FILM REVIEW: The Wicker Man (1973)

The Wicker Man (UK, 1973)
Directed by Robin Hardy

Starring Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland

Beneath the glittering skin of their acclaim, many of our most celebrated films have a dark underbelly, a troubled history or strange aura surrounding them which may explain or undermine their status. Sometimes such knowledge can render a film like Smaug the Dragon: spectacular and threatening at first glance, but ultimately vulnerable to attack. But with The Wicker Man, these tall tales and strange stories are just the clues we need in attempting to discover which makes this film so great.Any film which gets branded "the Citizen Kane of horror movies" has an awful lot to live up to. Quite apart from the blinding hyperbole in this statement, it's also an odd description considering that The Wicker Man for the most part isn't a horror movie at all. It has a loose connection with the giallo tradition of pulpy horror-thrillers, having been paired with Don't Look Now when first released. But The Wicker Man's visuals are much more downbeat and naturalistic, and the horror comes less from expression than from suggestion, cultivating a sense of creeping, shapeless dread which threatens to engulf everything.At its heart, The Wicker Man is a mystery film, with some of the more introspective elements of film noir but very little of that genre's visual style. Its low-budget aesthetic and initial focus on police procedure mean that it could pass off as an extended episode of Z-Cars, and Edward Woodward's character is a classic old-fashioned copper in the mould of Dixon of Dock Green. He is a pillar of the community with entrenched moral values, quick to make his opinions known and never taking 'no' for an answer.

But the film to which The Wicker Man owes the greatest debt, structurally speaking, is the Powell and Pressburger romantic drama I Know Where I'm Going!. Both films begin with the premise of our central character taking a journey to a mysterious place with a very clear purpose - Joan Webster to get married, Sergeant Howie to find the missing girl. And the central plot of both films is essentially a McGuffin, designed to keep said characters in one place so that their environment and the characters that populate it can trigger an important change.That is not to say that The Wicker Man doesn't work as a mystery in and of itself. On the contrary, it has to work. Because it doesn't romanticise Scotland in the manner of Powell's film, the plot has to be twisty and murky enough to keep Howie on the island out of his own curiosity. Although there are large mythical elements to the plot, these are not invoked in a broadly fantastical way, and so it simply would not be enough for the weather to be the only thing preventing Howie from going home. As he interviews the locals, gathering conflicting information, we become more engaged with what is going on, partly on an intellectual level as we try to figure it out, but also on an emotional level as we see Howie being utterly repulsed by the entire culture of Summerisle.Using the device of a police officer gathering information to solve a crime, The Wicker Man slowly reveals itself as a compelling and intelligent examination of a clash between two cultures, each being deeply entrenched but also seeming out of place with the real world. Howie's puritanical brand of Christianity is every bit as extreme and farcical as Lord Summerisle's praise for fire-jumping rituals, not to mention the May Day celebrations involving dressing up as Punch and decapitation. The 'paganism' practised by the inhabitants of Summerisle seems archaic and bizarre to our 'enlightened' eyes, but we do not embrace Howie's devoutness as an antidote to this. This is not a film which seeks to discredit paganism in favour of Christianity, or indeed the other way around. Its central purpose is to explore the flaws of both belief systems and their relationship with culture and human nature.Anthony Shaffer wrote The Wicker Man is an examination of different sides of human nature represented by Christianity and paganism. Shaffer's previous screenplay, Sleuth, had explored the idea of class warfare under the pretext that the different classes in the end need each other, and each has its own advantages and disadvantages. It is much the same with The Wicker Man, with paganism standing in for the animalistic side of humanity, which is primal and at one with nature to the point of worshipping it, and Christianity posing as civilisation, with mankind as the dominant force and the bearers of both morality and rationality.Because this symbolism is explored so intelligently, we can forgive the film for not being an entirely accurate depiction of pagan religion. The various rituals and myths in the film are cobbled together from ancient British folklore and scholarship which has long since come into question. But in the end it doesn't really matter that pagan communities don't necessary burn people as offerings to sun gods. What matters is the imagery this conveys, of the animalistic past of mankind lurking deep within each of us and finally exploding forth in a powerful but ultimately pyrrhic gesture.The final sequence with the titular wicker man remains terrifying, not just because of what we see on screen but because of what it conveys symbolically. Seeing a man being burned to death is frightening; the close-ups on Edward Woodward's face as he commits his spirit into God's hands are deeply chilling. This sensation is compounded by the choice of music: while Lord Summerisle leads his followers in a full-blown rendition of 'Sumer Is Icumen In', Howie screams the opening of Psalm 23 as the two deeply opposed belief systems continue to lock horns even in defeat. But as with Christ's death upon the cross, even in defeat there is a twist. If the sacrifice does not work, if the devil's plans do not come off, the people will turn on the devil himself and all that he has worked for will be undone.

The music of The Wicker Man hints at what makes has made the film so compelling for so long. Although there are sections of suspense, or intrigue, or outright horror, the primary mood of the film is one of total oddness. Halfway through the production, Robin Hardy announced to the surprise of everyone that the film was going to be a musical, with Paul Giovanni supplying both original score and several re-workings of English folk songs and nursery rhymes. The songs, coupled with the peculiar colour palette, make The Wicker Man border on the ridiculous, with the tone moving from the bawdy comedy of 'The Landlord's Daughter' to spiritual soul-searching as Howie attempts to pray. Christopher Lee may sing very well, but trying to take the fire-dancing song seriously will get you nowhere.This disparity between the subject and its presentation is what makes The Wicker Man so unusual and so memorable. But it also alludes to the difficult birth it had, in which Hardy's decision to add the songs was the least of its problems. The director, art director and producer fell out constantly, leading the latter to describe the film as being directed "in spite of Robin Hardy" rather than by him. Britt Ekland was incensed that her dialogue had been dubbed and that her nude dancing had been replaced by, in her words, "a big-butted body double". After the film was completed, its distributors cut and lost whole sections of the film, with Christopher Lee accusing British Lion boss Michael Deeley of burying the negatives in motorway landfill. The whole film had an aura of ill will surrounding it which makes it a small miracle that, in its 'director's cut' version (the best that survives), it works as well as it does.The Wicker Man remains a flawed but fascinating cult film which still has the ability to terrify after all these years. Woodward and Lee give excellent performances and the film is a smart and agile examination of sexual, cultural and religious tension, which sustains our interest through both the central mystery and the all-encompassing oddness of how it plays out. While not quite the masterpiece that it is often hailed to be, it remains a triumph of British filmmaking and a career high point for all concerned.

Rating: 4.5/5

Verdict: A fascinating culture-clash fable


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