|Wicker Man, The (1973)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 21 August 2001|
"The Wicker Man" is a cult movie par excellence, much more so than stuff like "Rocky Horror Picture Show," which was always out there in front of everyone. Over a span of almost thirty years, "The Wicker Man" slowly established its reputation; it could hardly do otherwise, as it was so rarely shown anywhere. The informative documentary, "The Wicker Man Enigma," included on the "theatrical cut" disc of this DVD set, explains in interesting detail how the film happened to fall through so many cracks.
Not only was it hard to locate, but when found, you never knew for sure just what version you were going to see. Warners picked the film up for (very scant) theatrical distribution in the U.S., and insisted that it be cut to 88 minutes (the "theatrical cut" included here). But by chance, a longer version had accidentally been preserved, and was used as the basis of a later theatrical release. A longer version <I>yet</I> turned up on a scarce VHS release some years later. In the case of this movie, the longer the better -- but we're never likely to see the version that those who made it preferred, for reasons that seem almost preposterous, but they're true.
Because Anchor Bay did not have access to the best elements for the longer cut in this boxed set, their "extended version" consists of the theatrical cut -- with crisp, near-perfect images -- intercut with the nearly 11 minutes of extra material taken from videotape sources. So you don't have to try to figure out which scenes were removed: the decrease in picture quality is a sure sign. It should be obvious to anyone that the additional scenes, while not absolutely essential, extend and explain the ideas of this surprising movie.
Anthony Shaffer, most famous for "Sleuth," wrote the script, structuring it as a certain kind of mystery, but then at the end twists it into <I>another</i> kind of mystery. The rug is jerked out from under our feet, and we love the movie for it, even as the ending is one of most disturbing to be found in a thriller.
Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) of the Scottish police, we see, is a kind-hearted but priggish man, even virginal, inclined to frown on jokes and frivolity. He receives an anonymous note telling him that Rowan Morrison, a teenage girl living on Summerisle, has been missing for some time. Solemnly seeing her rescue as his duty, he flies to the island, west of Scotland.
Here's the first of the neat tricks played on viewers by Anthony Shaffer and director Robin Hardy: there is no Summerisle. It's entirely fictional, but it's woven into the script and physically depicted so convincingly that we don't even question its reality.
On the island, Howie is disturbed to learn that the locals are no longer Christians, and haven't been for several generations. Instead, they follow the "old religion," the paganism/heathenism of their ancestors, with stone rings, an emphasis on sex and a unity with the Earth, and a desire to propitiate the stern old gods. He's shocked by the lustiness of the islanders, and uncertainly attracted to Willow (Britt Ekland), the landlord's daughter.
Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), the aristocrat who owns the island, is also the leader of their religion, and casually explains to Howie how all of this came to be. But Howie doggedly persists in his investigation into the disappearance of Rowan, following every clue, even going into disguise, until his trail leads him to The Wicker Man.
As with "Phantom of the Paradise," reviewed this month, "The Wicker Man" is unique -- there simply is no other movie like it (except for the minor American TV movie that was a callous, unacknowledged remake). It's not really a horror movie, despite the presence of Christopher Lee; it's something of a mystery thriller, but also something of a musical -- even Lee sings along with Diane Cilento, with pompous joy. The songs, too, annoy the righteous Howie: they're often bawdy ("The Landlord's Daughter"), erotic ("Say How Do"), even spiritually sexual (the Maypole song). The songs and score were under the direction of the late Paul Giovanni, who sings himself, on screen and on a track. It's an excellent collection of authentic (and authentic-sounding) English folk songs, well-chosen and lively and/or sensual.
Chapter 8 has one of Giovanni's songs, interrupted by an extraordinary scene, our first encounter with Christopher Lee. He's brought a young man to Willow to be deflowered; as the boy goes upstairs, Lee bends over a giant leaf, and murmurs lines from Whitman to a pair of copulating snails. Far from being silly, it works in an almost magical way, as Hardy intercuts between the snails, the uncomfortable Howie, and the tavern full of admiring islanders, singing along with Giovanni. This scene is not in the shorter version, which in virtually every way other than sound and picture quality, is the lesser of the two versions. Other good songs are found in Chapter 6, Chapter 9 and Chapter 13, in which naked young women leap over a bonfire.
Woodward was just coming off several years on the "Callan" TV series, in which he played a tough cop in London. He was ideally chosen as Sergeant Howie, both for his ability to suggest indignant moral outrage, and to never quite lose our sympathy, even while we become exasperated with him. Howie is not at all a bad man; in another context, he'd unquestionably be the hero.
Christopher Lee is fond of saying that "The Wicker Man" was his best film, and perhaps he's right; it's certainly one of his finest performances. He has a tendency to be stiff and remote, but here he's transmuted the stiffness into a kind of aristocratic hauteur, while also being relaxed with the townsfolk. He's arrogant at all times, but also charming; the scene in which he explains how Summerisle returned to paganism is fascinating -- Lee is full of pride and conviction, while adding an undertone of faintly mocking disbelief. Even at the end, we're never quite sure if Lord Summerisle believes in this revived old religion, or merely considers it expedient.
The rest of the cast is extremely well chosen, even the non-British Ingrid Pitt and Britt Ekland, but really the show belongs to Woodward and Lee, well-matched both in terms of acting and appearance. The tall, angular Lee -- wearing a tousled blond wig -- and the shorter, stockier Woodward look like natural opponents.
Although Ekland's role is strictly supporting (and she's dubbed throughout), she has her most indelible, unforgettable movie moment here. On Howie's second night on the island (or his first, in the shorter version), she tempts him through the shared wall of their bedroom, softly singing a song (that includes the line "am I not young and fair?" which leads most men watching to sigh), rapping on the walls, occasionally gyrating sensuously. And she's stark naked.
"The Wicker Man" is one of the very few English-language movies to address the concept of Christianity as just another religion; this has made it seem blasphemous to some, fascinating to others, and an utter revelation to those who'd never questioned Christianity's precepts. On top of that, it's a superbly acted, brilliantly written thriller that leads to a climax that mixes in virtually every possible reaction, including laughter.
It's not a particularly well-directed film, however, and it's too bad that producer Peter Snell didn't insist on another director than Robin Hardy, whose experience had mostly been in commercials. Hardy's work isn't bad, but it's not inspired, and only rarely as lyrical or suspenseful as a story like this requires. But it's hard to imagine the film being anything other than it is. "The Wicker Man" isn't exactly a happy accident, and it's not dated in the slightest; it's powerful, engrossing, mysterious, disturbing, amusing, even frightening. If you're at all interested in movies, you should see this at least once. Chances are you'll want to see it again.
(And if you want to do more than see it, there's a book on the making of the film and its unusual aftermath: Inside The Wicker Man: The Morbid Ingenuities by Allan Brown. This is available from Amazon.co.uk.)