The Wicker Man (1973, Robin Hardy)
The act of upholding one’s beliefs, especially those of religious nature, when under the pressure of that which seems to contradict those beliefs and possibly dangerous to them, can be viewed in very positive light. In the worst circumstances, the encounter of two strongly held belief systems can, and has in the past, lead to suspicion, antagonism and seclusion by choice or by force. Religion is one of those subjects than stir up passionate actions and reactions, sometimes dangerously so. Such is the case in the story of Robin Hardy’s directorial debut, the 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man. Upon arriving at the station one day, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) receives an alarming letter from a woman living on Summerisle. It seems that her daughter has gone missing without a trace. A picture is attached to the letter.
Sergeant Howie makes his way to Summerisle in the hopes of helping the poor mother reunite with her child, but only hours into his police tour on the secluded island off the coast Scotland does the officer realize that the customs and traditions of the people of Summerisle are nothing like those of other Scots. What the children learn in schools, the folk songs that are sung at the pub, the work done in the trimming of trees and bushes, the activities the young adults engage in… all of these are sexual in nature, many times quite explicitly so. Singing crass sex songs in a pub might seem ordinary (and sounds like most of my Sunday mornings), but when the schoolchildren are learning about how a certain tree represents the penis and when young women are dancing around a bon fire in midday in the park, well, one may be forgiven for being perplexed. And so Sergeant Howie, a devout Catholic who regularly attends mass, is appalled by the behaviour of the Summerisle. Compounding the unorthodox and sometimes eerie atmosphere which reigns the secluded community is the fact that the people of Summerisle seem to take sergeant Howie as a fool whenever the topic of the girl’s disappearance is brought up. Either they’ve never seen the girl before, or she is dead and buried, or she is dead, buried and now transformed into a hare, etc. Like it or not, sergeant Howie’s investigation will lead him onto a path he will wish he had never, ever embarked as the discoveries behind the nature of Summerisle pile on…
I take particular pleasure in discovering films that are off kilter and go against the grain and I’m certain that many a time in my reviews I awarded praise to a film because I thought it was a bit ‘different’, because it attempted something others filmmakers would have shied away from. Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man unquestionably fits that bill. First and foremost are the vastly different film genres that are packed into the 110 minutes of the director’s cut I watched a few nights ago. Police drama, procedural, mystery, thriller, musical and I’m almost certain that there brief bits of comedy thrown in there too. The mere fact that Hardy and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer succeed in balancing all of this disparate tones and genres well enough for the film to achieve more than a respectable level of narrative and thematic cohesion is worthy of applause. There are a couple of elements in the list that don’t necessarily scream ‘daring!’ but then you get sections of the film that for all intents and purposes function as scenes from a musical, and one realizes that, however odd The Wicker Man may be (and it’s a weird, weird movie), there is a unique and intelligent movie breathing beneath the surface.
Something that saves the film from falling into outright farce is the cinematography, which comes across as very ‘bare bones’, with no slickness or any especially clever editing which stands out. Much of the movie, if not all of it, looks very much like what one would expect from a documentary. The viewer is working the police investigation alongside sergeant Howie and by extension the viewer is exploring the ins and outs of Summerisle just the protagonist is. As the revelations, both about the customs of the place and about the fate of the missing girl, are given light, the more the film becomes enveloped with a curious sense of dread. As a representative of the law, and of a civilization most viewers will recognize and side with, Howie can become our only beacon of sanity in this mad, mad world. As the story evolves, etching ever closer to an unavoidably bizarre conclusion, the recognizable, the orthodox, the comprehensible all feel further and further away and out of reaching distance. Much credit should go to the filmmakers and especially director Hardy for opting to keep everything very low key and as realistic as possible.
The Wicker Man is filled to the brim with folk songs that give the islanders a sense of depth and culture that enhance the film's documentary texture we were promised from the outset. What’s surprising is that some of them are almost catchy. I don’t think every single scene featuring a song works wonders though. The film could have done without one or two, simply a question of not bogging down the proceedings too much. One that struck me as needless had a completely nude Britt Ekland (sporting a delightfully cute Scottish accent) sing a mournfully romantic song to sergeant Howie, who is resting in the room next door. The strangest aspect of this scene is that the film never delivers a payoff in any shape or form.
I would be remiss were I to omit any comments regarding the film’s leading performers, Edward Woodward and the great Christopher Lee. Woodward in particular gives a memorable and almost discomforting performance by instilling in the character of sergeant Howie with a strictness and cold demeanour that in fact makes him a difficult person to like. He is the story’s sole representative of a society familiar to us, making him the most relatable character, but I never once felt that he was relatable per say. His incredulity in the face of the seeming (and I stress, seeming) debauchery taking place on Summerisle is nothing short of an affront to God and the Christian religion that the vast majority of the Queen's subjects practice. We know he is the protagonist and we know that he is, in many respects, the hero of the piece, but his attitude towards what is different from his culture can feel slightly off-putting, particularly among viewers from among the younger, more multicultural-oriented generations. It is a bold performance, one that challenges the viewer’s allegiance at times. Christopher Lee on the other, interpreting the role of Lord Summerisle, practices the perfect balance of sophistication and malice that he so capable of. The first few scenes featuring him show a man who, while holding to some beliefs that decidedly go against the grain, is calm, polite and almost chivalrous. Once things start getting hairy however, Summerisle’s more ruthless persona begin to tear through the gentlemanly attitude we saw earlier, but never to the point of making the character insanely barbaric. That is the genius of Christopher Lee: class and malice rolled into one.
There isn’t much sense in attempting to categorize The Wicker Man. For what it’s worth, it seems to have a little bit for everyone. Movie experiences such as this are to be cherished, that is, the ones that do truly give the viewer a different take on an old genre. With its strange tone and cast of mostly unlikable characters, I’d be hard pressed to say that the movie kept me thrilled and excited all the way through, but Robin Hardy’s efforts and that of the solid cast gave me something equally as valuable: a movie I won’t forget any time soon.