The Wicker Man

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

21 December

The Southern Solstice

Today is the Southern solstice. If you are in the northern hemisphere, it marks the point at which the sun rises least above the horizon. If you are in the southern hemisphere, it is midsummer, longest day of the year. And correspondingly the shortest in the north. Towards the equator the effect is minimal, with day and night length tending to match each other the whole year through. But in London, where I am writing this, it means the sun will come up a handful of minutes after 8am and set just before 4pm. Tomorrow, the 22 December, the day will be one second longer than today. The day after, 8 seconds, the day after that, 14 seconds. By New Year’s Day there will be a whole extra minute of daylight. Though this being London doesn’t mean there’s any guarantee we’ll see it.

The Wicker Man (1973, dir: Robin Hardy)

So how about a film about the solstice? It stars Edward Woodward as prudish Christian police officer Sergeant Howie, arriving on a remote Scottish island to investigate a missing child. What he finds there shocks him to his core – a pagan community that has reverted to “the old ways”, a society in which women have a remarkable fondness for shedding their clothes, where festivals are celebrated by feasting, ritual, music and dance. Where death seems to be viewed more as an opportunity for rebirth rather than as the final curtain. As the copper blunders about, exploding with apoplexy every time he finds something his strict moral code cannot compute, he is, unawares, being carefully groomed for an event which delivers one of the best knockout finales of any horror film ever. If you have seen The Wicker Man before and are slightly hesitant about watching it again, can I nudge you towards the most recent assemblage. Put together in 2013, it restores a lot of the material cut in order to turn the film into something more conventional, in an attempt to get a reluctant public to watch it in 1973. But which destroyed it. So there’s a lot more music and singing – and you can almost go along with director Robin Hardy’s assertion that the film is in fact a musical (almost). There is a lot more nudity and paganism. Most important of all, there are a lot more reaction shots from the locals, the cold stares that greet Sergeant Howie as he officiously goes about his business. It’s understandable why they were cut – there are so many of them – but these “fuck you” shots really add to the mood, to the sense of this man being an outsider, that the uniform means nothing if the people it’s meant to awe just aren’t awed. There is a good discussion about why this “final cut” isn’t definitive here on, but for my money this is a much better film than the last go at it, about ten years ago. Now, almost back to the way Hardy intended it, the most infrequent of directors (three films in 40 years, one a sequel to The Wicker Man) gave it this seal of approval – “The film as I saw it in the editing suite the other day fulfills my vision of what it was intended to convey to the audience.” There is some wriggle room in that statement for an even more complete version, if missing footage ever shows up, but for the moment, this is it. As for Neil LaBute’s remake, starring Nicolas Cage, it’s a nice try, and the feminist angle is interesting, but it just doesn’t come close.

Why Watch?

  • Passionate advocate of the film Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle
  • Anthony Shaffer’s bullish on-the-nose script
  • This is the perfect role for Woodward – blinding fury a specialty
  • For “pagan” read “hippie” – the British view on the whole “letting it all hang out” thing

The Wicker Man: The Final Cut – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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