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The Wicker Man (1973) – Classic Review

The Wicker Man

Background

“You’ll simply never understand the true nature of sacrifice”. Portentous words spoken to Edward Woodward’s character in the greatest horror movie to ever come out of Britain and possibly the finest of all British cinema. In 1967 the novel “Ritual” by David Pinner was published. Originally meant as film treatment for Michael Winner, who had envisioned John Hurt as the main protagonist. However Winner thought that the project was “too full of imagery” so Pinner’s agent, Jonathan Clowes, fearful that Winner might sit on the project for a long time convinced Pinner to expand the story into a novel.

The protagonist of the novel is the puritanical English police officer, David Hanlin, who has been asked to investigate what appears to be the ritualistic murder of a small child in a closed Cornish community. During his investigation Hanlin has to deal with psychological trickery, sexual seduction, ancient religious practices and nightmarish ritual sacrifices. Pinner however was not the only writer dealing with these themes.

In 1970 an episode of the BBC’s Play for Today entitled “Robin Redbreast”, written by John Bowen would, however unintentionally, help change the face of British horror. In his play Bowen teased the audience with an unknown menace in an English rural setting. Ultimately the menace is revealed to be human sacrifice as a pagan ritual. The stage was now set and it would soon be time to “reverence the sacrifice”.

In 1971, after a meeting with writer Anthony Shaffer, Christopher Lee bought the rights to “Ritual” from David Pinner. Lee and Shaffer had been looking for a project to collaborate on after Lee had become weary of the roles he had taken at Hammer, he was deeply unhappy with the last few “Dracula” movies, and was looking for something that was different to prevent him from being typecast. Incidentally it must be pointed out that Christopher Lee waived his fee for the movie. Believing in the final script so much he feared that if they paid him the movie would have very little money left to finance it.

After reading “Ritual” Shaffer decided that it would be near impossible to adapt for film and went about writing his own original script, drawing on themes taken from both the novel and “Robin Redbreast”. It is important to point out that both Shaffer and Bowen and possibly Pinner, were undoubtedly inspired in their stories by a real life crime.

The ‘witchcraft’ or ‘pitchfork’ murder of 1945 took place in Lower Quinton, Warwickshire, England, and is a genuine mystery which author David Pirie suggests “has a role in British horror that is not too dissimilar to that of Ed Gein in American horror. Ed Gein after all went on to inspire the novel and movie ‘Psycho’ as well as ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ ”. At dusk on February 14th 1945 in the tiny Warwickshire village the body of farmer Charles Walton was discovered in a field, pitchforked to death and with a large cross carved onto his chest and neck.

All sorts of strange rumours surrounded the crime; Walton was reputed to have clairvoyant powers and though Scotland Yard spent days at the scene they never found the killer. Even the celebrated detective Robert Fabian described in his memoirs how he was baffled by the mystery and believed there had been a community wide cover- up. And though there has never been an official horror movie about the events a TV drama was written although it was never produced.

Anthony Shaffer’s story is a fabulous combination of the themes found in “Ritual”, “Robin Redbreast” and the weird events that surrounded the murder in Lower Quinton. For further inspiration Shaffer would delve deeper into Britain’s pagan past. To add authenticity to the screenplay Shaffer drew from “The Golden Bough”, a massive anthropological study on world religions composed in the latter days of the 19th century by J. G. Frazer. This would provide the story with actual old pagan rituals. It is this, combined with Shaffer’s skill as a writer that would raise this above all the horror’s that came before.

The Wicker Man trailer



Synopsis

Wicker Man PosterPolice Sgt Neil Howie (Edward Woodward), a devout and celibate Christian, receives a letter informing him of a missing girl, Rowan Morrison, on the remote Hebridean island of Summerisle. Howie is profoundly disturbed by what he finds on the island. A society that openly worships the old pagan gods. He finds couples that copulate in open fields, children who are taught about the phallic symbolism of the maypole and frogs are placed in the mouth to cure sore throats. These are just some of the alien activities that he encounters on his search for the missing child.

Howie, from the start, faces difficulty in extracting information about Rowan, whom the islanders claim never to have seen and even her own mother claims she does not exist. Staying at an inn, where he is introduced to the landlord’s daughter Willow (Britt Ekland), he notices a series of photographs celebrating the islands annual harvests. Each photo features a young girl the May Queen, the latest of which is missing and he is informed that it is “broken”.

Later that night Willow tries to seduce him, which he only just resists, informing her in the morning that he is engaged and does not believe in premarital sex. After discovering a grave bearing Rowan’s name his investigations bring him into contact with the islands community leader Laird (Lord) Summerisle (Christopher Lee) who explains to Howie the nature of the islands recent history and culture. Summerisle’s grandfather was a Victorian scientist who had developed several new strains of fruit that could survive in the harsh environs of the Scottish island. He inculcated amongst the islands community that the old gods were real and that harvesting the new crops would deliver them from their meagre living. He informs Howie however that he himself believes in and reveres the old gods.

After exhuming the grave and finding within the body of a hare he angrily confronts Summerisle once more declaring that he believes Rowan to have been murdered as part of a pagan sacrifice. He later discovers a negative of the previous year’s harvest photograph which shows Rowan presiding over a group of boxes which indicate that that year’s harvest was poor. After conducting further research into pagan rites that indicate that some offer human sacrifice in the event of crop failure Howie deduces that rowan must in fact still be alive and that she will be offered as a sacrifice as part of the islands May Day celebrations the following day to ensure a plentiful harvest.

The next morning, after finding that his plane has been sabotaged, he decides to search the island himself, but to no avail. Going back to the inn where he knocks out the landlord and assumes his place as Punch, a principle character in the islands May Day celebrations. Whilst in disguise he joins in with the other islanders as they cavort throughout the island performing harmless sacrifices to the gods. Rowan is finally revealed whilst tied to a post near a cave on the islands coast. Howie rushes to free her and are then both chased through the cave only for them to be caught as they emerge from another entrance. Howie is further shocked when Rowan rushes to embrace Summerisle asking “did I do it right?”

It is here that Summerisle explains to Howie that he was lured to the island by a successful conspiracy which lead him to believe that a missing girl was being held captive. He also confirms that the previous year’s crops failed disastrously and that their religion calls for a sacrifice to the sun god so that this would not happen again. It is here that Howie is informed that his Christian lifestyle, as well as his role as policeman, means that he meets the criteria to be a perfect human sacrifice to the gods to ensure a bountiful harvest for the coming years.


The Wicker Man Soudtrack

Conclusion

This is one of those movies that stays with you for a long time after you have watched it. The acting is outstanding, the cinematography is perfect especially the final scene which is possibly the most sublimely beautiful in cinema history. The music by Paul Giovanni, a perfect balance of original material as well as adaptations of old folk songs, when juxtaposed with the events going on in the story, adds to the sinister atmosphere conjured up by Robin Hardy’s direction. In short, this movie is perfect, with a climax that still has the power to shock.

Reference: Pirie, David. “A New Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema”, I. B. Tauris & Co Ltd, London. 2009.
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