Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #8

Re: The Wicker Man (1973)

So, you believe the forces of good and evil fight to a stalemate in The Wicker Man, eh? Nothing wrong with that interpretation, although your moral-spiritual rating suggests that the film tips slightly in favor of the pagans. Is that correct? It might be worth noting that all the Wicker Man fans I’ve read or spoken to side with the Summerisle folks. To them, the villagers are a generally happy lot, while Howie is repressed and dull, unwilling to realize his full potential. The humiliation he endures is the most troubling aspect of the film (he is dressed as a fool during the May Day celebration) because it invites the audience to jeer at him. Just whom are the filmmakers (particularly screenwriter Anthony Shaffer) siding with?

It obviously wouldn’t be accurate to say that “good and evil fight to a stalemate.” In a sense, it’s the story of the “death of God” in the Nietzschean sense, i.e., the Christian worldview has lost its cultural ascendancy, and, here at least, something else has supplanted it. But I don’t find that the film “sides” with that something else over the Christian worldview.

Certainly, the film allows the pagans to be cheerful and unrepressed, and in that sense more attractive representatives of their worldview than Howie is of his. I’m not convinced that we are actually invited to jeer at Howie with the villagers, though that’s certainly a reasonable interpretation. I think it’s just as reasonable to take that scene as deliberately troubling, as you find it troubling.

If Howie were more sympathetic and admirable, I can’t see how the film would play as anything other than a Christian polemic against paganism. As it is, I think most normal viewers will agree on the heinous wrongness of the climactic action, and to that extent the pagans will be found to be clearly in the wrong. The very cheeriness of the pagans in that scene may reasonably be felt to tell against them. I would thus be more sympathetic to an interpretation of the film as anti-religious in general, or at least anti-fanatical, than pro-pagan.

Ultimately, I think the film leaves the whole question open. The inclusion of that last line from Summerisle that I quoted in the end of my review seems to be a significant acknowledgement (from the film, not Summerisle) of the Christian worldview: What is happening here can be seen either of two ways.

Having said all that about the film’s lack of resolution, does it tip one way rather than another? Yeah, maybe. I don’t think the film “sides” with the villagers, but it’s fair to say its sympathies lean — I wouldn’t want to use a stronger word than that — in their direction. The moral-spiritual rating does reflect that sense. It’s also partly for Willow’s nude dance, which as noted in the review crosses the line into exploitation.

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