The Wicker Man (1973)

Posted: August 14, 2013 in Favorite Films
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45. The Wicker Man (1973)

Director: Robin Hardy

Starring: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento, Ingrid Pitt

It doesn’t happen as often as I would like, but every now and then I stumble upon something truly unique. Based in part on David Pinner’s 1967 horror novel “Ritual,” it’s really difficult to classify a movie like Robin Hardy’s “The Wicker Man” as it never really conforms to one specific genre. At different points, it is alternately mysterious, amusing, musical, erotic, and finally horrific. Above all, symbolism and religion figure heavily in the progression of the story.

The action all takes place on the island of Summerisle, located off the coast of Scotland. Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) has traveled there by means of a single-passenger plane to investigate the disappearance of a young resident of the island named Rowan Morrison. Howie is presented as a man who emphasizes the importance of rules and regulations, has no time for fun and games, and is generally a real stick in the mud. This is our protagonist; the hero character. Also a devout Christian, it comes as a serious shock to Sgt. Howie when he is introduced to the Pagan society of Summerisle. Among the sights and sounds that offend him are lewd tavern songs and public fornication. His piety is put to the test one night when, from the next room, the landlord’s daughter Willow (Britt Ekland) attempts to seduce him into a sexual encounter. She is the Siren to his Odysseus. Somehow, Sgt. Howie resists the very strong temptation.

What Howie is most frustrated by is what he perceives to be a deliberate attempt on the part of the island’s populace to subvert his investigation at every turn. When he comes to the local school to find some answers, the teacher (Diane Cilento) is evasive. Sgt. Howie notices an empty desk, which he discovers is allocated to the missing girl. Inside, instead of school supplies, he finds a beetle tied to a string that has been nailed down. The beetle runs around, always in the same direction, until it is right up against the nail and can go no further. It confuses and saddens Howie that children could be so cruel to an insect. What poor Sgt. Howie doesn’t yet realize is that, metaphorically, he’s the beetle.

Eventually, his investigation leads him to the master of the island, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), who is cooperative in regards to the investigation and calmly offers his counterpoint when it comes to Sgt. Howie’s confusion over why the islanders have not heard the word of Jesus Christ. Although the testimony offered by Lord Summerisle leads to another dead end, Howie remains determined to solve the case. His path leads him to the history of the May Day ritual, which decrees that a sacrifice must be offered to the Gods the year following a crop failure. The crops failed badly the year before, and Sgt. Howie believes he now knows why Rowan has gone missing. Though the movie’s ending is fairly predictable, it is no less stirring. The overall impression I get from this movie is that it favors neither Christianity nor Paganism, as both are shown to have their strongpoints as well as their flaws. Since the movie does not take sides then, should the audience do so? That is an answer that is truly left up to the individual.

As mentioned earlier, the movie does have a lot of music to it, moreso than you would normally expect from a horror film. Paul Giovanni’s soundtrack contains several folk songs of great importance to the narrative. Highlights include “Corn Rigs,” “Maypole,” “The Landlord’s Daughter,” and “Willow’s Song.”

The production history of “The Wicker Man” is almost as unique as the movie itself. British Lion Films was in dire financial troubles, and the movie was put together on a very small budget. Some involved with the project willingly worked without pay, wanting very dearly to see that the movie could be made. EMI bought out the studio upon the film’s completion and studio execs demanded an upbeat ending. But Hardy refused, and the compromise was that the movie would be trimmed by about 20 minutes. Despite being dismayed by the changes, actor Christopher Lee (who considers Lord Summerisle his greatest role) encouraged people to go see the now 88-minute cut of “The Wicker Man.” Over time, the reels of the first version of the film became lost. A 99-minute cut was later compiled to more closely resemble Robin Hardy’s first cut, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2013 (some forty years after the film’s initial release) that the long lost footage of the original cut was finally found and prepared for home video release.

No matter which version of the movie you watch, “The Wicker Man” is no ordinary horror movie… no, strike that. It is no ordinary movie, and is guaranteed to be an unforgettable experience.

  1. vinnieh says:

    Great post, that final scene really lingers in the memory.

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