The Wicker Man poster art by Dan Mumford, https://www.dan-mumford.com/
November 6, 2023
By Tim Pelan
Making the film was great fun. It was shot in 25 different locations and, since it was set in spring, and we were shooting in November, we had to glue leaves and blossom on to the trees wherever we were. The opening sequence, with aerial shots from the plane arriving, was actually filmed in South Africa, because we didn’t have the budget to glue blossom to that many trees. The final scene, the sacrifice, took place in Dumfriesshire. The wicker man was enormous. The stunned look on Howie’s face when he first sees it wasn’t acting—up until then, Edward had only seen drawings. He clambered in and we set it on fire, filming from the inside. There was a goat inside there, above us. Understandably concerned about the fire, it pissed on us. Although the fire brigade put the blaze out several times, we were always in control. We faced demands to change the ending, to save Howie from the fire—someone at the studio even suggested torrential rain—but it wasn’t going to happen. There was a power struggle going on at British Lion, the film company. Some executives were trying to destabilise Peter Snell, the managing director and producer of ‘The Wicker Man.’ They said the film was rubbish and undistributable, eventually sending it out as a supporting feature to ‘Don’t Look Now.’ Christopher was furious and told them: “This is the best film I’ve ever done.” He took it to Paris where it won the Grand Prix du Film Fantastique and then got great reviews in America. It had become a very good story for journalists—a studio rubbishing its own acclaimed film. So British Lion had to start promoting it properly.
1973’s The Wicker Man is both a folk horror, one of the finest of its kind; and a cosmic joke about the vanities of faith as the Summerisle establishment endeavors to manipulate the pagan populace and get “down with the kids”—“He’s [God] dead. He can’t complain; he had his chance and in modern parlance, he ‘blew it.’” Virile youths cavort nakedly around Maypoles or leap naked over flames as leery, lusty folk songs play, gradually luring the staid Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) to his doom within the titular sacrificial figure to appease the gods and ensure a bumper crop of apples. And meanwhile on the mainland the freewheeling sixties lie of brotherly love and sex for all spins into freefall and anarchy, and The Wicker Man, an oddity of a film, virtually disappears from sight. Robin Hardy directed it and long-time friend Anthony Schaffer wrote it. Hardy told Sight and Sound for its October 2013 issue upon the occasion of The Wicker Man’s 40th anniversary (we are now getting a 50th-anniversary bumper physical release and limited theatrical screening) to think of it as “one huge game. We had been aﬁcionados of the Hammer ﬁlms. They used all the old clichés of the witchcraft thing, holding up crosses, garlic—things the Catholic Church invented as propaganda against the still-surviving old religion that they had replaced. We thought it would be quite good to create a society where the actual Celtic religion informed everybody. We went for all the religious and quasi-religious things which informed the mythology of various nations going back, back, back. I had a house on a little island on the Thames… Tony came and spent a long weekend in 71 or 72 and we worked out the story there.”
The film has a long and chequered history, being butchered upon its initial release, shoehorned into a double feature with Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. At the same time being championed by its Lord Summerisle star Christopher Lee, shouting at clouds much like his character before the Wicker Man itself, until the film gradually developed a newfound reputation as longer cuts were restored, not least through the assistance of Alex Cox’s cult Moviedrome slot on late night BBC2.
Ostensibly about the mysterious disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison, who the smiling islanders claim to not even know, the film details the equally devout and Christian Sgt Howie’s frustrations at the trammels of the paganist, bizarre practices of a collective counterpoint in splendid isolation—all alfresco “how’s your father” on the village green and saucy sing-alongs in the village pub, whilst the landlord’s teasingly testing daughter (Britt Ekland), whose other job is to deflower the island’s youth, writhes, moans and slams the wall in her room as Howie, night attire clutched about him like Wee Willie Winky, sweats guiltily in situ next door. To Howie’s horror, the village children are taught not about resurrection, but reincarnation—“children find it far easier to picture reincarnation than resurrection… rotting bodies are a great stumbling block for the childish imagination.” The May Day festivities, which Howie has been lured to “partake in” timeously, bring all activity to a halt as the townsfolk prepare a ritualized sacrifice in honor of the sun god and the goddess of the fields.
Lord Summerisle, memorably played by Christopher Lee, is the islanders’ cult leader, the grandson of a Victorian scientist who developed a special strain of apple that could thrive in the island’s harsh climate. His ancestor, like the British Romantic poets of the 19th century also reintroduced the old gods to the island folk, bringing pantheistic light and lust into their dour lives. Both projects have thrived, until now. In a last-ditch attempt to appease the Sun God, Howie, a virginal innocent imbued with Kingly virtues (by means of his station in life as a police officer), is to be burnt in the ancient pagan edifice, in the unholy light of day, Summerisle, their “chieftain,” slyly opting out of that particular practice for himself. Christopher Lee described him as a “benevolent dictator.”
“Summerisle is a simple pagan—if you can call that simple. He is both king and priest in one. But very dangerous. He’s a man, too, of impeccable charm and manners and good taste, an authority, articulate, in many ways a very delightful person. And you can find a bit of that in everyone… You can say that Summerisle is an amalgam of many roles I have played on-screen. Figures of power, of mystery, of authority, of presence. There is quite a lot of my natural delivery in the way Summerisle’s dialogue was written… I have been called upon to play acceptably straight characters—agreeable, courteous, amusing—add to that the suggestion that the character is not quite what he seems, and I have played them many times. Also in the changes of mood. The fact that Summerisle is dangerous when crossed perfectly applies to me: Christopher Lee does not forget a wrong done to him, so I’m dangerous when crossed, too. That’s not a very Christian attitude, perhaps, but it’s a very human one.”
In a sense, Howie has numerous opportunities to succumb to the flesh and escape his fate, but he is too sanctimonious, too proud and blinkered, and too pure. Howie do you like them apples? The whole bizarre episode is seen through his eyes, a mix of comic cuts and daffy disturbance. Aleister Crowley meets Benny Hill. Hardy told S&S, “It’s where Tony and I met. We enjoyed that sort of humor, that sort of bathos.”
Of course the arcane rituals and suggestiveness are still carried out to some faint degree in English Maypole festivals. Hardy recalled in an early Cinefantastique in-depth piece on the film: “[In the later 1960s] we were filming in the Cornwall area, and one evening we went into Padstow for dinner. Now that is a village where these [traditional folk] festivals are still held, and quite by accident we stumbled right on to it. We saw the hobby horse chasing the girls [as shown in The Wicker Man], everything. But they had seemed to put up a wall of evasion about it. And it was very unpleasant being a stranger in that town on that day.”
“I thought it would be fun and entertaining and probably truthful if we used folksongs,” says Hardy. “Nearly all of Robert Burns’ great poems have been put to music, so we used those, and then there were ones that were cooked up and sounded more Victorian, like The Landlord’s Daughter.” Italian-American playwright and musician Paul Giovanni arranged the overall score and performed the songs with the band Magnet. “Songs like the maypole song tell you what’s going on without the need for a great deal of back-and-forth dialogue,” says Hardy. “It’s not new—opera has done it for years. But it was new in the sense of the kind of music we used.” The songs’ lyrics are more than just bawdy, though. They are more often to do with fertility, and the natural world. From A Year In The Country: “They become akin to a form of propaganda intended to convince the listener/islanders that this is the correct and natural way of being and there is a sort of overpowering enforcement of conformity to them, disguised as a form of liberal paganism.”
Although some have criticized Hardy’s direction as middling, the film benefits from his extraordinary detailing of the film’s set-up, the excellent production design of Seamus Flannery and the great cinematography of Harry Waxman. The Island setting is made up of multiple locations, albeit filmed in the coldness of late winter, not May—actors had to suck on ice cubes before a take to hide their breath. Flannery had to dress each individual plant with blossoms, which were yet to naturally bloom, by driving around a truck full of trees and plants wired with blossoms which could be attached to existing greenery. The exotic vegetation, including palm trees, is real—resulting from a quirk of nature in which the coral and volcanic-derived soil and nearby warm Gulf Stream have helped it thrive in Western Scotland where it ought not to.
Hardy spent four months in England studying paganism. “To begin with, we thought of a Hebridean island that could have been made fruitful by an agronomist. It had to have the Gulf Stream phenomenon to fit the story, simply because paganism was closely affected with the crops and sun worship. And I discovered that such island paradises existed. For instance, the Scilly Isles have a strong romantic tradition of the sort we ascribed to Summerisle and are fairly well-known in England. As late as 1920, Lord Leverham, who founded Lever Brothers, bought an island and turned it into a model farm—it’s still there. He did it not just to grow palm trees for the sake of growing them, but more like Lord Summerisle’s grandfather; he was an experimental agronomist and tried to develop new strains and succeeded. Those palm trees that we used in the film, for instance, are real. As to the pagan culture, everything you see in the film is absolutely authentic. The whole series of ceremonies and details that we show have happened at different times and places in Britain and Western Europe. What we did was to bring them all together in one particular place and time.”
“The wicker man itself is quite real. The Druids used the structure to burn their sacrificial victims. Historically, the first mention of it is in Julius Caesar’s Diaries, in 55 BC, when he noted that Roman prisoners of war were taken by the British tribes and burned as sacrifices. As far as that practice goes, sacrifice is common to every pagan religion in Europe. The Celts were by no means different from the Romans or the Greeks, or the Celtic British, now the Welsh. It was a completely universal practice.”
Schaffer (to Cinefantastique): “We don’t know if Summerisle’s sacrifice fails—the apples could come tumbling out of the trees that year, but if they don’t, the people will have to have another go next year. And they must go back to the community for the victim, and who’s the top banana there? The Summerisle character. That’s why I shoved that line in there when Howie warns him.” Locals were largely used as extras in many scenes, including the climactic burning. Hardy had to reassure them the animals within the Wicker Man would not be burned, but taken down the same way they got up, by cherry picker (Woodward was famously warmed by a nervous goat’s pee dribbling down on top of him).
Of course, upon its 50th anniversary, now that Brexit is well and truly upon us, The Wicker Man is even more apposite. A tweed-wearing establishment figure stirs up a “local island for local people!” where we will gather our own fruit and burn our bridges to the mainland/continent in a bid to solve our own issues in “broad, sunlit uplands.” As The Quietus so aptly puts it, “The fact that both the Summerislanders and 52% of the voting electorate were taken in by such arguments… is rather depressing in hindsight. Yet The Wicker Man also explains the ease with which such lies were lapped up. The whole narrative of the film functions on it being isolated, set on an island away from the general moral and political consensus. Britain has been faced with its own islander mentality for some time, the term referring to its border-heavy outlook, obsessed with the paranoid perception of its own constructed identity coming under pressure from its colonial past folding back in upon itself; the absolute tyranny of the ‘Good old days’ and its blindsided nostalgia.” When the penny finally drops on what we sacrificed, who of our “masters” will be asked, “Come, it is time to keep your appointment with The Wicker Man”?
Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
Its scriptwriter, Tony Shaffer, and I had been partners in a television company for 13 years when we talked about doing a “film fantastique”—an otherworldly fantasy feature. At the time, British horror films had a set of parameters: you drove stakes through people’s hearts, you flourished garlic, and there was a standard movie-industry idea of the occult. We thought it would be amusing to go back to the roots of the occult, which is in the old religions. At the same time, we were always playing games with each other—usually innocent, sometimes devastating—and so came the idea of doing an occult detective story in which a game is played out. We spent a weekend at my house on an island on the Thames and wrote the entire story. —Robin Hardy
A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Anthony Shaffer’s screenplay for The Wicker Man [PDF1, PDF2]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The Wicker Man 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition (4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray) is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
“THE CITIZEN KANE OF HORROR PICTURES”
In 1977, the acclaimed American film magazine Cinefantastique devoted the majority of its volume 6, number 3 issue to The Wicker Man. This coincided with the American release of the film. A great deal of what is known about the film comes from this extensive article. Seeing as this often quoted issue has been out of print for some thirty years, here is the article in its entirety [PDF]. The piece was written by David Bartholomew.
The main long article was based in part on interviews with the abovementioned director Robin Hardy, Christopher Lee who played Lord Summer Isle, Anthony Shaffer who wrote the screenplay, the soundtrack composer Paul Giovanni, producer Peter Snell and also Stirling Smith and David Blake who were involved in the film’s American distribution. —The Wicker Man Cinefantastique Issue: Reclaiming a Folkloric Behemoth: Wanderings
Mauled by the studio, obsessed over by fans, deconstructed by academics, remade with Nicolas Cage—yet the pagan British weirdness of The Wicker Man remains fresh. Unveiling The Final Cut in 2013, its director recalls the making of a myth.
Forty years on, ‘The Wicker Man’ still stands alone. Resistant to genre labels, of its time but ahead of its time, it also harks to a world outside time—a mysterious, tantalising world of indistinct folk memory, a distant Albion that lies within us all. Technological advances have not diminished our ache for something less artificial; and, as we plunge ever faster into an uncertain future, yet reach back and wonder at a shared folk history that remains just out of our grasp, ‘The Wicker Man’’s ribald relevance is endlessly refreshed, and its earthy allure grows stronger. “It stands apart from time and space,” concludes Hardy. “I think it has endured because it’s about part of this country’s life, and mythology, and existence.” While we remain sceptical of modernity and power, and ponder what we might believe in, but still enjoy a joke and a sing-song, ‘The Wicker Man’ will continue to tower enigmatically above us—whether we gather a good harvest or not. —Long arm of the lore: Robin Hardy on The Wicker Man
A documentary detailing the process of the creation of The Wicker Man and the subsequent problems distributing it.
A documentary from the late 1990s about The Wicker Man. This was only shown once on Scottish TV.
Alex Cox introduces The Wicker Man on (the first ever) Moviedrome (BBC2, 1988).
The Wicker Man feature length commentary featuring Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward, and director Robin Hardy, moderated by Mark Kermode.
Interview with director Robin Hardy and actor Christopher Lee on their film The Wicker Man.
The Wicker Man director Robin Hardy talks to curators Vic Pratt and Will Fowler about the film’s restoration and the circumstances surrounding its production and troubled release 40 years ago.
Robin Hardy answers questions from a panel and the audience after a showing of his film, The Wicker Man.
Filmed in London on May 1, the 50th anniversary screening Q&A was presented by Edith Bowman and included guest of honor Britt Ekland, associate musical director from the film Gary Carpenter, the family of the director, and much more. It’s a fascinating look at the beloved film that adds a lot of context to the story behind the film.
‘THE WICKER MAN’: THE OFFICIAL STORY OF THE FILM
Author and filmmaker John Walsh tells the story of how this singular—and somewhat unlikely—folk-horror classic came to be, illustrated with fascinating behind-the-scenes photography, new interviews, exclusive artwork, and never-before-seen material from the StudioCanal archives. Learn the secret history of Summerisle—if you dare… —Titan Books
THE MUSIC OF ‘WICKER MAN’
“British Lion wanted the film to be made quickly and cheaply, with students playing the music to save money. But the Royal College of Music blocked this, saying it would be too disruptive and time-consuming for its students. So they looked at recent graduates instead—and that was me. I was invited to meet Paul Giovanni, who wrote the songs. I was involved in a band called Hocket—a Fairport Convention knock-off really—but I told him I could get people who knew about folk music and were cheaper than his first choice, Pentangle. We called ourselves Magnet and got into Paul’s soundworld very quickly. We were interested in this semi-mystical occult shit and played music that touched on real traditions—Celtic music, Irish folk. On one occasion, Paul suggested we all smoke dope. I’d never tried it; we spent so much time on the floor laughing that nobody could play their instruments. Although we recorded the music before the film was made, it totally captures the mood. We were flown up for the entire shoot. I had to bang a drum to keep Britt Ekland in time, so her topless mime stayed in sync with Willow’s Song. The whole thing took 13 hours to shoot, so between takes she was covered in a towel. I had to remove it every time they filmed. It’s the weirdest job I’ve ever had—but certainly not the most unpleasant. I’m in the film several times: in the pub playing along as Paul Giovanni sings Gently Johnny; though my big moment comes at the end when Howie is being stripped and I’m playing the lyre above his head. We’d no idea the music would become so influential. When I worked with Damon Albarn on the soundtrack to the [1999 horror film] Ravenous, he said he wanted it to sound like The Wicker Man. I said: ‘You know I did The Wicker Man?’ He went: ‘I had no idea. Nobody tells me sod all.’” —Gary Carpenter
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. Photographed by John Brown © British Lion Film Corporation. Rarely seen photographs of the filmmakers and cast on location in Scotland, courtesy of StudioCanal. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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