“The Wicker Man” is a 1973 horror thriller film, directed by Robin Hardy, bringing Anthony Shaffer’s screenplay to the screen.
Edward Woodward plays Sergeant Howie, a devoutly Christian policeman, who receives a note in the post claiming that a young girl, Rowan Morrison, has disappeared.
He travels to a Scottish island, Summerisle, to investigate. This remote and isolated community is led by the strange Lord Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee.
When he arrives he discovers that seemingly no one has heard of the missing girl, not even Mrs. Morrison who Howie believes to be Rowan’s mother.
Howie takes a room in the Green Man Inn for his stay on the island, and, with his religious convictions, is shocked to hear the bawdy songs sung in the pub, notably “The Landlord’s Daughter” which celebrates the sexuality of the titular character, Willow MacGregor (played by Britt Ekland).
He sees a series of framed photographs depicting the annual harvest celebrations featuring the May Queen, but the most recent photograph is missing, apparently broken.
When the policeman finds evidence in the school that Rowan did, in fact, exist the teacher tells him that Rowan died, but returned in another form. After further unsuccessful inquiries, he approaches Lord Summerisle for permission to dig up Rowan’s grave, suspecting that she must have been murdered. Although Lord Summerisle is charming, Howie cannot reconcile himself with the pagan attitudes that he encounters. When the grave is exhumed, Howie is shocked to discover it contains only the corpse of a rabbit.
Howie realises that the islanders pay homage to the pagan Gods of their ancestors, and with the island being reliant on the crops that they produce, specifically their apples, he suspects that due to a crop failure Rowan is being kept hidden away to be sacrificed to the Gods and resolves to find and rescue her.
The final scenes of the have lost nothing over the years, remaining as powerful as ever.
This film has long been one of my all-time favourites, but I was unaware until recently that there was more to it than the version shown in cinemas as supporting feature to “Don’t Look Now” in 1973 and on TV from time to time since then.
The history of “The Wicker Man” began in 1971 when Christopher Lee and Anthony Shaffer, together with movie producer Peter Snell began to discuss making a film based on the 1967 novel “Ritual” by David Pinner. The three bought the film rights to the book and, with director Robin Hardy on board, came up with a new story using the original novel as inspiration.
Following filming in the Autumn of 1972 an edited version of the film, removing some introductory scenes on the Scottish mainland and some of Lord Summerisle’s explanations of the history of the island, and running to approximately 99 minutes was prepared.
One of the bosses at the film studio, British Lion, then asked American director Roger Corman to make some suggestions to make the film more “marketable”. Corman’s sugestions resulted in a further thirteen minutes of footage being removed, and the order of some scenes being changed around. The resulting 87 minute version is known as the theatrical version and was shown in cinemas in 1973.
I have now been able to see the “Director’s Cut” version, which restores most of the footage cut from the original version and puts elements of the story back to the place in which they were originally placed.
The film has a better flow as a result and, even though some of the restored footage does not have the same picture quality as a result of having been cut out decades ago, is a much more complete and satisfying experience.
A mention must also be made of the superb soundtrack, which for many years was unavailable. Put together by Paul Giovanni and performed by Magnet (a group put together specifically to record the soundtrack) and featuring various members of the cast, the music is a mixture of takes on traditional songs, such as the main title theme and “Corn Riggs” which are based on songs by Robert Burns (1759-1796) and “Sumer Is Icumen In” which originates from Middle English sometime circa 1200, and original songs such as the beautiful “Willow’s Song” and “Gently Johnny”, all arranged to give a feel of the pre-Christian pagan culture of the film – well worth finding a copy of the album.
And what of “The Wicker Tree”, Robin Hardy’s 2011 “spiritual successor”? The film explores similar themes, and even features Christopher Lee in a brief cameo role. However, although entertaining, the film does not in any way compare positively to the original film – much the same must be said of the 2006 remake of “The Wicker Man” starring Nicolas Cage.
To this viewer the old film remains far more evocative and powerful than the successor or remake. Maybe in the same way that Sergeant Howie discovered the old Gods were more powerful than his newer Christian God…