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THE WICKER MAN. Extraordinary masterpiece

This is the kind of film that we don’t get to see every day.

EDITORIAL team

12 June 2023

the wicker man christopher lee

Few have been created in the history of such memorable images, enriched with a catchy sound layer. Few movies have been made as perverse and heralding such an original ending as The Wicker Man. A film that the critic of Cinefantastique described as Citizen Kane of Horror.

A plot

the wicker man 1973

It depicts the fate of a police officer, Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward), who goes to the island of Summerisle, off the coast of Scotland, to investigate the missing girl Rowan Morrison. His arrival alone arouses the surprise of the inhabitants of the island and the frustration of the policeman, who cannot find an ear among the natives, who scrupulously follow the rules of Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). His seemingly trivial investigation comes to a halt. The islanders have no recollection of the missing girl being a member of the community, and Mrs. Morrison (Irene Sunters) claims she never had a child named Rowan. However, Sergeant Howie is intrigued by the confession of Mrs. Morrison’s daughter, Myrtle. The girl confesses to him that she knows Rowan, “running all day in the surrounding fields”. Rowan is a hare after all. A complicated investigation forces the policeman to stop at the Green Man Inn, where he meets the bartender’s alluring daughter, Willow (Britt Ekland). He announces the purpose of his visit to Summerisle to the people gathered there. Unfortunately, no one in the inn can recognize the girl in the photo. Disgusted with frivolous feast songs, he goes for a walk around the neighborhood. Just outside the inn, he witnesses a mysterious orgy and sees a naked woman crying over someone’s grave. Upon returning to the inn, he says a prayer before going to bed. Then from behind the door he hears the voice of Willow, who in the next room sings a song naked, trying to tempt and seduce the policeman. Faithful to Christian principles and adhering to the Decalogue, Sergeant Howie successfully passes this test. The next day, he continues his investigation. At school, during Miss Rose’s (Diane Cilento) class, he becomes disturbed by the content of the classes, oscillating around the topic of male genitals. However, he discovers an empty classroom desk, and after a while, although both Miss Rose and the students deny the existence of Rowan Morrison, he finds her journal entry. Such evidence in the case only confirms Sergeant Howie in the belief that there is a secret plot of the inhabitants of the island.

A drama, a horror

the wicker man 1973

Continuing the description of the film, I would run the risk of revealing some important elements of the plot, affecting its subsequent reception. It should only be added that it is by no means a horror film. I think it’s a drama. A mystical drama with a criminal plot, set in quite unusual circumstances. The islanders create a homogeneous community, closed to the world, the law here is Lord Summerisle’s unwritten code, based mainly on religious content. The economy and education are also subordinated to religion. Under such circumstances, Sergeant Howie begins his investigation.

The main character is a staunch Christian. His beliefs about the world, human and divine nature are based on the Bible and the commandments of the Catholic Church. Looking at the island community, he cannot understand it. Instead, he constantly criticizes their behavior, which differs from commonly accepted norms. He refers to them as pagans and barbarians, despite the fact that on the island he may be regarded as such. The spiritual sphere perceived by him is not reflected in the rites and behavior of the islanders. The only support for the negation of this curiosity is a deep faith in the word of the Church, resurrection and eternal life, Eucharistic prayer and the memory of Christ’s grace. However, as it turns out later, these weapons and hope in faith turn against him. He pays for his faith with death. He dies as a martyr. Paradoxically, however, it is our main character, the mainstay of the rule of law and rationalism, who is presented in a distorting mirror. It is from it that all xenophobia, intolerance, limitation and arrogance emanate. The narrow horizons of perceiving the world make him enemies, not friends. The viewer casually defends the pagan faith: bizarre rituals, orgies, adultery, human sacrifice and desecration of holy places. Well, holy, for whom? Since the church on the island lost its function a long time ago, and the cemetery began to play the role of a garden where trees are planted on graves. As Miss Rose says to Sergeant Howie:

A building erected on this land where the bodies rest no longer serves the Christian faith, so it may be debatable to say that it is a church.

the wicker man 1973

Howie, in search of the truth about the missing girl, even goes to Lord Summerisle. He wants to find understanding for the situation in which he finds himself. However, he will leave his house irritated and confused. Talking to the lord will completely confuse him.

(Sr. Howie): But what of the true God, to whose Glory, churches and monasteries have been built on these islands for generations past? Now sir, what of Him?
(Lord Summerisle): He’s dead. He can’t complain. He had His chance and in modern parlance, “blew it.”

The hostility of the outsider towards the residents is reciprocated. His interference seems to be unnecessary, since there was no lawsuit and no accusation. On the other hand, every such case must be resolved.

the wicker man 1973

Production values

The film was made on a grand scale. Photos, music and scenery leave an unforgettable impression. The entire film was shot on location in Scotland, in its south-western part (Creeptown), but also in the Hebrides (Isle of Skye). Interestingly, due to the rush related to the rapidly shrinking budget, most of the filming was done in October, even though the script takes place in May. The flowering trees in the scene with pregnant women dancing are a scenographic device, while the seemingly naked women dancing in the stone circle are in fact dressed because of the cold that prevailed at the time. Lord Summerisle’s Castle is a Culzean castle located in another part of Scotland.

The oneiric work of the camera creates the impression of an unreal world. In combination with religious symbolism, present in almost every scene of the film, it gives it an aura of mysticism. Scenes such as a woman in a ruined church nursing a baby and holding an egg in her right hand, inhabitants putting on animal masks, a night orgy, a sunset procession, and finally a burning effigy of the a wicker man build a world where metaphysics meets reality.

the wicker man 1973

Paul Giovanni’s music refers to traditional Scottish songs and dances, and some songs are even subtle arrangements of the originals. Even bagpipes were used in the instrumentation itself. It should be added that the music is an inseparable part of the film – this is not just a simple soundtrack to a movie, emphasizing the action or mood.

The songs are sung by the actors, sometimes even breaking a fourth wall, as in “Willow’s Song”. This is in my opinion the best song in the whole movie, despite the fact that the Swedish actress, Britt Ekland, is dubbed and doubled in it. Also the songs “Corn Rigs” and “Maypole” are worth mentioning. Similarly, the instrumental music, sometimes gloomy, sometimes comical or pompous, corresponds to the subsequent scenes of the film.

The acting is all over the place. Some creations are masterful, while others leave much to be desired. The director’s lack of experience and steady hand is quite visible here (after all, it was his debut). The star of the film is, of course, Edward Woodward, who plays the main character – Sergeant Howie. He presents this type of the British acting school, which Roman Polański once admired so much. The pinnacle of his acting is the final scene with the famous, horror-filled exclamation “Oh Lord! Oh Jesus Christ!”. Christopher Lee (Lord Summerisle) predictably and understandably also played a great role. His figure of a local guru, combined with openness and indulgence that not every aristocrat can afford, win him fans both in the film and in front of the screen. Added to this is the ease with which he talks to a representative of the law: cold blood and a slightly cynical attitude. Excellent role. Unfortunately, women fare worse. Britt Ekland is clearly unfamiliar with the camera and therefore her acting is quite artificial. There is even a fragment in the film where he looks at the camera, which of course can also be treated as an oversight by the editor. Diane Cilento fares a little better as a teacher, especially when discussing with a police officer at school. The rest of the characters are not clearly distinguished in the film, although each of them is a different, peculiar face. They all make up the panorama of the town’s inhabitants – the bartender, the chemist, May Morrison, the bearded man, the gravedigger, the skipper, the librarian.

the wicker man 1973

A cult

The Wicker Man was released in cinemas in Great Britain in 1973, causing a number of controversies in the local film world. His fame was eclipsed by another film shown at the same time – Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Despite producer Peter Snell’s lack of understanding, the film achieved its anticipated box office success.

In the United States, still under the influence of the slogans of the student revolt of the 1960s, it became a hit in local cinemas and brought huge profits. Soon after the premiere, a circle of devoted fans began to gather around the film, who forced the director to release a longer director’s cut. Director Robin Hardy encountered a number of difficulties in accessing unused shots. It turned out that the producer, who was unfavorable to the film, ordered the tapes to be thrown away along with other, in his opinion, “garbage”. After many vicissitudes, he finally managed to recover these shots. They were owned by the American B-movie mogul, producer and director Roger Corman. The director’s cut, however, is not as good as the cinematic. Despite the in-depth social outline of the inhabitants of Summerisle, it has a number of lengths.

A separate mention deserves the mark left by this film among a large group of its followers. Well, this is a typical example of a cult film. Every year, in the place where the wicker man effigy was burned, a new one is erected and burned. For some time, a magazine devoted to the film has been published, and a number of articles and scientific papers have been published on the subject of fans’ clubs and the film itself. However, what is most remarkable is the fact that the film’s cult has taken on a real form. In the 1980s, the Wicker Man religious group, Followers of Nuad – the Sun God, was founded.

It is also worth mentioning the information provided by the director at the beginning of the film:

The Producer would like to thank The Lord Summerisle and the people of his island off the west coast of Scotland for this privileged insight into their religious practices and for their generous co-operation in the making of this film

Of course, this is a marketing ploy to arouse curiosity in the viewer. However, those unfamiliar with the subject may believe this director’s wink.

the wicker man 1973

The afterlife

I’m afraid this is the only film of its kind where the production crew met only once on set, left behind a somewhat bizarre, mesmerizing creation, and then each of its members went their separate ways.

Director Robin Hardy has made only one film since The Wicker Man, and there are only two feature films in his entire oeuvre. Composer Paul Giovanni began and ended his adventure with film music on The Wicker Man. Harry Waxman, in charge of the camera work, continued his career in mediocre horror films, but also on Blake Edwards’ The Pink Panther. A recognized screenwriter at the time, responsible for the screenplay for A. Hitchcock’s Frenzy and J.L. Mankiewicz’s Sleuth, Anthony Shaffer settled on adaptations of Agatha Christie novels, while actor Edward Woodward began playing supporting roles in television films. The ex-wife of Peter Sellers and Rod Stewart’s lover, Britt Ekland, immediately after playing the role of Willow in Wicker Man, landed a role in the adventures of James Bond and starred with Christopher Lee in The Man with the Golden Gun. Unfortunately, she didn’t make the most of her five minutes in showbiz and later ended up in B-comedies and horror films. Diane Cilento, who played the role of the teacher, also failed to excel in above-average productions, divorced Sean Connery the year she starred in The Wicker Man to marry… Anthony Shaffer 12 years later. Only Christopher Lee, the titan of the big screen, the record-breaking star, continued his work on the set, experiencing a renaissance in the films of Peter Jackson and George Lucas.

Much could be said about this outstanding and phenomenal work. To confirm my assessment of its unique character, I will quote Christopher Lee himself, who, having played in over 200 films, once said that “this is probably the best role I’ve ever played”.

The article was written by Tomasz Jamry. 

EDITORIAL team

EDITORIAL team

We're movie lovers who write for other movie lovers!

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