The Wicker Man is a 1973 British folk horror feature film, directed by Robin Hardy and written by Anthony Shaffer.
Inspired by the basic scenario of David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual, the story centres on the visit of Police Sergeant Neil Howie to the isolated island of Summerisle, in search of a missing girl the locals claim never existed. Howie, a devout Christian, is appalled to find that the inhabitants of the island practise a form of Celtic paganism.
The Wicker Man is generally well regarded by critics. 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.
In 2006, an ill-received American remake was released, from which Robin Hardy and others involved with the original disassociated themselves.
In 2011, a spiritual sequel entitled The Wicker Tree was released to decidedly mixed reviews. The film was also directed by Robin Hardy and featured Christopher Lee in a brief cameo appearance.
The Wicker Man is a masterpiece (and is so in all versions). Possibly the finest British horror film – one of the finest British films full stop, come to think of it – it’s a movie that manages to remain as fresh now as when it was first shot, thanks to the fact that it seemed oddly out of time in 1973 – while a contemporary story, there is little here to date it, given that Summerisle is such an isolated, insular and out-of-time community.
While perhaps slow-paced by modern standards, the film still manages to be an intriguing puzzle of a story and one of the few mysteries with a final twist that continues to work on multiple viewings.
David Flint, MOVIES and MANIA
“It is a rather cruel film, only fantastic in its imagery (Jungian rather than Freudian) and in its suggestion that sacrificial rituals are so close to the surface of human consciousness, perhaps in the form of a race memory, that they may erupt again at any time.” Nigel Honeybone, Horror News
“It’s only when Rowan finally appears that everything falls into place. And it doesn’t matter how many times you see it, or whether you know exactly what to expect (and everyone does) – the look on Howie’s face when he realises what the smiling, dancing islanders have in store for him and his useless screams for mercy and absolution are truly terrifying – and something which stay with you long after the Wicker Man has bowed his head to the setting sun.” British Horror Films
“Absolute nonsense, of course. And yet it is so persuasively written by the remarkably agile-minded Anthony Shaffer, that few will be able to suppress a shudder as the awful truth finally dawns … an immensely enjoyable piece of hokum, thoroughly well researched, performed and directed.” David McGillivray, BFI Monthly Film Bulletin, January 1974
Cast and characters:
- Edward Woodward … Sergeant Howie
- Christopher Lee … Lord Summerisle
- Diane Cilento … Miss Rose
- Britt Ekland … Willow
- Ingrid Pitt … Librarian
- Lindsay Kemp … Alder MacGreagor
- Russell Waters … Harbour Master
- Aubrey Morris … Old Gardener / Gravedigger
- Irene Sunters … May Morrison (as Irene Sunter)
- Walter Carr … School Master
- Ian Campbell … Oak
- Leslie Blackater … Hairdresser
- Roy Boyd … Broome
- Peter Brewis … Musician
- Barbara Rafferty … Woman with Baby (as Barbara Ann Brown)
Robin Hardy’s unique film never strutted with the posture of a film destined to become a classic. Though immaculately sketched out by Anthony Shaffer, fresh from penning both Hitchcock’s Frenzy and the remarkable Sleuth, and starring both Edward Woodward, an established star in Britain and Christopher Lee (as Lord Summerisle) whose reputation went before him, the film is so resolutely British that finding an audience overseas seemed doomed. This is to the filmmaker’s great credit; without bowing down to foreign markets and distributors, the film still hits upon themes that are relevant around the world. The Wicker Man‘s unique mesmeric music plays no small part in this.
Shaffer’s original screenplay always stipulated that folk music should play a key part in the film, as much as anything to say what it would take several thousand words more to, particularly in terms of Lord Summerisle’s bizarre-sounding philosophies. Lyrics from Victorian-era folk songs were implanted into the text to give a feeling of tone and it was these that were initially felt would be fleshed out and used – director, Robin Hardy, had other ideas.
Having heard his slightly modern use of folk music in an American stage production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Hardy approached composer Paul Giovanni, a US citizen. Giovanni was a friend of Shaffer’s brother, Peter, which doubtless didn’t go against him. His method was to meld the lyrics Shaffer had suggested and weave them into something that was uniquely his own.
For example, the lyrics to one of the signature songs, “Gently, Johnny”, is an amalgam of three separate lines melded together to create something that though perhaps familiar to some, had never existed before. The performance of the songs was also key; there was no point depicting an isolated, bleak, insular Scottish island on the screen but getting the perfectly formed songs performed by a full-scale orchestra; the effect would be of Hollywood running riot in the Highlands.
As such, just six [though proficient in multiple instruments] players, rechristened as the group Magnet, were chosen from the Royal Academy and their weapons of war were duly Celtic harps, pipes and assorted percussive charges.
Giovanni continued to tinker with existing texts to embroider into his own work; the lyrics to “The Landlord’s Daughter” were ‘borrowed’ from an 18th Century poem, “The Public Harlot”, whilst perhaps the most famous piece, “Cornrigs and Barleyrigs” is a straight steal from the Robert Burns poem of the same name. Musically, all was not plain sailing. The film’s backers, British Lion, were somewhat nervous of such a leftfield score, especially with an American at the helm; funds were not lavished upon them.
This led to awkward studio incidents at Shepperton, the recordings of the brass for the Mayday parade were distinctly ropey and yet, ironically, this lent the sound an even more authentic feel. Giovanni was, though enthusiastic, unskilled at controlling so many instruments; given that the songs were often performed by characters in the film, the again gives an entirely believable quaintness and rustic naivety.
The film also makes use of the environment to great effect. The locals are often heard to sing and laugh in unison, at once reverting to one of the oldest of all effects, the Greek Chorus. The lilting Scottish accent balanced against Lee’s robust English laird’s tones is musical in itself.
Beyond Britt Ekland’s dubbed accent we aren’t laboured with cod-local language, there is no effort to Americanise, or even Anglicise the actors vocal offerings. Everything from the crashing of the waves against the rocks and the ‘clack’ of the hobby-horses mouth reminds you that you are rooted in the real world; there will not be a denouement of dragons coming to eat people, helicopters scrambled to Woodward’s rescue or, even worse, it was all a dream – the film reaches its own conclusion on its own very peculiar path.
Though championed by a select few at the time, it was fully twenty years before most critics and audiences fully re-appraised the film and the music. Like so many innovators, Giovanni never truly dabbled again with music, preferring to chance his hand at directing on the stage, receiving a Tony nomination for The Crucifer of Blood in 1978. Never really able to experience the plaudits his work on The Wicker Man eventually received, he died from complications from the AIDS virus in 1990. It was inevitably back in Britain that work went on the rescue his lost masterpiece.
The eventual wielder of the musical Excalibur was Jonathan Benton-Hughes, renamed Jonny Trunk after the record label he continues to curate. The sourcing of the original tapes proved to be a nightmare, as did tracking down who owned the musical rights, so often the stumbling block as to why soundtracks aren’t released – it either simply isn’t possible to locate who owns them or is prohibitively expensive.
The twelve sacred reels were eventually sourced at Lumiere, who had previously owned the rights to the film. Three years of detective work and battles against bootleggers and nosey distributors, and the soundtrack finally saw the light of day commercially in 1997, initially in limited vinyl formats – first black, then red – with a map of the island included. You can now only purchase these on auction sites for the price of the computer you’re using to search for them!
Mysteries still remain – the identities of Magnet are unknown, as is the singer of ‘Willow’s Song’, as mimed to by a nude Britt Ekland. Except it wasn’t all Britt Ekland, it was her body double for the nude shots. Lyrics for the songs are cobbled together, no definitive text exists; other fleeting pieces of music have not been able to be located. It is likely they never will.
The soundtrack to The Wicker Man is a fine example of how, standing back from a film, the beauty and importance of the score and sound effects can really shine. What was once lost and unloved has become one of the most coveted soundtrack albums ever released.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES and MANIA