The Wicker Man
1973 / 1.85 : 1 / 93 Min.
Starring Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland
Written by Anthony Shaffer
Directed by Robin Hardy
While away on assignment in Scotland, a melancholy company man experiences a life-changing, and possibly supernatural, transformation. This tale of magic and metamorphosis isn’t Bill Forsyth’s utopian Local Hero but Robin Hardy’s apocalyptic The Wicker Man, the story of a god-fearing detective named Neil Howie. The lonesome hot shot of Forsyth’s film is given a new lease on life but for Howie there’s no such reward—just a whiff of fire and brimstone as his dreams go up in smoke.
The title card reads “Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man“, suggesting that the famed playwright was a more than equal partner along alongside Hardy and the film’s producer, Peter Snell. Shaffer based his screenplay on David Pinner’s Rituals, a 1967 novel about a puritanical police officer’s search for a missing Cornish child. But both Shaffer and Hardy downplayed the role of the book in plotting their story—Hardy claimed to remember only the enigmatic presence of “the hare.” Indeed, that rabbit is a central player in the narrative, in fact it’s omnipresent; in candy shops, children’s drawings, and, as it happens, graveyards. Sergeant Howie, The Wicker Man‘s benighted protagonist, has just arrived in Summerisle to find a vanished girl named May Morrison—and he’s too distracted to see that the key to the mystery resides with that omniscient bunny, the Pagan’s symbol of rebirth.
The townsfolk are in no hurry to help him—and even in the happiest of circumstances a man like Howie would be met with stony silence—his arrogance and entitlement add an extra layer of menace to his curt inquiries and he’s not shy about threatening teachers in the classroom and barking orders at the villagers, especially in the midst of their revelries. And there are a lot of revelries—say what you will about this seaside community of snaggletoothed fishermen and ruddy-faced washerwomen, it’s a very randy crew; the peninsula is littered with libertines coupling in the fields, canoodling in the alleyways, and, like one of one of Sondheim’s maids, “wriggling in the anteroom and giggling in the dining room.”
The public houses offer another stronghold for all this lechery, in particular the The Green Man, a popular boozing shed given to hosting impromptu bacchanals and bawdy singalongs—the kind of merrymaking that gives a prig like Howie the cold sweats. The most entrancing party animal is Willow MacGregor, a Shindig dancer masquerading as a local barmaid and played by an ultra-modish Britt Ekland. Willow is the innkeepers daughter—and if it looks like her daddy is serving her up along with the Guinness, that’s because he is.
Howie has established impromptu headquarters in a room just above that barroom and because of his spartan lifestyle, he travels light, with just a small photo of the lost girl as a reminder of his mission, and a crucifix and Bible for strength—a righteous resolve that has kept him a virgin for over forty years and will be tested again when the naked Willow puts on a show in the adjoining room—thumping the walls and cooing sweet nothings under the door sill. She’s almost successful in her efforts to bed the chaste inspector but Howie remains strong (and frankly clueless); his nerve-wracked reaction recalls the similarly tempted cleric’s panicked exclamation in Fred Schepisi’s The Devil’s Playground; “They nearly had me!”
To the pagans who make up the community of this chilly Scottish village, Willow’s erotic offensive is merely part of a bigger game they’re playing, and it’s a fun one to boot—you can tell by their constant laughter that this is a happy colony, receiving as much joy from their iconoclastic beliefs as Howie professes to receive from his Christian servitude. The gulf between the two factions and the nature of faith itself is the real mystery at the heart of this movie and the principle source of conflict in Shaffer’s story; the second Howie touches land we know he’s outmatched in this culture clash, though Shaffer himself isn’t placing bets on either side—he’s happy to sit on the sidelines and watch the strong devour the weak.
Shaffer made his fortune with Sleuth, a convoluted amusement headlined by two rogues engaged in a game of mutual humiliation and murder. And so it is with Howie, a deeply religious Holmes in a battle of wits with Lord Summerisle, a heretical Moriarty. Edward Woodward plays Howie and Christopher Lee is Summerisle, the figurehead and inspiration of his pagan flock. The duo’s not-so playful jousting recalls the political battlefield of the sixties—straights vs. hippies—and like those Summer of Love warriors, Woodward and Lee are defined by their costumes—a crisp policeman’s uniform for Howie, a series of garishly picaresque costumes (celebrating his free thinker status) for Lord Summerisle—but they’re both alike in one thing, their absolute fealty to their belief systems.
The Yin and Yang act put on by these two formidable actors lends the film much of its humor and sardonic energy, even though the movie becomes repetitive in its third act as the inevitable becomes ever more inevitable (the show could end ten minutes before it actually does). Hardy follows Shaffer’s cooly equitable approach toward the characters; he shows zero affection for the pious Howie and only a tip of the hat in the direction of Summerisle, a happy-go-lucky horticulturist who would cut your throat if it meant an extra ear of corn for his all-important harvest (pagans are like that). Hardy’s hands-off attitude recalls John Huston’s work on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre where the director kept a discreet distance and allowed Bogart and company to “stew in their own juice.” Lee in particular gives perhaps the juiciest performance of his career.
Imprint, an Australian home video company, has built a monument to The Wicker Man. A box set aimed at satisfying the true Wickermaniac, it contains four discs; three Blu rays and one cd containing three alternative cuts of the film and Paul Giovanni’s score. The first disc contains two versions of the film, The Theatrical Cut and The Director’s Cut. The Theatrical Cut boasts a feature length commentary with Kim Newman and Sean Hogan. On the second Blu ray is The Final Cut—supposedly the most faithful version of the film in existence and it comes with commentary from Vic Pratt and Will Flower. The third Blu ray contains a version of The Director’s Cut in standard definition with a feature-length commentary featuring Hardy, Lee, and Woodward.
All the transfers are quite fine, though the insertion of extra footage in some of the versions results in a few moments of substandard image quality. What would really weigh this thing down if it were a book rather than a Blu ray is the staggering amount of supplemental materials—contemporaneous and current documentaries, interviews, trailers, and other ephemera that put a magnifying glass over every aspect of the Hardy/Shaffer classic. A few of the highlights:
Burnt Offering: The Cult of The Wicker Man – Mark Kermode’s exhaustive examination of the film, the actors and the production.
The Music of The Wicker Man – A deep dive into Paul Giovanni’s soundtrack.
An episode of a New Orleans television series, Critic’s Choice, in which host/critic Sterling Smith interviews both Robin Hardy and Christopher Lee. At the end of the program Lee is given a chance to sing one of the songs from the film and it’s one of the high points of the whole set, completely charming.
The Wicker Man Enigma is an archival documentary about the production of The Wicker Man bolstered by interviews with Shaffer, Hardy, and other cast members.
Willow’s Song & the Liberation of Eve – a new documentary from Kat Ellinger.
The Golden Bough – Music historian David Huckvale on the symbolism of The Wicker Man.
Here’s a link to Imprint’s site with details on the whole shebang: