Christopher Lee

The Wicker Man (1973)

Theatrical poster for the film.

Director: Robin Hardy

Screenplay: Anthony Shaffer

Based on: Ritual by David Pinner

Starring: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Eckland, Ingrid Pitt

Running Time: 88 minutes (Theatrical Cut), 94 minutes (Final Cut), 99 minutes (Director’s Cut), 101 minutes (VHS Cut)

Language: English

Year: 1973

Edward Woodward (right) as Sergeant Neil Howie questioning the islanders about the missing Rowan Morrison.

Geraldine Cowper as Rowan Morrison.

The Wicker Man follows a devoutly Christian policeman named Sergeant Neil Howie (played by Edward Woodward, famous at the time for his role in the British espionage series Callan) as he goes to a Scottish island  called Summerisle, famous for it’s fruit and vegetable exports, in order follow up on the report of a missing child named Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper). As he gets acquainted with the people, he discovers that they are followers a form of Celtic paganism and is appalled by their religious practices. This leads to confrontations with the island’s leader: the mysterious Lord Summerisle (played by Christopher Lee, at the time mainly known for his role as Hammer Film Production’s Count Dracula) and to his suspicions that Rowan has been victim of human sacrifice.

At the time of this film’s release, it was butchered by the censor’s, resulting in the widely circulated 88-minute Theatrical Cut. Since then, it has been released on VHS for the most complete, yet rare 101-minute cut. A Director’s Cut, which is 99-minutes long has also been released on DVD in the United States, but on DVD and Blu Ray in the United Kingdom. The most recent release is the Final Cut, which is 94 minutes long and is considered by Robin Hardy and fans of the film as the definitive cut. I have only seen the Theatrical Cut and the Final Cut, and I also agree that the Final Cut is the superior version of the film. Hopefully I’ll get around to seeing he other versions of the film at some point! When released for the first time, the film was overlooked and not well-regarded, but it was later restored and re-released in 1979 and became a cult phenomenon. Christopher Lee, who has appeared in more films than any other actor in history, frequently refers to The Wicker Man as his greatest film and also describes his performance as Lord Summerisle as his greatest performance.

While you will very likely go into this film for Christopher Lee, you will come out wondering who gave the best performance in the film between he and Edward Woodward. It’s a joy seeing Sgt. Howie and Lord Summerisle play a game of cat and mouse with each other. To most people, Howie will come across as quite unlikable because of his visible disgust at the pagan practices of Summerisle’s inhabitants, but you can’t deny that Edward Woodward did a great job in the film. Christopher Lee’s performance as Lord Summerisle  is very different from his performances as Dracula, Saruman, or Count Dooku. Summerisle is not openly a villain, and will come across to most viewers as more likable than the protagonist. The role of Summerisle was written specifically with Lee in mind, who was growing increasingly tired of playing Dracula for Hammer.

Britt Ekland as Willow MacGregor (left) with Lindsay Kemp (right) playing Alder, her father.

The supporting cast is not to be overlooked either. You have Diane Cilento (at the time Mrs. Sean Connery) as the local schoolteacher, Miss Rose, Britt Ekland as Willow MacGregor, the landlord’s daughter, and Ingrid Pitt in a small role as the local record keeper. Diane Cilento’s role as Miss Rose was a very interesting one. She spends a lot of the movie annoying Sergeant Howie and offending him with her teaching the children the sexual areas of their religion. She comes across almost as subtly menacing as Christopher Lee’s character. Ingrid Pitt had a very small role, but did good with what she had. The one everyone who sees this movie will remember is Britt Ekland (married for a time to Peter Sellers) as Willow, mainly due to her nude dancing in an attempt to seduce Sergeant Howie.

Christopher Lee (left) as Lord Summerisle and Edward Woodward as Sergeant Neil Howie.

The film’s primary theme is the conflict between Christianity and paganism. Christianity being represented by Sergeant Howie, and Lord Summerisle representing paganism. Some people have viewed this movie as anti-Christianity, anti-paganism, or anti-religion in general but this has been denied by Robin Hardy. It isn’t hard to imagine how someone could come away with that point of view. Lord Summerisle, as mentioned earlier, comes across as much more likable than the Christian protagonist. Some people have even come to see Sergeant Howie as deserving his fate for his attitude towards the islanders, but this is somewhat hypocritical. Anyone from a Judeo-Christian nation like England or America (whether they were believers in Christianity or not) would be appalled by Summerisle’s religious practices. In his first night at the island, Sergeant Howie hears people publicly sing lustfully about Willow MacGregor and sees mourners weeping naked at the resting places of deceased relatives. Howie is even more shocked when he figures out that the children are being taught about phallic symbols and such things in the context of Summerisle’s neo-pagan religion. As a believer in Christianity, I would try to be nice to the people of Summerisle as possible but would have a hard time, especially when I discovered that it was open season for human sacrifice when the crops go bad! Some reviewers have noted that Sergeant Howie’s attitude towards the pagan religion of Summerisle is similar to that of the Christians who first came to the UK when it was ran by pagan societies like the Saxons and the Celts. The religious theme of the film seems to also extend to the “hip” vs. “square” (establishment vs. anti-establishment) conflicts that were going on in the 1960s and 1970s. Sergeant Howie is blatantly establishment, as we’ve…well…established…earlier.

Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle, praying to a pagan god, preparing to sacrifice Sergeant Howie within a wicker man.

Hopefully you’ve seen the movie before, because I’m gonna ruin it for you if you haven’t. In a shocking twist, Sergeant Howie discovers that his entire search for Rowan Morrison was a game being played on him by the villagers. After finding Rowan during Summerisle’s May Day celebration, apparently being prepared to be sacrificed, and “saves” her, Lord Summerisle announces to him, “The game is over.” The scene was so well-acted by Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward, you could just feel Sergeant Howie’s heart sink into horror as he discovers his fate. Rowan Morrison was simply a decoy to get Howie to come in order to be sacrifices, as Lord Summerisle puts it, Howie is the “right kind of adult” to be sacrificed to Summerisle’s deities in order to bring the crops back. Their religion asked for a man who came to be sacrificed of his own free will, had the power of a king (represented the law), and was a virgin. This was easily one of the most shocking and brilliant twists I’ve seen in any film to date. Howie brings up a frightening point when he tells them that their crops won’t grow back, and he says that they might end up having to sacrifice Lord Summerisle (who seems to wet his pants when Howie points it out). Howie preaches to the people of Summerisle when he is thrown into the wicker man and tells them that God was the one who causes their crops to waste away, he spends his last moments tearfully praying and as his last words shouts, “Daniel!”, while the people jubilantly dance around the burning figure singing about spring. This death scene will leave any viewer with a very disturbed feeling in the pit of their stomach for days after watching.

Lord Summerisle showing Sergeant Howie his estate while discussing the history of the island.

One question I have always had after first seeing the movie is whether or not Lord Summerisle truly believes in the religion of the island. He explains that his grandfather, an Atheist scientist, came to the island and was attracted by it’s volcanic soil and he developed a strain of fruits to grow their and brought back the “old gods” to the people in order to get them to work for him. Summerisle explains, “What my grandfather began out of expediency, my father continued out of love. He brought me up the same way – to reverence the music and the drama and the rituals of the old gods. To love nature and to fear it and to rely on it and to appease it where necessary.” Howie appeals to Summerisle to tell the people that sacrificing him will not make crops grow and Summerisle simply says, “But I know they will!” When Howie says they would have to sacrifice “the king of Summerisle”, he gives a disturbed facial expression briefly before saying, “No they will not!” It’s interesting that you can either view Lord Summerisle as being a victim of being raised in a society where human sacrifice is the norm, or you could view him merely as a greedy man who is willing to kill to prosper. When they show Summerisle’s estate, you can clearly tell that he reaps the benefits of the fruit and vegetable exports of the island. Either way, Lord Summerisle is a terrifying character, along with the rest of the islanders. The people of Summerisle seem so normal and friendly, but they have no complaints about killing innocent people in order to appease their gods.

Should this be the point at which religious tolerance could justifiably be waved?

All in all, I strongly recommend viewing the film. While I don’t consider The Wicker Man a horror film, I will refer to it as such anyway when I state that it is probably my favorite horror film as of now. It’s truly unique in it’s message and atmosphere. Few horror films have tackled the topic of religion in such a brilliant way. Just do yourself a favor and avoid the remake! I would highly recommend investing in a Blu Ray player if you have not already and buying the Final Cut on Blu Ray, as I never realized how great of a film this was until I watched that version of it. Enjoy!