Why I Love… #18: The Wicker Man

Year: 1973

Director: Robin Hardy

Stars: Edward Woodward (Sgt Howie), Christopher Lee (Lord Summerisle), Britt Ekland (Willow), Diane Cilento (Miss Rose), Ingrid Pitt (Librarian), Lindsay Kemp (Alder MacGreagor)

Genre: Mystery / Musical / Comedy / Horror

Mystery. Musical. Comedy. Horror. Does any other film cross those four genres, I wonder? Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, one of the greatest British films ever made (I’d say the greatest, but let’s try to be a little objective here) is so adored in part because it doesn’t sit easily in one category. Part of the pleasure of watching the film comes from the strange tone throughout. The viewer, confronted with strange imagery and the uncertainty as to how seriously to take it, is presented with the question what is this?

The film was born from Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer’s desire to make a different kind of horror film, having grown tired of Hammer’s rotating roster of usual suspects. In the beginning they had just a few notes; they wanted it to be different, they wanted to explore the notion of sacrifice and ‘the old gods’, and they wanted it to be a vehicle for Christopher Lee. They scored on all three counts.

A hell-of-a-lot of research later and with backing from British Lion, The Wicker Man was born. That’s probably the shortest version of that story ever told. The production of The Wicker Man is notorious for its difficulties, problems which didn’t end once the shoot had wrapped. In fact it’s debatable to say that The Wicker Man has obtained its cult status in part because of how many elements conspired to keep it from us at all. Filming Winter for Spring in remote Scotland, the butchering of the final film, the discarding of the original negative… it all goes into the lore of The Wicker Man. But I don’t love The Wicker Man for the story of its creation, I love it for its creativity.

For those who don’t know, or haven’t had the fortune of seeing it yet, I’ll outline the story in brief. A deeply Christian police sergeant on the Scottish mainland is sent an anonymous letter reporting the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison on the remote island of Summerisle. He travels there to solve the mystery, only to discover that the island’s people have abandoned Christianity in favour of a more pagan way of life, celebrating nature – and appeasing it when necessary. They deny all knowledge of the child’s existence, and lead the sergeant a merry and dangerous dance as he unravels their true motivations for luring him into their midst.

I still haven’t seen anything quite like it. Not Hardy’s disappointing, belated companion piece The Wicker Tree (worth watching as a curio), and certainly not Neil LaBute’s misguided 2006 remake (sample imdb message board header: “he is a terrible human and should be ashamed of himself”). Some of Nicolas Roeg’s work comes close in terms of playful tone and cinematic language (The Wicker Man was originally released as a double feature with Don’t Look Now – what a double bill!), but really the directors are still worlds apart. There’s an almost documentary feel to parts of Hardy’s movie, moments that pepper the film such as the townsfolk showing their May Day costumes (“the salmon of knowledge”). It’s a straight-faced element in a film that otherwise might be read as tongue-in-cheek, and helps ground the picture. With its songs and oddities – jars of foreskins, phallic topiary, Christopher Lee in drag – this could have all too easily descended into farce. It is a testament to its creators, and actors, that it doesn’t.

Speaking of actors, The Wicker Man is headed up by two brilliant performances. Edward Woodward’s work as devout police sergeant Howie is truly great, a slow-build of frustration and indignation. By the end, when his fate is known, it goes beyond the norm into something strangely mythic, and every line becomes classic, even when he’s yelling about “damned apples”. And then there is Christopher Lee, never-finer than as the droll Lord Summerisle, clearly relishing toying with Howie. The relationship between the two of them is one of cinema’s most enjoyable, and the scenes in which Summerisle calmly answers Howie’s aghast questions are delightful. “Do sit down, Sergeant. Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent.”

If anything mars the film, frustratingly, it’s how famous the ending is, pictured frequently on the cover of most of the re-releases for at-home audiences. I had the pleasure of seeing it unknowing for the first time, and the effect was electrifying. Hardy’s direction of those final scenes still works well, building to a spine-chilling crescendo. Okay, sure, the clue’s in the title, but the film does play better if you don’t know for sure just how far Summerisle and his villagers are prepared to take their “game”.

But even this is the most minor complaint. I’ve watched The Wicker Man now probably a dozen times or more. It’s still fantastic fun. It’s become a ritual for me to watch it as close to the start of May every year as I can – May Day itself preferably. It feels fitting to treat the film in this way, so concerned as it is with ceremonies . I’ve got the soundtrack album, all those wonderful, strange folk songs. I’ve got the T-shirt. I’m considering hunting out the original poster… You could say, I suppose, that I’m a fan. Almost every scene has some curious highlight to relish or memorable line of dialogue. And then there’s Willow’s song. Britt Ekland and her body double. Sgt Howie is a strong-willed man, if nothing else.

Sod objectivity, the best British film. Not seen it? Make an appointment.

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