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The Wicker Man is a 1973 British horror film, combining thriller, existential horror and musical genres, directed by Robin Hardy and written by Anthony Shaffer. The film stars Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Ingrid Pitt and Britt Ekland. Paul Giovanni composed the soundtrack. The film is now considered a cult classic.

Based very loosely on David Pinner's 1967 novel The Ritual, the story is about a Scottish police officer, Sergeant Neil Howie, visiting the isolated island of Summerisle to search for a missing girl who the locals claim never existed. The inhabitants of Summerisle all celebrate a reconstructed form of Celtic paganism, which appalls the devoutly Christian Sergeant.

The Wicker Man is generally well regarded by critics and film enthusiasts. Film magazine Cinefantastique described it as "The Citizen Kane of Horror Movies", and during 2004 the magazine Total Film named The Wicker Man the sixth greatest British film of all time. It also won the 1978 Saturn Award for Best Horror Film. A scene from this film was #45 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments.

The work was later allocated as the first film of The Wicker Man Trilogy, with a sequel entitled The Wicker Tree, based on the book Cowboys for Christ by Robin Hardy, currently in production. A third film, The Twilight of the Gods, is set for a later release.

A badly-received 2006 American remake has also been produced, from which Robin Hardy and other people associated with the original disassociated themselves. A stage adaptation was attempted at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August 2009, but the project fell through.

Plot

Police Sergeant Neil Howie is sent an anonymous letter recommending that he investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison, on the remote Hebrideanmarker island of Summerisle (a fictional island apparently inspired by the real-life Summer Islesmarker of the Inner Hebridesmarker).

He flies to the island and during his investigations discovers that the entire population celebrates a Celtic neo-pagan cult, believing in re-incarnation, worshipping the sun and engaging in fertility rituals and sexual magic in order to appease immanent natural forces.

Howie, a celibate devout Christian, becomes increasingly disturbed by the islanders' behaviour. In the original uncut version of the film, he witnesses couples copulating in the church yard, in addition to finding a naked woman sobbing on a grave. He angrily threatens to involve the authorities after discovering the school mistress (Diane Cilento) is teaching young girls about the phallic importance of the maypole. Amulets such as the hag stone, toad stone, and snail stone, and the supposed cure of the whooping cough by placing a toad in a child's mouth, closely resemble descriptions found in the book Animal Simples.

Howie finds himself attracted strongly to Willow, the sexually liberated daughter of the landlord. In the restored director's cut of the film, Lord Summerisle refers to Willow as Aphrodite when presenting her with a young male adolescent to seduce. Howie cannot help but overhear their passionate lovemaking. To compound matters, Willow tries to seduce him the following night, dancing naked and beating upon his bedroom wall, but Howie resists the torment because he does not believe in sex before marriage.

After interviewing many of the islanders - all of whom claim never to have heard of Rowan Morrison - Howie calls upon the island's owner Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), who is the island's magistrate. Howie hopes Summerisle will assist him with his inquiries. However, Summerisle counteracts the policeman's arguments robustly. After Howie objects to the sight of naked girls jumping over a fire hoping for supernatural impregnation, he reminds him that Jesus was "Himself the son of a virgin, impregnated - I believe - by a ghost". When Howie accuses the laird of advocating pagan beliefs, Summerisle responds by saying "A heathen conceivably, but not, I hope, an unenlightened one". Crucially, Lord Summerisle talks of appeasing and propitiating "the old gods".

The policeman leaves after obtaining the laird's permission to exhume the body of Rowan Morrison from a grave in the island's unconsecrated church yard. In the coffin, he discovers the fresh corpse of a hare, an animal with well-known supernatural connotations. After breaking into the local chemist to develop missing film proving Rowan's existence, Howie experiences an epiphany. He realizes that Rowan is still alive and that the islanders are proposing to "appease" the old gods by making a Mayday sacrifice. He assumes that she is to be the intended sacrifice, whereupon he instigates a search of the island. Howie does not receive any assistance in his quest from the islanders.

Failing to discover where Rowan is hidden, Howie disguises himself as Punch, a principal character of the May Day festival, hoping to strike at the root of the mystery. He joins the bizarre procession of islanders as they cavort through the town and up to the cliffs. After he survives a sword-beheading ceremony, Rowan is finally revealed. Howie grabs her and flees through a cave but emerges at the other end on a precipice where Lord Summerisle and his followers await. Lord Summerisle then reveals that Rowan's disappearance was all an elaborate hoax conspired by everyone on the island to bring Howie to them. Howie, not Rowan, is the intended sacrifice, and the islanders believe his death will restore the fertility of their orchards.

Villagers prepare the Wicker Man for Sgt.
Howie.
Lord Summerisle and his followers explain to him that his sacrifice will be effective because Howie came to them of his own free will; as a virgin; with the power of a king (by representing the law); and as a fool ("You are the Fool, Mr. Howie: Punch, one of the great fool-victims in history! For you have accepted the role of King-For-A-Day, and who but a Fool would do that?" asks the school mistress, referring to the way that Howie has conducted his investigations). Howie in turn admonishes them, claiming that killing him will not restore their fertility and that they all would be guilty of murder. He argues that if the crops fail next year they will have to sacrifice Summerisle. Lord Summerisle asserts that Howie's sacrifice will prove efficacious.

The policeman is dragged screaming into the belly of a large hollow wicker statue of a man which is subsequently ignited.In the final scene of the film, the islanders surround the burning wicker man and sing the Middle English folk-song "Sumer Is Icumen In" while the terrified Howie shouts out Psalm 23. The film ends with the Wicker Man engulfed in flames, and collapsing in front of the setting sun.

Background & production

Christopher Lee was well known as a Hammer Films regular, in particular playing Dracula in a series of successful films. At the time, Lee wanted to expand his acting roles, and collaborated with British Lion head Peter Snell and playwright Anthony Shaffer (already well known for Sleuth) to develop a film based on the David Pinner novel. Though the book was all but completely abandoned (all that survived from Pinner's book into the finished film is the scene in which Howie presses himself against his bedroom wall as a means of communing with the siren-like calls of Willow next door), the idea of an idealistic confrontation between a modern Christian and a remote, pagan community continued to intrigue Shaffer, who performed painstaking research on the topic. Brainstorming with director Robin Hardy, the film was conceived as presenting the pagan elements objectively and accurately, accompanied by authentic music and a believable, contemporary setting.

Television actor Edward Woodward was cast in the role of the policeman after the part was declined by both Michael York and David Hemmings. In Britain Woodward was best know for the role of Callan, which he played from 1967 to 1972. He came to international attention portraying the title character of the 1980 Australian film Breaker Morant. (American audiences probably know Woodward best for his role in the 1980s CBS TV series The Equalizer.)
Diane Cilento was lured out of semi-retirement after Shaffer saw her on the stage to play the town's schoolmistress, and Ingrid Pitt (another British horror film veteran) was cast as the town librarian and registrar. The Swedish actress Britt Ekland was cast as the innkeeper's lascivious daughter (perhaps for box office appeal), though her singing and possibly all her dialogue was redubbed by Annie Ross, and some of her nude dancing was performed by a double called Jane Jackson who lived in Castle Douglas at the time.

The film was produced at a time of crisis for the British film industry. The studio in charge of production, British Lion Films, was in financial trouble and was bought by wealthy businessman John Bentley. To convince the unions that he was not about to asset-strip the company, Bentley needed to get a film into production quickly. This meant that The Wicker Man, a film set during spring, was actually filmed in October: artificial leaves and blossoms had to be glued to trees in many scenes. The scenes at Culzean Castle were filmed during February, 1972. The production was kept on a small budget. Christopher Lee was extremely keen to get the film made; he and others worked on the production without pay. While filming took place, British Lion was bought by EMI Films.

The film was filmed almost entirely in the small Scottish towns of Gatehouse of Fleetmarker, Newton Stewartmarker, Kirkcudbrightmarker and a few scenes in the village of Creetownmarker in Dumfries and Galloway, as well as Plocktonmarker in Lochaber. Culzean Castlemarker in Ayrshiremarker and its grounds were also used for much of the shooting. Some of the opening flying shoots feature the Isle of Skyemarker, including the spectacular pinnacles of The Old Man of Storr, and the Quaraing. The end burning of the Wicker Man occurred at Burrow Head (on a caravan site).

Cast and crew



Distribution

By the time of the film's completion the studio had been bought by EMI, and British Lion was now managed by Michael Deeley. The DVD commentary track states that studio executives suggested a more "upbeat" ending to the film, in which a sudden rain puts the flames of the wicker man out and spares Howie's life, but this suggestion was refused. Hardy subsequently had to remove approximately 20 minutes of scenes on the mainland, early investigations, and (to Lee's disappointment) some of Lord Summerisle's initial meeting with Howie.

A copy of a finished, 99 minute film was sent to Americanmarker film producer Roger Corman in Hollywoodmarker to make a judgment of how to market the film in the USA. Corman recommended an additional 13 minutes be eliminated from the film. (Corman did not acquire US release rights, and eventually Warner Bros. test-marketed the film in drive-ins.) In Britain, the film was ordered reduced to roughly 87 minutes, with some narrative restructuring, and released as the "B" picture on a double bill with Don't Look Now. Despite Lee's claims that the reduction had disturbed the film's continuity, he urged local critics to see the film, even going so far as to offer to pay for their seats.

Restorations

The film was restored and re-released theatrically in 1979.
During the mid-1970s, Hardy made inquiries about the film, hoping to restore it to his original vision. Along with Lee and Shaffer, Hardy searched for his original version or raw footage. Both of these appeared to have been lost. Alex Cox said that the negative "ended up in the pylons that support the M4 motorway" in his Moviedrome introduction of 1988. Hardy remembered that a copy of the film, prior to Deeley's cuts, was sent to Roger Corman; it turned out that Corman still had a copy, possibly the only existing print of Hardy's version. The US rights had been sold by Warner Bros. to a small firm called Abraxas, managed by film buff Stirling Smith and critic John Simon. Stirling agreed to an American re-release of Hardy's reconstructed version. Hardy restored the narrative structure, some of the erotic elements which had been excised, and a very brief pre-title segment of Howie on the mainland (appearing at a church with his fiancée). A 96 minute restored version was released January, 1979, again to critical acclaim. Strangely, the original full-length film was available in the US on VHS home video from Media Home Entertainment (and later, Magnum) during the 1980s and 1990s. This video included additional, early scenes in Howie's police station that Hardy had left out of the 1979 version.

During 2001 the film's new worldwide rights owners, Canal+, began an effort to release the full-length film. Corman's full-length film copy had been lost, but a telecine transfer to 1-inch videotape existed. With this copy, missing elements were combined with film elements from the previous versions. (In particular, additional scenes of Howie on the mainland were restored, showing the chaste bachelor to be the object of gossip at his police station, and establishing his rigidly devout posture.) The DVD "Extended version" released by Canal+ (with Anchor Bay Entertainment handling US DVD distribution) is this hybrid version, considered the longest and closest version to Hardy's original, 99 minute version of the film. A two-disc limited edition set was sold with both the shortened, theatrical release version and the newly restored extended version, and a retrospective documentary, The Wicker Man Enigma. During 2005, Inside The Wicker Man author Allan Brown revealed he had discovered a series of stills taken on-set during the film's production showing the shooting of a number of sequences from the script that had never been seen before; indeed, it had never been certain that these scenes had actually been filmed. They include a scene in which Howie closes a mainland pub that is open after-hours, has an encounter with a prostitute, receives a massage from Willow McGregor and observes a brutal confrontation between Oak and a villager in The Green Man pub. These images might be featured in a revised edition of the book Inside The Wicker Man.

Anchor Bay Entertainment released a limited edition wooden box of The Wicker Man. 50,000 2-disk sets were made, and 20 of them were signed by actors Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward, writer Anthony Shaffer, producer Peter Snell, and director Robin Hardy.

Reception

The Wicker Man had moderate success and won first prize in the 1974 Festival of Fantastic Films in Parismarker, but largely slipped into obscurity. However, the American film magazine, Cinefantastique, devoted a commemorative issue to the film in 1977 — the praise that the film is "the Citizen Kane of horror movies" has been attributed to this issue.

During 2003 the Crichton Campus of the University of Glasgowmarker in Dumfries and Galloway hosted a three-day conference on The Wicker Man. The conference spawned two collections of articles about the film.

During 2006, The Wicker Man ranked 44th in the Scariest Movie Moments Of All Time on Bravo

Wicker Man starlet Britt Ekland appeared (recorded live) on the British TV show Friday Night with Jonathan Ross on BBC1 on Feb 1, 2008. Ross described the movie as one of his "all time favourites" and the BBC show also screened the infamous "wall-slapping" clip from The Wicker Man. Britt explained that she had refused to dance fully naked in the scene (though she did appear topless) because she had then recently discovered that she was pregnant, and said she later found out that the body double used for the scene was "a Glasgow stripper".

The Wicker Man ranks 485th on Empire magazine's 2008 list of the 500 greatest movies of all time.

Soundtrack

An important and often overlooked element to the film is the soundtrack, which often forms a major component of the narrative, just as with other important 'arthouse' films from that era such as Nicholas Roeg's Performance. Memorable songs accompany all of the crucial scenes i.e. the plane's arrival, Willow's dancing, the maypole dance, the girls jumping through fire, the search of the houses and the final burning scene. Indeed, director Robin Hardy surprised the cast by suddenly announcing midway through filming that they were making a "musical" (as per Ingrid Pitt in a subsequent documentary).

Composed, arranged and recorded by Paul Giovanni and Magnet, the soundtrack contains folk songs performed by characters in the film. The songs vary between traditional songs, original Giovanni compositions and even nursery rhyme in "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep".

Willow's Song” has been covered or sampled by various rock music bands. It was covered by the Sneaker Pimps as "How Do", and can be heard in the movie Hostel (2006). The song is included also in their 1996 release "Becoming X". Additionally, the band has also covered "Gently Johnny" as "Johnny" and is featured as a B-Side on their "Roll On" (1996) single.

It should be noted that the songs on the soundtrack were not, as some have said, actual cult songs used by pagans. All the songs were composed by Paul Giovanni, except in instances where he used well-known lyrics such as the words from the rhyme "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep". The song sung by the cultists of Summer Isle at the end of the film, "Sumer Is Icumen In" is a real song from the mid-13th century, but is not about Pagan rites as such. It is instead a song about Spring, or the Crucifixion if using the Latin words.

The Memory Band performed The Wicker Man at Glastonbury at 2pm on Saturday 27th June, onThe Park Stage, Glastonbury Festival 2009. The Memory Band featured Dot Allison, Adem, Hannah Caughlin and Liam Bailey from The Accidental, Jess Roberts, Joe Goddard from Hot Chip, John Smith, Tom Page, Rob Spriggs, Quinta, Sarah Scutt and Sarah Campbell and Dan Gibbons from East London Brass + special guests.

Remake

An American remake, starring Nicolas Cage and Ellen Burstyn and directed by Neil LaBute was released on 1 September 2006. Robin Hardy expressed concern about the remake. Subsequent to its release, Hardy simply described it as a different film rather than a remake. The remake was panned both critically and commercially. Today it has a significant cult following as an unintentional comedy, with several scenes on YouTube boasting Cage brutalizing various women throughout and terrorizing children, a fan-made comedy trailer of the film, and more.

Hardy is filming a "spiritual sequel" to The Wicker Man, which has previously gone under the working titles May Day Riding the Laddie and Cowboys for Christ and is now referred to as The Wicker Tree. Hardy has already published this story as a novel. First announced during April 2000, filming on the project was commenced on 19th July 2009 according to iMDb. It follows two young American Christian evangelists who travel to Scotland; like Woodward's character in The Wicker Man, the two Americans are virgins who encounter a pagan laird and his followers.

See also



Footnotes

  1. the 2006 remake holds a 15 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The Wicker Man - Movie Reviews, Trailers, Pictures - Rotten Tomatoes
  2. Exclusive: A Night with The Wicker Man / The Wicker Tree Footage Premiere Report
14. http://blogs.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendId=53083604&blogId=494401479 - item on the Memory Band event at Glastonbury Festivalmarker.

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