Dir. Robin Hardy. Starring Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland
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You go to see a movie called The Wicker Man. You sit through a movie which is occasionally uncomfortable and then incredibly funny and then cringe again at something else. I think the champion example is that guy who shows Howie his costume – the “Salmon of Knowledge” – which is the funniest phrase in the world. And then you see the guy wearing his Salmon of Knowledge costume and it’s lost the humor. It’s not precisely frightening, or even all that unsettling. But it’s not right. The sense that something’s not right beyond the obvious strangeness that we confront is repeated often without ever having to actually scare us. Same with the woman breastfeeding in a graveyard. And to some extent, this is true of the look of the Summerisle folk as well. They look like any other Brits from the ’70s in terms of their clothes, hair, etc., and could presumably pop over to London and blend in just fine. The film asks us to wonder how such normal-looking people can be capable of such joyously abnormal behavior.
Hardy will sometimes put his camera in such a place to make it seem like the viewer is in someone else’s place, often Howie’s (Woodward), and that brings a realistic edge to the film which is effective. In the beginning, we get the view from Howie’s seaplane as the villagers start to amble up to the dock, wondering what’s going on, and that sets a tone for much of the movie. There are some sweet Dutch angles in the pub (“the Green Man”) as the patrons, cued by the arrival of the landlord’s daughter, Willow (Ekland), begin to sing a pretty bawdy song concerning a more archetypal landlord’s daughter. But there’s no wicker man; there are many men, but wicker we appear to be fresh out of. In fact, more than an hour in, it’s easy to forget that it’s even called The Wicker Man. What a kick in the teeth it is to hear Lord Summerisle (Lee) say the word and then be led, first with an all-timer of a reaction shot from Woodward, to the title object itself. It’s stunning, so completely beyond anything we might have expected – even if it’s just a really tall wooden statue! – that it’s scary. For the first time, something really scary happens, and not in the sense that you won’t be able to go to sleep that night but in the sense that something is totally, terribly wrong and unfixable all at once. Why does it have to be built in the shape of a person, anyway? Why does it have those long, claw-like fingers instead of fists? And only then do we recognize the four men with torches, dwarfed by the size of the Wicker Man, at its pedestal. The Wicker Man takes a stupendous risk; it bets that at the end of the movie, you will have been brought along enough to be floored by the sight of the Wicker Man, to put together a film’s worth of fright into a single image to make your blood run cold. Everything hinges on it, and miraculously it all pays off. Eighty minutes of camp yield to five minutes of unnerving action.
Howie, a pious and dutiful police officer from the mainland, is totally unequipped for the task which stands before him; heck, he doesn’t even know what the task actually is. Lord Summerisle reveals to him that the paganistic elements of the island’s religious culture – which are in fact taught in the schools through lessons and songs alike – were introduced by his grandfather, a Victorian scientist with a talent for horticulture. Summerisle has a long history of producing marvelous fruits and vegetables which shouldn’t really grow there; the pictures of young women posing with the harvests feature watermelons pretty prominently, for example. To encourage the people, the first Summerisle to settle on that rock eliminated Christianity and replaced it with the pagan rites. When the first crop came in, the people were convinced for good, and by 1973 they wouldn’t have it any other way. Howie and Summerisle are men who should know better. Summerisle recognizes that the paganism of the island is basically a falsehood but still throws himself into the ceremonies and practices with unmatched zeal. (To me, this is the most bizarre element of the entire film; he knows deep down that the pagan rituals on the island are utterly absurd, but he’s come to believe in them himself. They’re more than just “refreshing” to him, as he refers to a circle of naked women leaping over a fire in an attempt to become more fertile; they are real enough for him to decide to seek out and murder a police officer as part of a ritual sacrifice.) Howie, whose Christianity doesn’t protect him in the least, understands why he’s being burned alive as a sacrifice; it’s because the crops failed for the first time ever. It’s the strains of the plants which didn’t work, not the offerings to the gods of the sea and the sun and the orchards, he tells Summerisle. With the desperation of a man facing his death, he cries out, “Don’t you see that killing me is not going to bring back your apples?” But Howie goes about this the wrong way. He tries to convince people on the basis of an equally unseeable and unknowable Jesus Christ rather than the goddess of the orchards. When he makes his prediction to Summerisle – next year, when the crops fail again, it’ll be you they burn in a Wicker Man – it’s hard to argue with his logic. Howie is almost certainly right, but being right won’t change anyone’s mind any more than Summerisle being wrong will. Howie doesn’t know it, but he is just like the beetle a girl has tied up in an empty desk, going ’round the same nail over and over again until it will ultimately be trapped, unable to escape.
As Howie becomes more and more certain that there was a girl named Rowan Morrison and that she will be killed as a human sacrifice (he reads that sometimes the high priest of the religion will skin the child and then run around wearing its skin as a mantle), he starts to grasp more and more at his own religion. The more he learns about the pagan rituals of the people and on their beliefs, the more stridently he professes his Christianity. (He’s so priggish about it that honestly, one starts to root for the Summerisle folk about halfway through the movie.) The law, which he comes as an agent of in his first day on the island, fades away as he willingly takes on the unenviable role of missionary to a population with no hankering for missionaries. The schoolteacher (Diane Cilento) makes a wry joke about how the place Rowan is buried is incorrectly referred to; it’s not really a “churchyard,” she says, seeing as no one on Summerisle is a Christian. When he goes there, Howie makes a point to fashion a crude cross from some wood he’s found and lay it on top of a grave, an action which will doubtless pass into the ether but which comforts him. When he confronts Summerisle at their first meeting, he laments that the children have never heard of Jesus. And when Summerisle and the other islanders surround him at the end, even they have come to recognize him not primarily as a law enforcement officer but as a Christian; the lord intones that Howie will die a martyr’s death, which he could scarcely have hoped for otherwise.
The Wicker Man leaves us with several unanswered questions by the end of the film, but the one which interests me most is just how they plan to ensure that Howie’s time on their island is never sniffed out by the higher authorities, who will certainly come looking for a missing police officer. It will be easy enough to get everyone to lie about him ever being there, but they also have to dispose of his seaplane, which is kind of a tougher ask. That seaplane, which stands as the last memorial to Howie on the island once he’s been torched, is even more symbolic of who he is than that little beetle in a desk. What could be more technologically arrogant than a plane which is also a boat? It will be sunk, almost certainly, and the people who align themselves to nature and not to progress will win out against a symbol of some foreign superiority. The Wicker Man is a story which is like “To Build a Fire” in its ardent assurance (even though it’s a significantly more stylized one) that human arrogance and self-assuredness will always blunt itself against the power of nature and against nature’s instruments, which despite every one of our technological advances always has another sheathed mystery hidden away.