Unpleasant, fundamentalist Christian Sergeant Howie arrives on Summerisle to investigate a report of a missing girl. He bullies, threatens, and mocks the locals like…well…like a fundamentalist Christian. As the residents turn out to be pagans, Howie insults their religion (to the extent of violating their graves), and assumes they are all lying—hiding the truth about the girl he thinks died in some “heathen” ritual. He gets little help from the Lord of the island, who assures him that no one would kill a girl as they are all religious people. He turns aside the amoral advances of the tavern wench, committing himself to finding the girl, and making Christians safe from ever meeting anyone who doesn’t agree with them.
There’s no question that The Wicker Man is making a strong statement, but it isn’t clear to many viewers what that statement is. Is it an attack against Christianity? Against all religion? Or against fanaticism? It’s no surprise that there is such disagreement over a film that some, particularly its distributors, hold to be horror, while other think it’s a mod thriller, a gothic mystery, or a pagan musical.
Much of the confusion comes from the ending. How you interpret the picture depends on if you think what happens is bad or good (at least symbolically). If bad, then The Wicker Man might just barely fall into the horror category. But that outlook brings up all kinds of problems, with major portions of the film playing emotional havoc with the viewer. It requires Howie to be a hero (even though he’s drawn as a narrow minded idiot who would harm everything he touched if he had the power), while turning Lord Summerisle (the kindly, though scheming puppet master) along with the beautiful Willow and thoughtful Miss Ross, into villains. It just won’t work. Howie is the villain, and if Lord Summerisle isn’t your typical hero, well, who said every flick had to have a hero? Those who find this to be horror are blinded by convention. Normally, in paint-by-numbers Hollywood, the events in this picture would only be found in something that was clearly horror. But this isn’t a standard film (which is why the distributors had so much trouble figuring what to do with it, eventually sticking it on the sad end of a horror double feature and tossing it out to drive-ins). I’m not even sure it’s a drama. I could make a reasonable argument for calling it a philosophical dark comedy (with an emphasis on “dark”). A majority of Summerisle’s lines are closer to Wilde than to king:
|Howie:||Religious? With ruined churches, no ministers, no priests… and children dancing naked!|
|Summerisle:||They do love their divinity lessons.|
|Howie:||But they are… are naked!|
|Summerisle:||Well, naturally. It’s much too dangerous to jump through fire with their clothes on.|
You can’t argue with that. Much of the film is built around Howie’s fish-out-of-holy-water reactions, many of which are good for a laugh.
As for the philosophical part, there are many comparisons between Christianity and paganism, with Christianity looking like a rebranding of older beliefs. As for how they cause their believers to act, paganism comes out ahead. The pagans are happy, loving, and sensual, with little concern with what others think. Christianity, via Howie (and I’ve known so many Howie’s), is nasty, brutish, and deeply involved with forcing others to behave the way it dictates. If you’ve got to choose one, than go pagan. Lord Summerisle makes it clear when asked about Jesus, “the one true god”:
He’s dead. Can’t complain; had his chance and in modern parlance, blew it.
But The Wicker Man is more complex than that, and isn’t suggesting a choice. Sure, Christianity is a mess, but paganism, which is really so similar, is also troubled. Its presentation here echoes Marx: it is the opiate of the masses. It encourages the islanders to work, but there is no indication that it is true. Summerisle, the only unequivocally clever person in the film, is most likely an atheist, using the religion to control his people. Like it has many times in history, it works. Religion is quite effective if its focus is small. But, it’s never free. When you create a lie, and use it to emotionally manipulate others to behave as desired, somewhere there’s going to be problems. The problems with Christianity pop up over and over in our politics, in our society, and even in our education. The problems with this brand of paganism appear pretty blatantly in the later part of the film. But there’s more than that. Without good luck, the generally pleasant pagan religion could turn permanently vicious. Howie suggests that this will happen soon, but he is biased. However, it seems inevitable somewhere down the line. Even with the advantages of a happy, vibrant, free society, the cost of any religion is too high.
When not looking at the folly of religion, The Wicker Man entertains with bawdy jokes, nude dances, and a lot of music (some of which, like the bar song, are wonderful, while others, like the ’70s-based folk tune “Corn Rigs,” are badly dated). Edward Woodward is superb as Howie, making him someone you can hate almost as soon as you meet him. Christopher Lee also shines in a role that deviates from his Hammer Horror monsters . For a change, he gets to smile and display his charm. Lee has called this is best film, and I wouldn’t disagree.
Unfortunately, it isn’t a film that’s been treated well. It was harshly cut before it was released, and all of the original negatives were then destroyed. It was subsequently chopped again for American distribution, and for a time, this shortened version was the only one that could be seen. A print of the longer cut was discovered, so now there are three versions (the third mostly matches the longer cut, but is missing some scenes at the beginning). Luckily, in any version, this is a powerful film that should have atheists cheering.