The Greatness of “The Wicker Man”│ Ben Khamis
We are browsing the HMV at Westfield in London when I happen across The Wicker Man – The Directors Cut. I turn to my friend 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. “No, 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 ten greatest British films ever.” Then unable to help myself I launch into the story of Robin Hardy and his remarkable film. Christopher Lee made over two hundred films in a career that spanned six decades. Best known for his work at Hammer Horror, he also managed to fit in numerous big money franchises like Star Wars, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and Bond.
The Wicker Man was Edward Woodward’s vehicle, not Lee’s, but Lee’s compelling second act performance as Lord Summerisle helps to lift the film to heights it might have missed with a less idiosyncratic actor. Lee called it “My best film” and 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 certainly 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 twenty 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 was the chain-smoking star of hit British TV spy thriller Callan and was chosen for the lead role of Sargent 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 Sargent 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 forty 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 innkeepers daughter (all kinds of metaphors at work here) played by Britt Ekland, the films other notable star turn.
Elkland, a Bond girl and relic of an age when female stars were blatantly marketed for their sex appeal, confirmed that those are indeed “[her] breasts” on display, “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 a shocked when they hired a 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 its Director and cast. It is a happy confluence of talent, which in this case included the cinematographer Harry Waxman, 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 was skilled screenwriter and author 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 the films 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 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 onto to find of a life of its own and has been covered by numerous artists including the Medieval Babes, Doves, Faith and the Muse, Isobel Campbell, and the Sneaker Pimps. By the end of the 1960s, the cult of L.S.D 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 films’ 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 a 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 to great acclaim before heading to America where as McCall, a kind of vigilante good guy, he filled the driver’s 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 one 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. It should be far more widely celebrated than it is.