Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Wicker Man (1973)

When it comes to cult films, The Wicker Man (the original, not the wretched 2006 movie of the same name) ranks among the most famous. Fortunately, for fans of the movie, The Wicker Man Two-Disc Special Edition DVD was released December 19, 2006. What makes this edition so special is that it not only has the shortened (some would say "butchered") 88 minute theatrical release, but the 99 minute, restored, extended version. Even though it is the 88 minute theatrical release that appears on Disc One, and even though there have been several different cuts of The Wicker Man, it is the 99 minute extended version that anyone who has never seen The Wicker Man should see first.

For those unfamiliar with The Wicker Man, the movie centres on Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward), a deeply Christian police officer who must investigate the case of a missing child on the island of Summersisle, off the coast of Scotland. Now Summersisle is unique in two ways: it is well known for its produce (especially its apples) and it also possesses its own revival of ancient paganism. Clues to the mystery of the missing girl and the conflict between Howie's Christianity and Summerisle's pagan culture are the primary thrust of the film.

While the shortened, 88 minute version is entertaining and even good, despite some gaps in continuity, it is the 99 minute version that has ultimately made the film a cult favourite. And there is good reason for this, as the long version fills in must needed background on Summersisle and fills in the gaps in continuity that plagued the edited version. What is more, the lengthened version features more of the great Christopher Lee as Lord Summersisle, whose exchanges with Sgt. Howie are priceless.

Indeed, it is largely the performances of the two leads that drive this film. Edward Woodward plays Sgt. Howie as deeply religious, even to the point of fanaticism, while at the same time remaining a sympathetic figure. Christopher Lee plays Lord Summersisle as free and easy and very open minded, but at the same time as devoted to his paganism as Howie is to his Christianity. It is the strong performances of these two playing very different, but in some ways similar (both are deeply religious men in their own fashion) characters.

Of course, the fodder for Woodward and Lee's great performances is provided by Anthony Shaffer's fine script. Prior to The Wicker Man, Shaffer had written both the play Sleuth and the screenplays to the movies Sleuth and Frenzy. Following The Wicker Man, Shaffer would write screenplays for Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. It should be no surprise, then, that while The Wicker Man is often considered a horror film, it is actually more accurately described as a thriller (albeit one with a horrifying ending). Shaffer's script is full of great dialogue and great set pieces, all the while letting the viewer watch as the game between Howie and Summerisle unfolds. Indeed, one of the great things about The Wicker Man is that it neither vilifies the inhabitants of Summerisle, nor holds the deeply religious Sgt. Howie up to ridicule. Both Howie and Lord Summersisle are allowed to express their beliefs without either being made the antagonist. The Wicker Man is ultimately a conflict between equals, and it is up to the viewer to decide who, if either, is in the wrong.

Despite its status as a classic, cult movie, The Wicker Man is not a perfect movie. It does have its flaws. One of these for me is the fact that the paganism of Summersisle seems less a revival of genuine Celtic paganism than a realisation of 19th century scholars' theories about ancient pagan religions. To wit, director Robin Hardy admits on the DVD's audio commentary to relying on The Golden Bough a great deal, a work largely discredited by today's scholars I very seriously doubt that ancient Celts, if they even had the custom of dancing around the Maypole, thought of the Maypole as a phallic symbol (sometimes a Maypole is just a Maypole....). Of course, I suppose this can be explained by the fact that the first Lord Summersisle brought his brand of paganism to the island in the 19th century, hence the seemingly archaic view of what ancient paganism actually was.

A more glaring flaw can be seen in the plot. In order for the climax to take place, Sgt. Howie must come to one conclusion about the disappearance of the missing girl and take one course of action. This leaves little room for error on the part of the inhabitants of Summersisle and it may be hard for some viewers to believe that everything that unfolds in the movie could be manipulated in such a way that Howie would come to conclusions and choose the proper course of action that would lead to the film's unforgettable climax. On the DVD's audio commentary, Robin Hardy, Edward Woodward, and Christopher Lee theorise that the inhabitants of Summersisle must have rehearsed everything in advance and anticipated every possibility. Still, I can see how some viewers might have some difficulty with accepting that Howie could be led along to the point that the inhabitants of Summersisle want him.

As to The Wicker Man Two-Disc Special Edition DVD itself, the extended version features an audio commentary from director Robin Hardy and stars Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward. Disc One features trailers, TV spots, and radio spots, as well as the documentary The Wicker Man Enigma. All of this is worth viewing, even the shortened, 88 minute version of the film, although as I said, anyone who has never seen the film should watch the extended version first.

Regardless of its flaws, I have always enjoyed The Wicker Man. It has always been one of those films I can watch repeatedly, and it has always been one of those movies I have found both disturbing and fascinating. If one good thing came out of the horrible 2006 film of the same name, it is that the 99 minute extended version of the original Wicker Man is back in circulation.

1 comment:

themarina said...

This original is one that's on my list and I'm really looking forward to seeing it, especially after all the negative feedback surrounding the re-make.