What exactly is The Wicker Man, with its sunny, cheerfully unsettling sense of rising dread, its placid, fitfully erotic folk soundtrack, and its off-putting, tragic protagonist?
If it’s a horror film, it’s a horror film that has never heard of horror films, despite the presence of Hammer horror icon Christopher Lee, trading on his well-known image from the films of Terence Fisher and others. The gothic ambiance and mood synonymous with the era’s familiar tales of unholy menace is wholly absent. If there is evil here, it doesn’t know it’s evil; if there is a would-be Christian hero in Scottish police detective Neil Howie (Edward Woodward), he doesn’t know he’s not in that kind of movie.
Is The Wicker Man anti-Christian? Anti-pagan? Anti-religion? Where are its sympathies? Does it have any? Like baffled, blustering Sergeant Howie, blundering about the clannish Summerisle community trying to investigate a missing child, we are asking the wrong questions, assuming the wrong rules, wandering ever further off course, walking into a trap.
From the moment Howie arrives on Summerisle, responding to an anonymous tip about a missing girl, it’s clear that something is off kilter. A young girl called Rowan has evidently gone missing, but on this tiny island, where everyone knows everyone else, no one seems to have heard of her or recognizes her photograph. Even those who acknowledge her existence seem unconcerned. A young girl declares that Rowan is a hare.
Even more disconcerting to Howie is the display at the common room at the Green Man inn, where he goes for a room and a bite to eat. The landlord has just called his daughter Willow (Britt Ekland) to show Howie to his room when a chorus breaks out among the patrons, which turns out to be a bluntly bawdy ode called “The Landlord’s Daughter” — and lovely Willow smiles and plays along.
What’s disquieting about this scene is that it isn’t just a few frisky blokes or dirty old men teasing the village hottie. Everyone is smiling and singing; the landlord himself raps on bottles with a pair of spoons, and Willow’s manner for much of this is neither coquettish nor demure, just open and amiable. Although a comment from the landlord may suggest that Howie himself is the one they’re teasing, that night Howie looks from his window to see a young boy being brought to Willow, and the ensuing clamor from an adjacent room suggests that the landlord’s daughter lives up to her billing.
Even so, the ribaldry of the song does seem to be for Howie’s benefit. Bawdiness flouts moral standards, but assumes a standard to be flouted, a moral context that turns out to be absent on Summerisle. (E.g., a line about a girl not being “the kind of girl to take home to your mother” assumes your mother didn’t grow up on Summerisle. In a society like this, bawdiness could only be a quaint relic of a moralistic heritage.)
Howie tries to pray. He is a fervent Christian, routinely described in commentary on the film as “devout,” and the movie makes a point of his chaste relations with his fiancée. Yet his religiosity, however sincere, seems as much a matter of conventionality and sanctimoniousness as faith and spirituality. He is shocked and indignant, but not noticeably moved to charitable concern or holy grief, over the libertine ways and heathen spirituality of the Summerisle residents, whom he gradually realizes are practicing neopagans who embrace nature worship, believe in reincarnation, and practice fertility rites in broad daylight.
At the center of the island cult is Lord Summerisle (Lee), who calmly upholds the vitality of the old gods. “But what of the true God,” Howie protests in a key exchange, “to whose glory churches and monasteries have been built on these islands for generations past? Now, sir, what of him?”
“He’s dead; he can’t complain,” Summerisle serenely replies. “He had his chance… and, in the modern parlance, he blew it.”
The “death of God,” first observed by Nietzsche but a topic of Christian discussion as well, is really a statement not about God but about the post-Christian world. Summerisle’s line expresses the point of view not only of the Summerisle cult, but of the increasingly post-Christian world in which The Wicker Man was released.
Only a few years earlier Lee himself had banished devils with crosses and holy water in Fisher’s Hammer classic The Devil Rides Out. That was at the end of an era. The Christian worldview is present in The Wicker Man, but alongside another worldview, with the decline of the one and the rise of the other presented without overt comment. Events are seen with double vision, and, narratively, neither is given the upper hand.
The two worldviews collide most dramatically in The Wicker Man’s two most celebrated and notorious scenes: the “Willow’s song” sequence and the climax. In the first, as Howie tries to go to bed, Willow serenades him from the next room, banging on the wall, offering herself to him with carnal directness as she performs a salacious nude dance about her room.
Perhaps it’s meant to be a sort of sexual magic, since Howie can’t see her through the wall, so there is no ostensible reason for her to be nude. Either way, Howie feels the heat; his acquaintances back on the mainland may think that “The only woman he’s interested in is the Virgin Mary,” as one derisively puts it, but the offer of unholy relations with this heathen siren has Howie half dazed, in a muck sweat.
As the scene wears on (particularly in the longer, more explicit scene in the full version of the film; edited versions also exist) it becomes inescapably exploitative and gratuitous, and a trial to the viewer as well as Howie. Still, the scene makes sense on both of the film’s two worldviews: From Howie’s Christian perspective, it’s a nearly satanic attack on his purity; for the Summerisle cult, it’s a test of sorts of his worthiness for the role they have in mind for him (though what they’ll do if he succumbs is unclear). Does Howie ultimately refuse out of inhibition, fear, moral effort, or some combination of the three?
Persisting in his investigation, Howie’s suspicions grow that either Rowan has been the victim of foul play in some bloodthirsty ritual connected with the annual May Day celebration — despite the assurances of Lord Summerisle that “We don’t commit murder up here” — or else that she is being kept somewhere for such a purpose in the upcoming festivities. Characters speak about her with confusing indirectness and ellipses, and amid all the film’s disorienting misdirection it’s never clear whether they think of her in the past tense or the present.
Like Howie himself, the film meanders along a circuitous route of mounting tension to the ghastly climactic twist and stark finale. In the end, as unsympathetic as Howie has been, the film gives him this much dignity, that in extremis, after all appeals, threats and pleading have failed, he clings to his faith and his God. The double vision persists to the end: The pagans are gay and pleasant and wily; the pagans are degenerate, monstrous, insane. Howie is a fool, a sourpuss, a prude; Howie is an unlikely saint, a prickly victim soul.
Summerisle articulates one interpretation of the climax, but, to Howie’s professions of faith, he equably allows another: “Believing what you do, we confer upon you a rare gift these days: a martyr’s death. You will not only have life eternal, but you will sit with the saints among the elect.” The two worldviews stand face to face, both unmasked, and in the end nothing is resolved.
What do you get if you take Robin Hardy’s cult classic The Wicker Man, and then take out religion and sex? And folk music? That’s the question writer-director Neil LaBute (Nurse Betty) sets out to answer in his 2006 remake of The Wicker Man. After watching the film, I’m still unsure of the answer.
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I enjoyed your review of the original Wicker Man, which was up to your usual (and high) standards of thoughtfulness. Perhaps, however, the film, without overt comment, inclines a little bit in favor of Sgt. Howie’s Christianity. As you say, the filmmakers do not clearly take sides. Nevertheless, the viewer cannot help but notice that the pagans of Summerisle are willing to kill a stranger in order to try to save themselves, while the Christian Sgt. Howie is willing to risk his own life in order to try to save a stranger. I think that a person with normal moral sensibilities will feel that Christianity comes off better.
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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?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.