Rowan Morrison)
It would be marvelous if, when describing a film like The Wicker Man as unique (as I will be doing so), one could truthfully follow up such a statement with the words “but of course, all films are unique.” But all films are not unique: the very fact that films can be grouped into genres and feature actors known for acting in certain types of films shows that similarity abounds in cinema. Stories have been emulated as have directors’ styles, either by fawning young filmmakers or by studio executives who want to sell the public some old wine in a new bottle. As one may love the most recent rendition of Dracula or Frankenstein (or Hamlet or Sherlock Holmes or Spiderman) there is nothing unique about these new films. After all, one tends to judge a new film primarily by what he or she has seen before. So “unique” is, in its own way, a somewhat unique trait in cinema.
As an occult-musical, possibly the only film in the history of cinema that can be described as such, The Wicker Man is unique (or at least it was until the release of The Devil’s Carnival (2012)).
The genesis of the film began as many great films do, with an established celebrity saying, “I want to do something different.” In this case, it was Christopher Lee who, although he owed both his fame and his career to playing Count Dracula, was naturally tired of donning the cloak and fangs and wanted to stretch out a bit. Meetings with writer Anthony Shaffer and director Robin Hardy eventually yielded The Wicker Man, which gave him his best and most articulate role in years. Here was a role that Lee could sink his teeth (sans-fangs) into that also wouldn’t alienate his fans. As in Horror of Dracula (1958) and The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Lee was the antagonist, remaining off-screen for much of the story and making the most of his limited screen time when the camera finally points in his direction. But unlike the vampire’s hiss or the creature’s moan, Lee transfixes the audience with a resonant voice and even sings a song or two. Lee must have loved every second he spent in front of Hardy’s camera and it shows. He’s given marvelous dialog like when he says he’s delighted to meet a “Christian copper” or when he invites Howie (Edward Woodward) to sit down saying “shocks are better absorbed with the knees bent.” While the rest of the village can give the first-time viewer a slight case of the creeps from time to time (such as the gravedigger (Aubrey Morris) pointing out Rowan Morrison’s (Geraldine Cowper) dried-out umbilical cord tied to a tree), Lee’s Lord Summerisle comes across as the most enlightened man on the island, possibly even in the world. Everything he says during his initial encounter with Howie is meant to placate the irate policeman: when Howie asks for Rowan’s body to be exhumed, Summerisle immediately complies, although Howie seems to forget this later on, allowing Summerisle to undercut him (Howie: “May I have permission to exhume the body of Rowan Morrison?” Summerisle: “I was under the impression that I had already given it to you.”). Although he believes in the old gods as much as his people, Summerisle lets Howie know that he understands that paganism was introduced by his grandfather to the island for selfish reasons, to give the labor force more zeal. With this he tries to seem more like a pragmatic philanthropist rather than a pagan lunatic. And there is his great comic line when Howie hysterically complains that the pregnant girls leaping over a bonfire are naked. “Of course they’re naked,” Summerisle replies. “It’s far too dangerous to jump through fire with your clothes on.”
Although Howie’s own faith prevents him from truly relaxing in Summerisle’s presence, Summerisle’s pleasing smile and gentle way of expressing his people’s beliefs go a long way to placating the audience, who may find him and his people more pleasant as opposed to Howie’s rigid demeanor as both a Christian and a police officer. Howie’s authority is meant to be off-putting; Howie is the worst nightmare for anyone who has ever suffered at the unyielding hands of a humorless cop or priest. If Howie’s mission were solely to bring Christianity to Summerisle, his behavior would be absolutely embarrassing. He enters a quaint little village and imposes his own beliefs on a populace who don’t seem to be doing anyone any harm. True, people are having sex in the open, but Howie’s uptight manner looks as if a dose of illicit behavior just might do him some good. On top of that, he scowls like a prude while the villagers sing of the sexual virtues of “The Landlord’s Daughter” (actively shoving several patrons out of the way when he enters the inn later on) and sticking his blue nose in where his authority doesn’t stretch (such as what lessons Miss Rose (Diane Cilento) is allowed to teach at the school). Howie is the worst advertisement for enlightened Christianity that the Vatican could have possibly found.
Of course, it is important to remind ourselves as we view the film that Howie is not a professional missionary (it’s only his hobby). Howie is on Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a child, one who, until the final reveal, we have every reason to believe is in great danger (and, until Howie’s capture, is in great danger, but more on that later). The charm and giddiness of the entire village comes at a price, one that even at the end of the film we question the necessity of being paid. They seem to live a pleasant life, self-sufficient and free of the industrial morass, spiritual emptiness and guilt associated with modern society. Fresh viewers have to remind themselves that Howie is the civilized one, even as he struts through his grey humorless world with absolute authority. He inspires only scorn from his sneering subordinate, P.C. McTaggart (John Hallam), and the one brief shot of his plain-faced fiancé tells us all we need to know about the extent of Howie’s passions. It’s important to continually remind ourselves that Howie is the good guy as he shows Rowan’s photograph to liar after liar, their continual denials masking mass duplicity. Howie gains some sympathy during his meeting with Miss Rose, the schoolteacher, who in her own way is just as insufferable as he is (and may even be edging him out for the crown). Her corkscrew logic about how none of the children were lying when they said they didn’t know Rowan is obvious grade-A blarney to anyone with one good ear to hear it. Her hemming and hawing about the proper name for the churchyard and the question of blasphemous burial in non-consecrated ground tests the patience of both Howie and the viewer and one must imagine that Howie is displaying the patience of a saint for not hauling off and punching the woman in the mouth when she nonchalantly identifies a dead hare as Rowan Morrison. Little by little, we come to see that, when it comes to the question of intolerance, there is very little difference between Howie and the villagers. As a civilized Christian of the 20th century, Howie is far beyond the belief of committing murder for religious reasons – his status as a police officer wouldn’t allow it – but his belief in superstition is just as strong. Had Rowan been discovered safe and sound five minutes after his landing, Howie would still be objecting to the villagers’ lifestyle on religious principal alone (something in which he has no authority) and when he realizes that he is to be condemned, he claims that the crops have failed because it is “against nature” for crops to grow on Summerisle, ignoring the obvious truth that Summerisle has been producing quality produce for three generations. (In Shaffer’s novelization of his own screenplay, Howie gives Summerisle a more practical argument, saying that he’ll have to go back into the laboratory and develop new strains, an argument that doesn’t work and undermines Summerisle’s former pragmatism.) Ultimately, we are denied any closure whatsoever from the events of Howie’s jaunt to Summerisle: we do not know if there is life after death for Howie and are not shown if the following year’s crops fared any better. It isn’t difficult to imagine that the characters of The Wicker Man are instead entrusted into the hands of luck and fate; the One True God fails to save his faithful servant and the prosperity of Summerisle is in the hands of soil conditions and weather rather than the appeasement of the Goddess of the Fields. Which is a shame because it all seems quite pleasant otherwise.
The true ugliness of the villagers, exposed in all its glory the moment Lord Summerisle simply proclaims “The game’s over,” is what places this otherwise odd but otherwise pleasing occult/musical squarely and correctly into the horror books. What happens to Howie is truly horrible – Woodward’s performance as he crouches within the burning wicker man and prays for his deliverance is truly touching – but it is easy to miss that Howie is not merely a victim of the Summerisle villagers, led to his doom by his lack of ingenuity. It is true that the villagers have controlled Howie’s actions at every turn, counting on both his skills as a police officer and his indignation as a Christian at their lifestyle to keep him heading in the right direction, and nowhere is this more evident than in the scene when Willow MacGregor (Britt Ekland) temps Howie. On May Day Eve, Willow sings a seductive song and dances in the nude to entice the willfully celibate man in the next room to share her bed. Howie is denied the sight that we are given of the voluptuous Ms. Ekland, wide-eyed and with arms spread, as she pounds their connecting wall, but the image may be that which he conjures in his mind when she starts singing. In any respect, it is during this sequence that we see that the cold and by-the-book copper is truly made of flesh and blood and his resistance to Willow’s charms are Herculean. Many commentators have cried Foul at this moment, pointing out that the villagers are, at this moment, nearly throwing a monkey wrench into their own best-laid plans: if Howie allows himself to be seduced by Willow, then he will not be suitable for sacrifice the following day. Analysis after analysis have wondered about the logic of this sequence and speculated what the villagers would have done with their now-spoiled offering. It seems clear from Lord Summerisle’s dialog once the jig is up that, while the “right kind of adult” was their target, a child would have been only slightly less successful. In that light, it is quite clear that, had Howie not made it to the top of the mountain a pure man (of his own free will, which is why his trial with Willow was necessary), the villagers would’ve happily sacrificed Rowan. In that light, Howie succeeded in his mission; he set out to save Rowan Morrison’s life and did so. It’s a shame that Rowan herself was in on the plan and was the last in a long line to have deceived him. The look of uncomprehending betrayal on his face as she breaks out of his arms and runs to Lord Summerisle asking “Did I do alright” is the first crack in Howie’s armor. It will shatter completely over the next few minutes as he is stripped, tied and dragged to the massive pyre, his authority and stature ignored as the villagers hoist him above their heads while he shouts “Think what you’re doing! THINK!”
But where absolute, unswerving faith exists, rational thought retreats swiftly away. Howie is sacrificed and we wonder whose prophesy will come true: will the old Gods be satisfied with the offering and allow a successful harvest, or will Lord Summerisle himself be offered up either as the ultimate sacrifice or as a false prophet the following year. As stated before, this question is left open, possibly because it probably doesn’t really matter. The film ends on Howie’s murder, and that is what Shaffer and Hardy want the audience to focus on: the needless death of a man. The history of humankind is filled with stories such as the one that Shaffer and Hardy tell and it is ultimately fruitless to inquire as to whether the murderers got what they were praying for. To ask that question is to deny the monstrousness of the act itself. The Wicker Man forces us to look at murder for religious reasons as synonymous as murder committed for no reason at all. Howie’s murder is the result of the darkest impulses that rule so-called civilized humankind.
But it also has great songs.