Feature Articles    The Wicker Man: the Return of the Pagan World

(1973 edition)
The Wicker Man is a remarkable story of the duality between the Christian and pagan ways, set against a Scottish background. In recent years, the story of the movie itself has been used as the struggle between the old Christian establishment and the reintroduction into Western society of “pagan movies”, of which The Wicker Man was one of the most shining examples.
by Philip Coppens

Most film-buffs will know The Wicker Man for an early appearance of Britt Ekland. In essence, it is nothing more than a B-movie, produced in 1973. But over the past thirty years, the film has grown in cult appeal, with film fans debating which cut has what, who made it, why, when, etc. Pub quiz knowledge aside, The Wicker Man is memorable for it depicts a Scottish island, Summerisle, which has returned to the old pagan religion, abandoning Christianity. When its crop of apples fails in the summer of 1972, it lures a Christian policeman to the island, to sacrifice him to the solar deity, to appease them, so that the crops will be successful in the summer of 1973. The Wicker Man began life in 1972 when actor Christopher Lee, Peter Snell (head of the film company British Lion) and writer Anthony Shaffer played with the idea to turn the book Ritual by David Pinner (1967) into a screenplay. Though the rights were purchased, the book lacked cinematographic impact. An old associate of Shaffer, director Robin Hardy, brainstormed new ideas that in the end would form the framework for the finished movie. The main source that was used to reconstruct the old pagan world was Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a compendium of the rituals of yesteryears. The result was the story of a devoutly religious police sergeant who is confronted with the old pagan beliefs of the locals on the Summer Isles, on the west coast of Scotland. Standard pagan imagery is depicted throughout the movie: children at school learn ancient medicine… or should that be sorcery; the religious festivals are those of the Maypole, with children being taught it represents the phallus. The community drinks in The Green Man Inn, while outside, couples have no shame or dance around the fire amidst Stonehenge replicas. Police sergeant Howie might find the scenes he has to witness despicable, but they have transformed Summerisle from a rundown community to a society where apples are grown – a virtual impossibility in the harsh settings of the Hebridean islands.

The central story is that of police officer Howie, who comes to the Isle of Apples – Avalon – in search of the mysterious disappearance of a schoolgirl, Rowan Morrison. Unaware that he is being manipulated by the local population, he eventually learns he has been a fool… and will suffer the fool’s fate: he will be sacrificed, in his role as king (representative of the law), fool (which he clearly is) and virgin (he is reserving sexual activity until he is married). In the role of king, he is the substitute of the true power of the islands, Lord Summerisle. Howie himself, now aware of the fate that will befall him, prophesizes that if this year the crops will fail again, a substitute will no longer suffice and the king himself will have to make the final sacrifice himself. That sacrifice is his burning to death, inside the Wicker Man. With his sacrifice to the pagan god, Howie now becomes like Christ, his example, himself: he is sacrificed for the goods of Mankind – the people of the Earth. A Wicker Man was indeed used to offer sacrifices to the gods. The victims were animals and humans, the latter often prisoners, taken during wars or convicts found guilty of a crime deserving death. The origin of human sacrifice is almost certainly Caesar’s account of the druids in his Gallic Wars. Caesar describes a ritual in which large, compartmentalized wicker effigies were filled with grains, small animals, and even human slaves, before being burned as sacrifices.

The burning of effigies is one of the oldest and most widespread forms of pagan (and indeed human) worship. The burning of flags and effigies of political leaders continues to be seen on our television screens. The burning of a human effigy is intended to create a spirit messenger: the forge a link between the celebrant and the powers that are normally beyond their control; burning the flag of a country is a symbolism of those who burn that they want to have power over the leaders of the country whose flag they burn.

In antiquity, the energy of fire was connected with the sun, the bringer of light, often the image with whom god was identified; for some it was the fire of inner change and transformation, the quest for knowledge and power. Frazier saw the fire festival as a rite of purification, which is largely what the events on Summerisle are: a cleansing, in which the people of the island restate their allegiance to “the powers”. The most important fire festivals of Old Europe were held in conjunction with the turning points of the solar year: Midsummer, Winter Solstice, the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes. May Day is an intercalendrical date that is known for its fire festival, which was used for the purpose of the film.

The fire festivals use fire to fulfil the symbolic functions that mirror the effects of the sun; in particular, they focus on fertilization and growth. Leaping the bonfire (and, in the process, exposing one’s reproductive organs to its flame) is widely held to promote fertility, as can also be seen in the movie. The pagan details are what made the movie an underground favourite. Stories that the movie had been forbidden or deliberately lost still circulate in certain circles. Despite its low budget approach, it had the backing of Christopher Lee from the outset. The film was also Lee’s attempt to break out of the Hammer Dracula cycle that had become his on screen identity. Ingrid Pitt, a veteran of British horror, was signed on for the role of keeper of the island’s records office, while the role of Sgt. Neil Howie went to Edward Woodward, at the time a popular character on television’s Callan. Diane Cilento (ex-Mrs. Sean Connery, later Mrs. Anthony Shaffer, the film’s director) was persuaded out of semi-retirement for the important part of the island’s school teacher, Miss Rose, the woman who is identified as the source of all corruption on the island. Britt Ekland was chosen as the innkeeper’s daughter, Willow, to secure American interest. The fact that she could not produce a reasonable Scottish accent forced all of Ekland’s dialogue to be dubbed in post-production. Filming lasted for eight weeks, occurring in late autumn 1972. Autumn was turned into summer by using fake plastic apple trees and decorating the bare trees with fake blossom. Most of the shooting occurred around the film’s base of Newton Stewart, Scotland – none of the filming actually occurred on an island. One location used was Castle Kennedy, the grounds used for the scenes involving the stone circle and the May day procession.

The Old Man of Storr Dumfries and Galloway is known for its old megalithic remains – many to the south of Newton Stewart. The cave and beach scenes were filmed near St Ninian’s Cave, a site linked with the first Christian hermit who came to the area to preach Christianity in the mid 5th century. However, all locations linked with St Ninian are ancient pagan sites, which the saint claimed for Christianity. The cave contains seven crosses scratched on the stone, possibly dating from the 6th or 7th century AD. The cave itself is not very deep and the interior cave scenes in the movie were filmed elsewhere, in a cave near Stranraer.

The movie’s interest in ancient lore is so detailed that during the opening scenes, there is even imagery of the Old Man of Storr, on the Isle of Skye – a magical location, whose name betrays its ancient religious importance. The finale of the movie occurs on Burrow Head itself, nestled between St Ninian’s chapel and St Ninian’s cave, the southernmost point of “the Isle of Whithorn”. Down a small track on the edge of the Hoseasons Caravan site are the remains of the legs of the Wicker Man, set in a concrete base. The distributor initially refused to release the film, even in Britain, maintaining that it had no market value whatsoever. As Howie himself stated in the movie: Britain was in name still a Christian country… the quaint exploits of the people of a strange Scottish island were not believed to appeal to the British cinema goer.

However, the movie was made, and money had to be recuperated. The film was entered in the non-competition section of the Cannes Film Festival that year, complete with a huge wicker man prop erected outside the main hotel. The movie was then offered for an American distribution, who requesting shortening the movie. Despite these modifications, the film wasn’t secured for an American release. A sum of 200,000 dollars was offered by another distributor, but they went bankrupt four days after the contract was signed. The rights then passed to Warner Brothers, who tested the film in certain areas of the US, but eventually decided not to release it nationally. In the UK, the film was released in December 1973, with Christopher Lee apparently telephoning all the film critics that he knew, begging them to attend the film and even offering to pay for their seats. . It almost seemed as if the movie itself needed a sacrifice so that its fortune would change. Over the following years, the film’s reputation grew, particularly in America. It was eventually released in America in January 1979, where it became a huge success. It appeared on television numerous times, despite some public opinion that broadcasters were against the film’s airings. In November 1998, the BBC even made a documentary on the appeal of the movie, which has resulted in the publication of fanzines. For some, the appeal of the Wicker Man is as magical. But what else should one expect from a movie that is about magic? Review of 2006 edition: The Wicker Man received in 2006 a “Hollywood makeover”. In 2005, Robin Hardy, the original director of The Wicker Man, had called in his lawyers to have his name taken off promotional material: “The amazing thing is that all the publicity keeps on saying that I have written the screenplay, which is obviously not true,” said Hardy, who did not even take a writing credit on the original, though he worked closely with writer Anthony Shaffer.

He was at the time also worried about some of the rewrites to the storyline. In the original, Woodward’s character, the police inspector to be burnt, was a virgin, making him ideal for sacrifice. That element was ditched from the remake, because it was thought that while audiences would accept the idea of an American community that practised human sacrifice, the idea of a grown-up virgin was apparently too farfetched. The remake of “The Wicker Man” did not have any advance press screenings. Such evasion techniques normally do not bode well – and unfortunately, the early calls of scepticism from the likes of Hardy proved all too true.

At first, you wonder whether this is a remake or a liberal interpretation of the original movie. Nicolas Cage turns out to be a California Highway Patrolman, Edward Malus, who sees a mother and her daughter killed in a car crash, though no bodies are retrieved. It leaves him shaken and incapable to work. In the original edition, there was a prologue too, but this was cut from the actual release. The prologue was there to show that the police officer was a devout, fundamental Catholic. But in the remake, there really is no clear reason why Cage should be involved in this enigmatic accident, which the scriptwriter obviously never had to explain during the production process as to how it fit in the plot and the editor seemed unable to cut it out because of the expense gone into the special effects. At a time when the United States are, apart from controversial international politics, particularly known for being a hotbed of extreme and ultra-conservative Christianity, surely leaving the original stand-off between Christianity and paganism intact would have been a better choice? If The Da Vinci Code showed anything, it is that… Or was it deemed to be too controversial?

Cage then travels to a remote island commune in Washington to locate the missing daughter of his ex-fiancé. There he discovers a matriarchy of pagans who indulge in human sacrifice to ensure the fertility of their harvest. You can see the differences, as well as the resemblances to the 1973 version. The American adaptation was done by the controversial playwright/filmmaker Neil LaBute, who moved the island of neo-Druids from Scotland to somewhere off the coast of Washington (which works), and has it run entirely by women, casting Ellen Burstyn as the Queen Bee, with a few men existing as eunuch-servants. The inclusion of beekeeping was a nice, highly symbolic element, with honey replacing apples as the main product upon which the island economy drives – but it is too little to make the movie work.

Though the finale is retained for the update, the soul-smashing, faith-crushing impact it is supposed to have amounts to nothing more than just another modern-movie “twist ending.” The theatrical release had a “six months later” epilogue, which was the ultimate insult to the intelligence of even the most stupid of cinema goers and destroyed any of the believability of the material it may have had with some. If it shows anything, it is that LaBute seems to think every person going to a movie has absolutely no intelligence whatsoever… fortunately, it was dropped for the DVD release. The original edition was notorious for its situational humour and contrast between the police officer who tries to find his feet but is slowly slipping down the slope of madness. Some attempt is made by Cage, waving his badge around like he has jurisdiction, flailing his arms around angrily, shouting at women and children alike and even pulling his gun on them, but you wonder whether Cage actually “got it” as to what he was meant to portray. So it’s difficult to say whether it is bad acting or bad screenwriting… but the end result is just not there when compared with the original edition. As a remake, it left out the positives of the original and was either unable or forgot to replace them with something else. Unremarkably, the movie was nominated for five 2006 Golden Raspberry Awards: Worst Picture, Worst Actor (Nicolas Cage), Worst Screenplay, Worst Remake or Rip-off and Worst Screen Couple (Nicolas Cage and His Bear Suit). Remarkably, like the original edition, the movie garnered a cult following as an unintentional comedy, with several scenes being posted on YouTube boasting repeated shots of Nicholas Cage brutalizing various women throughout the film.