March 01, 2010

The Wicker Man (1973)

This review is filled with Spoilers.

The Wicker Man is about a Scottish sergeant who comes to the Island of Summerisle. He comes to find a missing girl, Rowan Morrison, and through his researches realises that he has unearthed a mysterious pagan cult. The cult is led by Lord Summerisle the JP and hereditary lord of the island but it has filtered through every part of island society. The postmaster, teacher, harbour master, librarian and even the grave digger all hold to this 'religion'. The Sergeant has to cope with the brazen sexuality of the island- in particular an uninhibited Britt Ekland who flings her clothes away in order to dance like a Succubus outside the sergeant's room. In order to analyse the film, we must go further. The ultimate plot has the Sergeant lured to his death, lured so that he can become a sacrifice to the old Gods so that the island's crops will return. The Sergeant comes as a King (representative of the law), a fool (he disguises himself as Punch to enter a parade to save Rowan) and a virgin. So the culmination of the film sees the sergeant burn in a wicker man as a sacrifice to the old Gods.

The film opposes two philosophies: on the one hand there is the paganism of the Islanders who believe that Howie's death will restore their crops, on the other Howie who believes that 'if I am killed it is I who will live again, not your damned apples'. A convincing interpretation of the film resting on these two interpretations is provided here and the film makers may have wanted to show the strengths and weaknesses of the the old and the new religion. Looking back on it though after all these years and some of the many more bizarre movements of the 1960s, I am minded of Chesterton's old saying that

The nineteenth century decided to have no religious authority. The twentieth century seems disposed to have any religious authority

Chesterton, for all his follies, may have been right on that. Summerisle tells Howie that the Island is the natural conclusion of the world if the truth that God is dead is accepted, that is not neccessarily true but what is true is that it is one vision of the post-Christian world.

I am not sure even so that the film works. The 1970s were a dire decade in British cinema and this has several indications of that decade- silly bawdiness, bad acting (Miss Ekland is a full time culprit- but there are others) and a general implausibility mar the film. When America was producing Scorsese and Coppola, Badlands and Five Easy Pieces, this was the best of British cinema and besides any of the great American or French films of the seventies it looks plain silly. There are flaws all over the place- if this is an allegory of the coming of Christianity why set it in this period, if a discussion of the modern day when God is dead, why no real atheists? Furthermore is the argument made that paganism has to be sacrificial- there are pagans according to the census but I see no heifers slaughtered on Tower Hill. The image of Calvinism here is severe and puritanical- which merely betrays a misunderstanding of Calvinism, Calvinism at its core was not about sex ever but about faith. If it is about how a society can conceal things- then the society is not claustrophobic enough: if it is about the imperial attitude of outsiders and their different moral codes, then the point is banal but furthermore is the director's argument that murder is a quaint custom that should be tolerated if there is a dance around the Maypole first?

Perhaps this is a failure on my part to see the film for what it is, but I didn't get the Wicker Man. It is worth mentioning a rather good soundtrack- and two good performances one by Edward Woodward and the other by Christopher Lee- but two good performances and the sketch of a good idea do not make a classic film. Perhaps I'm wrong and the rest of the world is right: the chances are that's true and so dear reader, distrust this review, but I cannot be anything but honest. The Wicker Man does not compare to films made at the same time on similar subjects- faith, alienation, community and politics- in Europe or America at the same time. Chesterton's thesis may be true- but it needs more fleshing out than that provided here.


James Higham said...

An old favourite of mine. Which version do you like and do you have Willow's Song?

Gracchi said...

Unfortunately not one of mine. Yes the version I watched had Willow's song- I'm not sure about how much it adds to the film.