Why The Wicker Man Rocks

It’s one of the 10 best British movies ever made, and it’s as brilliant as it’s barmy. ANDREW JOHNSTONE reckons this unusual, haunting and plain odd film is unjustly neglected.

 

We are browsing the JB Hi-Fi on Barton Street in Hamilton when I happen across The Wicker Man – The Directors Cut. I turn to Steve and ask if he has seen it. “Yeah. It was bloody awful. I hate Nicolas Cage and that stupid thing with the bees at the end…” I have no idea what he’s talking about, but the clue is on the display right there in front of me. I pull it down and see it’s a remake. I had no idea. “Nah, I’m not talking about that, I am talking about this,” I say, thrusting the DVD case at him. He glances at the cover and blurb on the back. “Any good?” he asks.

“Good?” I say. “It’s a bloody masterpiece. One of the 10 greatest British films ever.” Then unable to help myself, I launch into the story of Robin Hardy (1929-2016) and his remarkable film. As I am finishing up, we are approached by a late middle-ager who says, “I don’t mean to interrupt but I overheard your conversation and thought I might introduce myself.” He turns out to be one of Robin Hardy’s sons (one of eight Hardy siblings), an English implant into Hawkes Bay who is in Hamilton on business. “Dad is making a sequel as we speak”. I went home and Googled it and sure enough, he was.

The Wicker Tree was released in 2011 but I only lasted to the 15-minute mark. It was dull and plodding and though the retrograde stylistic homage to late 1960s Hammer films was intriguing, it was wasn’t enough to keep me locked in. Still, it hardly mattered. Hardy made three films, the other being the underwhelming 1986 serial killer thriller The Fantasist, but to have directed something as singular and wondrous as The Wicker Man (1973) – described by one critic as the Citizen Kane of horror films – is achievement enough for anyone.

Christopher Lee (1922-2015) made over 200 films in a career that spanned six decades. Best know for his work at Hammer Horror, he also managed to fit in numerous big money franchises like Star WarsThe HobbitThe Lord Of The Rings and Bond.

The Wicker Man was Edward Woodward’s vehicle, not Lee’s, but his compelling second act performance as Lord Summerisle (leader of a Pagan cult) helps to lift the film to heights it might have missed with a less idiosyncratic actor. Lee called it “My best film,” but received no pay for his performance. (The studio was in trouble, and such was his belief in the project that he did whatever he could to see it through). Lee’s faith in the film was such that his endorsement kept the legend alive through those years where it might have disappeared into the void. And it came close.

Hardy’s finished product met the same fate of as many distinctive films often do with the studio demanding some ‘narrative adjustments’ to make the film ‘more commercial’, as well as insisting that some 20 minutes be cut from the length. Hardy reluctantly agreed to most of this, though he stood firm against changing the ending to ‘something a little more upbeat’.

Dismayed by the final result, Hardy began his campaign to restore the film to its original form in the mid-1970s, but had to wait until 2001 when French studio Canal+ acquired the international distribution rights and proved sympathetic to his cause. But he faced numerous hurdles, the least of which was loss of much of the source material. In the end, various film prints and video versions provided Hardy with all the requisite scenes and a restored narrative was released in 2013.

Edward Woodward (1930-2009) was the chain-smoking star of hit British TV spy thriller Callan (1967-72) and was chosen for the lead role of Sergeant Howie ahead of name film stars like Michael York and David Hemmings. He was a surprising choice but his ability to maintain a state of ‘controlled intensity’ throughout the film was the perfect fit for the virtuous Sergeant who is sent to an isolated island in the Scottish Hebrides to investigate the disappearance of a girl. His quest for truth becomes a trail of the soul as his Christian faith goes head to head with humanity’s darkest primordial tendencies. Summerisle is not the rural idyll it appears to be.

In a way, The Wicker Man is a take on the Biblical New Testament story of the 40 dark days and nights of the soul Jesus spent in the desert as he tried to come to terms with who and what he was. A virtuous man otherwise disinterested in ‘worldly’ things is tempted by an immoral force determined to break him for the sheer satisfaction of the act, and Howie is sorely tempted, most notably by Willow the innkeeper’s daughter (all kinds of metaphors at work here) played by Britt Ekland, the film’s other notable star turn.

Bond girl and relic of an age when female stars were blatantly marketed for their sex appeal, those are indeed “my breasts” on display, she confirmed in a 2013 interview, “but not my bottom. I was never comfortable with my bottom – it was a bit big – and my contract stipulated that I was not to be filmed from behind for the nude dancing scenes. I was shocked when they hired someone to be my bottom double”. The film was not a great experience for her, and the go-to sex symbol of her time was baffled by both Lee and Woodward, who showed no interest in her naked body during the shoot. “Dour men,” she said of them. That aside, she is excellent in the film, and certainly more than the sum of her ‘parts’.

But a successful film is more than its director and cast. It is a happy confluence of talent, which in this case included the cinematographer Harry Waxman (Brighton Rock), choice of film stock (the super-heightened colour tone of the film offers an appropriate otherworldly sensation that accentuates the rural idyll of Summerisle), film editor, producer and of course, the writer.

Anthony Shaffer (1926-2001) was skilled screenwriter and author (Hitchcock’s Frenzy, classic thriller Sleuth and Hollywood mega hit Sommersby are among his works) who adapted David Pinner’s novel Ritual for the film while successfully blending in elements from The Golden Bough – anthropologist James Frazer’s classic study of mythology and religion. But this list excludes one notable element, the music. Yes, halfway through what was becoming a ‘fraught’ production, Hardy announced to one and all that from this point on he was making a musical.

One of the film’s grand delights is the soundtrack, which was finally released as a standalone album in 1998, a mono version lifted straight off the film. In 2002 everything was finally set right and Paul Giovanni’s (1933-1990) eclectic collection of instrumentals and songs (some traditional and others composed especially for the film) were properly rendered, mixed and mastered in glorious stereo. One of the standout tracks Willow’s Song has gone on to to find of a life of its own and has been covered by numerous artists, including the Mediæval Bæbes, Doves, Faith And The Muse, Isobel Campbell, and the Sneaker Pimps.

 

The Maypole Song from The Wicker Man 1972

Willow’s Song from The Wicker Man – Performed by Britt Ekland sung by Rachel Verney.

 

By the end of the 1960s, the cult of LSD had irreconcilably altered the minds of young filmmakers, set designers, writers and cinematographers. The camera had been ripped from the tripod and caution had been thrown to the wind. This new wave of cinema was examining society in ways that previous generations of filmmakers could only have envisioned in their wildest musings.

The Wicker Man is a confronting lysergic hallucination that explores the dark recesses of the human psyche, but more than that, it purposely eschews the blood, gore and guts of the standard horror format in favour of something more insidious – an exposition of traditional superstitious mores that can twist and warp a community’s sensibilities to the point where community has itself becomes the beast it is seeking to contain through its ritual.

The film’s conclusion is shocking but compelling. Your eyes are drawn into the spectacle, and while some part of you is horrified at what you are seeing, another part is gleefully rejoicing in the insanity of it all. More than just a ‘horror’, this is a subversive, artful and daring psychological exposition. Otherwise it is just plain bonkers, and I mean this as a compliment.

After The Wicker Man, Woodward tackled Australian Boer War biopic Breaker Morant (1980) to great acclaim before heading to America where as McCall, a kind of vigilante good guy, he filled the drivers seat of hit TV series The Equalizer from 1985-89. Hardy was working on the third and final instalment of what he was calling the ‘Wicker Trilogy’ in 2016 when he died suddenly, aged 86.

As for the film, why is it so great? As neatly as Citizen Kane deconstructed the American dream, so does The Wicker Man similarly examine Britain’s self-eulogising mythology. Sometimes, the ‘actuality’ is best examined as metaphor and The Wicker Man exhumes the entirety of a people succinctly and says hardly a literal word in the process. That takes some doing. Like Citizen Kane – widely regarded as on of the best three of four films ever made – The Wicker Man is unique, daring and innovative and like Kane it is a joy to watch over and again with something new to discover with each new pass.

 

 

 

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