31 Days of Halloween #8: The Wicker Man (1973)

Who made it?: Robin Hardy (Director), Anthony Shaffer (Writer), Peter Snell (Producer), British Lion Films.

Who’s in it?: Edward Woodward, Dianne Cilento, Ingrid Pitt, Britt Eckland, Christopher Lee.

Tag-line: “Flesh to touch…Flesh to burn! Don’t keep the Wicker Man waiting!”

IMDb rating: 7.7/10.


Genres are silly things. Why so many people feel the need to uphold and adhere to them so religiously is beyond me. They’re simplistic, arbitrary, restrictive and creatively stultifying. That’s why it’s so refreshing to come across a film such as The Wicker Man, a film that altogether defies classification. Of course it wouldn’t do to give the film it’s very own section in HMV under the heading of “?”, and so it’s been rather unimaginatively branded as a “horror.” Frequently cited as one of the greatest horror films of all time, even dubbed by one magazine as “The Citizen Kane of horror movies,” The Wicker Man’s credentials as a spine-chiller are beyond dispute. But how often do you see it listed as one of the greatest musicals of all time? When was the last time you introduced it to a friend as a great fantasy film? Or as a theological drama? Art director Seamus Flannery put it best when he said, “It was written as a melodrama, shot as a musical, and it won the science fiction award of the year.”

Director Robin Hardy on the other hand, describes it as a film fantastique, a genre that is probably unfamiliar to people who don’t speak French. Hardy explains, “A film fantastique can have almost anything in it, it’s based on facts but it can take flights of fancy which are still rooted to the truth, to the reality of the story, so the imagination can roam.” The film is all of these things, but for me it will always be first and foremost a brilliant comedy, albeit a somewhat dark one. I realise that to label it thus is just as reductionist and potentially misleading as those who rave about it being a spooky horror film, but I feel that the film’s humour is an aspect that is often unfairly and inexplicably overlooked, so I feel justified in focusing on it here for a while.

Surely I can’t be the only person who finds the whole thing utterly hilarious? (apart from that bit at the end). And I’m not talking about unintentional comedy here (I’ll save that for the Nicolas Cage remake). No, nothing about this film is unintentional; every last detail of it is deliberately and beautifully orchestrated to produce the desired effect. And for me that effect is, more often than not, great amusement.

The entire premise of the film seems almost as though it is geared for laughs: a puritanical, staunch Roman Catholic policeman (Edward Woodward) upon receiving a letter, goes to investigate reports of a missing girl on a remote island, the inhabitants of which all practice the old pagan religion and openly celebrate sexuality and the “regenerative forces” in lascivious public displays. If that isn’t a recipe for hilarity then I don’t know what is. But this is no Carry On style romp, no, cheap gags are not what this film is about. It’s all played perfectly straight and the comedy seems to emerge as a natural result of the absurd scenario that has been set out, rather than as a product of any overt intentions on the part of the filmmakers to tickle people’s funny bones. If you take ancient rites and beliefs and tear them from the pages of the history books and put them into a modern-day setting, then the resulting disparity will naturally cause amusement, just from the sheer unexpectedness and absurdity of it.

Once upon a time it was probably perfectly normal to treat a whooping-cough by holding a toad in your mouth until it cures you, but when we see this behaviour carried out upon a small girl in a supposedly modern, present day town… well, it’s hilarious isn’t it. The same thing goes for the local chemist’s, which displays a large jar, cheerfully labelled “foreskins” as though they were penny sweets. The film is littered with such peculiarities but the real laughs are to be had not so much from the bizarre behaviours and objects in themselves, but from the knowledge that all of these indecencies are being witnessed, with increasing horror, by our pristine protagonist Sgt Howie, who is barely able to contain his self-righteous outrage. Much amusement is to be had at the expense of Sgt Howie and his hopelessly old-fashioned and prudish ways.

One of my favourite exchanges in the film is between Sgt Howie and the island’s figurehead and spiritual leader, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). After witnessing an act of godless depravity, namely an ancient ritual involving girls dancing naked through a fire, Howie tells Summerisle in no uncertain terms that he does not approve of what he sees. Summerilse explains that they are a deeply religious people and that the children love their “divinity” lessons. Howie replies with incredulity, “But they are… are NAKED!,” to which Summerisle brilliantly replies, “Naturally! It’s much too dangerous to jump through fire with their clothes on!”

Many of Howie’s enquiries around the island are met with similarly whimsical responses, and he is constantly exasperated by the islander’s refusal to take matters seriously and their reluctance to co-operate with his investigation. It increasingly feels as though this is all just one big game to them, and Howie is not amused. Nowhere in the film is this better demonstrated than in the classroom scene. A mortified Sgt. Howie watches as the young girls learn of the symbolic significance of the maypole in the upcoming May Day celebrations. Basically it’s a giant cock. After this he explains that he is searching for a girl called Rowan Morrison who has been reported missing. He hands out a photo of the girl to be passed around the classroom and writes her name on the board. The girls deny all knowledge of this Rowan character and the teacher confirms that she is not, and has never been a pupil in this school (the only one on the island).

This is not the first time that the very existence of the girl has been doubted by the islanders, in fact they seem to be in unanimous agreement that she’s not a resident of the island, and even Rowan’s supposed mother denies that she has a daughter of that name. Howie is highly suspicious of the veracity of these claims, after all someone must have sent him that letter, and after witnessing (what he perceives to be) the degenerate, sacrilegious practices of these people, he begins to suspect that Rowan may have met a sticky end at the hands of pagan barbarity, and that the entire island is complicit in the perpetration and cover-up of this heinous crime. Bloody heathens indeed.

But Howie isn’t going to take any shit from a bunch of girls… “Liars! You are despicable liars!” he proclaims with indignation after having found Rowan Morrison’s name on the school register, “Rowan Morrison is a schoolmate of yours isn’t she? And that is her desk, isn’t it?” Proceeding towards the vacant desk, convinced that this time he’s caught them out, he expects to find the evidence that has so far evaded him but upon opening it he is presented with an absurd and somewhat grotesque sight, a beetle attached by a piece of thread to a nail that is stuck into the desk. “The little old beetle goes round and round” one of the girls explains somewhat sadistically, “always the same way you see, until he ends up right up tight to the nail, poor old thing.” She might as well be describing Sgt. Howie. He is the helpless beetle tirelessly ploughing onward, unaware that his every move is being overseen and orchestrated by some sort of malevolent force.

And that’s where the “horror” element comes in; there’s a pervasive sense of something very sinister underlying all the frivolity and games, we laugh but feel somewhat uneasy about doing so.  This balance is crucial, it would have been a far lesser film had it pursued exclusively either the horror route or the comedy route. The film isn’t interested in being either of these things and as a result it transcends both. If it had gone the comedy route then either the islanders would have been made ridiculous, or Sgt. Howie would have. Someone would need to be the butt of all the jokes, someone for us to laugh at and feel superior to. But although there are some laughs at the expense of the islanders and of Howie, both parties are ultimately portrayed sympathetically and fairly. Similarly if the film had gone out of its way to be a conventional horror then the portrayal of islanders would likely have been distorted to exaggerate their grotesque and menacing characteristics at the expense of their humanity.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is its refusal to demonise or to mock or to condemn any of it’s characters. Sgt. Howie may be a pompous, prissy old prude, but the film respects him and so do we. He has a strong moral code and he stands by it no matter what, and although we may disagree with some (or all) of his views and beliefs, we nevertheless admire his integrity and steadfastness in the face of adversity and temptation. He is our rock in an unfamiliar and somewhat unsettling world.

Which faith is right?

The islanders similarly are portrayed sympathetically, despite their bizarre behaviours and questionable beliefs (arguably no more questionable than Sgt. Howie’s). The filmmakers painstakingly researched ancient Pagan rituals and traditions in order to depict as accurately as possible an authentic pagan society. It would have been so easy to ridicule or demonise these people but rather they are shown to be intelligent, amiable and artistic, and they appear to live in harmony with nature and each other. So much was the commitment to authenticity that director Robin Hardy announced part way through filming that they were now making a musical so as to emphasise the importance of song and dance in the old religion.

This has to have been one of the best decisions ever made in the history of film. Paul Giovanni’s folk compositions are exquisite. Without these songs the film would have been just another run of the mill, cookie-cutter erotic, paganistic mystery thriller, but with them it attains a sort of transcendence and becomes one of the immortals of cinema. I can think of very few film soundtracks that enrapture me so utterly as this one (Once Upon a Time in the West and Blade Runner spring to mind). I fear I will only fail miserably if I attempt to convey the essence of the music through words, so I shan’t attempt. If you’ve seen the film then you’ll know what I’m talking about, and if you haven’t then you’re an awful person. Suffice to say that the music has a profound effect and causes us, the viewers to experience a sort of reverence for the islanders and their way of life, sometimes against our better judgement.

The fact that both sides are portrayed sympathetically and with such clemency means that the viewer is not steered towards a predetermined conclusion as we are in so many other films, we are left entirely to come to our own conclusions, to make our own judgements and to take away our own personal meanings. And I bet that every person who has ever seen the film will have an interpretation that is different from everyone else’s. And they’re all right. Christopher Lee said it best, “The great value of this picture is that there is something for everyone in it, it operates on so many different levels, and it’s totally acceptable in all areas, at all levels.” Some may interpret it as a radical attack on the institution of the church and the established order, while others may see it as a reactionary condemnation of the excesses and irresponsibility of the counter-culture and the “flower-power” generation. There are probably those who view it as a demonstration of the folly of blind faith in all it’s forms, while others still might enjoy it as “just a bit of fun.” All of these interpretations and more are valid but I try to resist the temptation to pigeonhole the film into this or that ideology or world-view because for me that just cheapens what is an endlessly fascinating, complex, haunting, hilarious, fucking weird, and profoundly moving experience.

However, if I had to pick sides then I’d have to agree with director Robin Hardy when he says, (spoiler alert) “The idea that kind of happy, singing, loving society could come back, and the only price would be that we’d have to burn the occasional policeman, well I think it’d be pretty good!”

The Aftermath

The Wicker Man received only moderate success upon its initial release and soon slipped into obscurity. Over the years however it has garnered a rabid cult following, evidence of which can be found in an event that I shall be attending on Saturday at a local independent cinema called “Sing-a-long-a-Wicker-Man.” I expect many people will dress up as their favourite characters, and I understand that we shall be taught the actions to the maypole dance, be provided with a pagan hymn book featuring lyrics to the songs, and a goody bag containing, among other things, edible foreskins.

The film sparked a revival of interest in the ancient practices and beliefs of paganism, as evidenced in the popularity of such events as the week-long Burning Man festival, described as “an experiment in community, radical self-expression, and radical self-reliance,” held annually in Black Rock Desert in Nevada.

In 2006 a terrible thing happened. The Wicker Man was “remade” with Nicolas Cage as the lead. Sitting through the film is a tortuous experience but it is lightened every now and then by a few moments of unintentional comedy gold, including Cage in a bear costume, punching a woman in the face.

Useless Trivia

  • The original negative of the film, including unseen outtakes, was lost in the mid 70s when Shepperton Studios was bought by new owners, and it was ordered that the vaults be cleared out to get rid of all the old stuff. The negative has never been found and it has been rumoured that it was used as landfill and buried under the M3 motorway.
  • If you remove all of the letter “D”s from Edward Woodward’s name, he becomes Ewar Woowar.
  • Christopher Lee acted in the film for free, and he has often described it as by far the best film he has ever starred in, and the best role he’s ever had.
  • In 2011, director Robin Hardy released a follow-up to the film called The Wicker Tree. It may or may not be shit.
  • Beech Buchan is protected by the ejaculation of serpents.
  • When filming the final scene, Edward Woodward was pissed on by a goat.
  • That isn’t Britt Eckland’s real ass.

About Andy Howlett

I make films and shit with Deadly Serious Productions. Here they are: www.deadlyseriousproductions.co.uk
This entry was posted in Movies and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 31 Days of Halloween #8: The Wicker Man (1973)

  1. Pingback: 31 Days of Halloween #7: Halloween (1978) | SquabbleBox.co.uk – Entertainment Under Attack

  2. Terrific analysis – I think you’ve done a tremendous job putting your finger on what makes “The Wicker Man” so elusive & menacing.

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