When Sergeant Howie, a mainland police officer, receives a letter detailing the disappearance of a young girl on the isolated Scottish island of Summerisle he launches an investigation to find young Rowan by himself. However upon arrival the righteous police officer finds himself dealing with obstructive locals and practices which shake his Christian core.
Made in the winter of 1973 The Wicker Man still stands as one of the finest British films ever made. Mixing a stunning script and tight plot by Anthony Shaffer, stunning direction by Robin Hardy and two central performances which have yet to be topped by either Edward Woodward (Sgt. Howie) or Christopher Lee (Lord Summerisle), it is an ingenious and peculiarly British film.
What is the central crux of the film is Howies rigid clash with the pagan ways of the islanders. From the moment he arrives on the Ireland Howie views himself as a bastion of moral and ethical superiority, his religious convictions putting him squarely at odds with the locals who flaunt their old ways with reckless abandon.
Howie finds himself in a world of pagan song and dance from which he is completely isolated. Saving himself for marriage he encounters a community who use sexuality as their way of worship, girls jump naked over fires, the maypole is declared a sign of fertility, boys are ritually matured, couples engage in romps below the stars, and the denizens of the pub break into rapturous verse about the Landlords daughter, Willow (a truly stunning performance by Britt Ekland).
Taking its practices from St James George Frazers The Golden Bough and incorporating the works of Robert Burns into its 13 songs the Wicker Man is a wondrously energetic and spirited glimpse at a neo-pagan community left to its own devices. Created by Lord Summerisles grandfather as part of an experiment in artificial crop production the practices of the island were assimilated from the very real mythology of ancient Britain, albeit a hodge podge of different customs.
However despite the initial frivolity it soon becomes clear that Howie has landed himself in a trap of epic proportions, a fatal game devised by Lord Summerisle and played by the entire island leading Howie, seemingly by his own freewill, to his brutal appointment with the Wicker Man.
The Wicker Man is a masterful horror movie largely because it mixes a general sense of unease with a vibrancy and playfulness that lures the viewer into a false sense of security. Sgt. Howie is not much of a sympathetic character and his reactionary response to the pagan practices does little to endear him to the audience. Standing against the rigid, pious and narrow minded police officer is an ensemble of characters that seem to bear the officer no ill will on the surface.
That the conclusion, despite being the only natural end to the story, is tragic and upsetting is down to Woodwards performance who gives Howie an innocence that offsets his less than friendly reaction to the islanders. For all the possible accusations of anti-Christianity levelled against the film the last minutes, when Howie accepts his fate it can be seen as a powerful depiction of Christian martyrdom.
If I have not mentioned the finale in any great detail it is because I wish not to surprise the sheer cataclysmic horror of the initial reveal and subsequent end.
The Wicker Man is a movie that has been with me for 10 years now and despite the horror elements it is a film that I find to be constantly uplifting and enrapturing. Aided by a wondrous folk score, provided by Paul Giovanni, and beautiful location shooting it is by far one of my all time favourite movies.
It is a great crime that the original negatives of the film have been lost, seemingly forever, but as it stands this is one of the great British movies and without a doubt the pinnacle of Christopher Lees career.
This film is an iconic masterpiece which should be essentially viewing for any person interested in movies.
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