Mysticism in Film: ‘The Wicker Man’ (1973)

❉ We go inside The Wicker Man – one of the most iconic British films ever made, and an apex of the folk horror genre.

Robin Hardy’s debut feature ‘The Wicker Man’ is one of the most iconic British films ever made. Treated horrendously by its studio, with some footage actually ending up as landfill, and reduced to playing bottom-of-the-bill in a shortened version to another great magical-realist thriller, ‘Don’t Look Now,’ it’s now rightly regarded as a classic. Do we need a spoiler alert by now?

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If there’s one thing the British do well, it’s folk horror. No one, except the Japanese, is able to quite milk as much uncanny oddness from its tropes, and ‘The Wicker Man’ gets it very right indeed. Originally dismissed by its studio, British Lion, and released as an 87 minute second feature, the film has since been restored to its intended 99 minutes (and a 95 minute “Final Cut”), after missing footage turned up in the possession of American distributor Roger Corman.

The plot focusses on a virginal policeman, Sergant Howie (Edward Woodward), a man with puritanically Christian convictions, travelling to the island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison (Gerry Cowper). There he encounters a bunch of off-kilter local oddballs, including Willow (Britt Ekland, the comely daughter of the Green Man Inn’s wonderfully creepy landlord, Alder MacGregor (Lindsay Kemp); local school teacher, Miss Rose (Diane Cilento), whose teachings revolve around things like natural magic, a saucy Librarian (Ingrid Pitt) and, most importantly, the charismatic but unsettling Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), grandson of the community’s founder.

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Accompanied by Paul Giovanni’s wonderful score the locals praise the landlord’s daughter.

As Howie’s investigations proceed, he witnesses more and more strange occurrences mostly revolving around fertility rites; Lord Summerisle presents a teenage lad to Willow outside her bedroom window, implying she will take his virginity (a scene only included in the longer cuts of the film, which reveal Howie spends two nights on the island, rather than the 87 minute version’s one); a hare occupies a grave instead of a corpse; young girls jump naked through a fire at the centre of a stone circle. When Howie notices the inn displays a line of photos of each year’s May Queen, and that the most recent is missing, he tries to track down the missing girl, whose existence is denied by even her mother, but whom Howie believes is destined to become a sacrifice to appease the Old Gods in order to guarantee a good harvest after the previous year’s failed. Only too late does he discover something even darker is afoot.

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Lord Summerisle recounts the history of his people and their beliefs to a disapproving Howie.

The film has become massively influential, seeping throughout cinema via pop culture osmosis to such an extent that many film-makers might not even consciously recognise its hand upon their shoulder. Any film within the last 30 years (it took a while for its grip to really take a hold) in which “one of us” finds themselves amidst a remote society of vaguely threatening and possibly inbred “locals” can’t help but owe a debt to ‘The Wicker Man’ in some way. The major difference being that Howie is not really “one of us” at all, and the real genius of the film is to gradually reveal its hand by initially setting him up as an uptight religious zealot and only slowly reveal just how much more extreme the islanders he is investigating are in their opposing beliefs.

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The Summerisle May Day sword dance combines Scottish traditions with English morris dancing.

This revealing takes up much of the film’s runtime and is what really gives the film its power to unsettle. These days, it’s impossible to watch the film without being aware of the ending, and even at the time, trailers and posters pretty much gave everything away, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is the journey; we are given a grand tour of vaguely threatening oddness that, despite the film being set on a remote Scottish isle, catalogues of all that is credibly off-kilter about general British eccentricity.

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The illustration that inspired Seamus Flannery’s fictional counterpart.

The central conceit, a sacrifice to the forces of nature (Summisle’s religion is a mishmash of belief systems) by placing a suitable victim within a wicker effigy and burning them, is drawn from a single Roman source, Julius Ceaser’s ‘Commentarii de Bello Gallico’, so it’s highly likely the whole myth sprung from a propaganda piece. The burning of a wicker man at today’s neopagan is almost certainly the result of the film’s influence. In ‘Bello Gallico,’ it was actually described as a means by which the ancient French would punish criminals. The one seen in the film was played by an enormous full-scale reconstruction of the colossus depicted in woodcuts from the 17th century edition, and was designed by the film’s art director Seamus Flannery. A still-massive third-scale miniature was also constructed for the closing shot in which the head is consumed by fire and replaced by the summer solstice sun rising behind it. Flannery’s final design did not include a face, so as to be more uncanny. It was so imposing, even the cast were frightened of it, and is one of the most iconic pieces of production design of all time.

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The virgin fool discovers too late that he is the perfect sacrifice.

Everyone knows how ‘The Wicker Man’ ends by now, but it is not the actual reveal that makes the final act of sacrifice so shocking; It’s Woodward’s remarkable performance, enhanced greatly by the fact that that’s really him, calling upon God and singing ‘The Lord is My Shepherd’ as he is martyred by fire. Woodward was genuinely terrified as the structure burned around him. The islander’s joyful chorus of ‘Summer Is Icumen In’ heightens the horror tenfold.

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Reverence the sacrifice!

The rest of the traditions depicted in the film certainly do have some basis in reality, by way of texts like Sir James George Frazer’s ‘The Golden Bough,’ essential reading for anyone interested in the occult. Director Robin Hardy and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer certainly did their research, but it is in a little-known novel called ‘Ritual’ by David Pinner that origin of ‘The Wicker Man’ is to be found. The novel follows the same basic plot as the film, but is set in a remote Cornish village, does not feature the titular edifice, and was deemed by Shaffer to be “unfilmable.” It had actually been Christopher Lee who purchased the rights when seeking a project to break his run of Hammer Horror typecasting. Ironically, the film was re-novelised by Hardy, using Shaffer’s screenplay as a basis.

having-knocked-of-macgregor-howie-usurps-him-as-the-fool-to-infilitrate-the-may-day-parade-little-does-he-know-its-all-part-of-the-plan
Howie infiltrates the May Day parade – little does he know it is all part of the plan.

Several ideas from ‘Ritual’ do survive, however, the most notable of which being Willow’s seductive nude dance in her room adjoining Howie’s, which comes across as an effort to seduce him, but after the final revelation, we realise that in retrospect it was a test of his resolve in order to determine if he was, indeed, as pure as he appeared. Famously, the production employed a “bum double” for the full-length body shots, a fact Ekland was not happy about, even if the audience was.

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Willow tests Howie’s resolve.

The Wicker Man is a many splendid thing, a project so beloved by its makers that many of them, most notable Lee, waived their fee to get it made. It’s a thriller, a musical, an erotic drama, and ultimately, an utterly nightmarish horror film all rolled into one. It is a monumental achievement in British cinema and the apex of not only the folk horror sub-genre, but horror cinema as a whole.

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About the author: Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became and actor and has appeared in several film and television productions.

Jonathan Sissons 2001 film The Institute is now online on Vimeo and can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/193049022

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