The Wicker Man is a 1973 British mystery horror film directed by Robin Hardy. It stars Edward Woodward, Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento, Ingrid Pitt and Christopher Lee. The screenplay by Anthony Shaffer, inspired by David Pinner’s. 1967 novel Ritual, centres on the visit of Police Sergeant Neil Howie to the isolated island of Summerisle, in search of a missing girl. Howie, a devout Christian, is appalled to find that the inhabitants of the island have abandoned Christianity and now practise a form of Celtic paganism. Paul Giovanni composed the film score.
The Wicker Man is generally well-regarded by critics. Film magazine Cinefantastique described it as "The Citizen Kane of horror movies", and in 2004 Total Film magazine named The Wicker Man the sixth greatest British film of all time. It also won the 1978 Saturn Award for Best Horror Film, the burning Wicker Man scene was No. 45 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments, and during the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony the film was included as part of a sequence that celebrated British cinema. In 2013, a copy of the original U.S. theatrical version was digitally restored and released.
In 1989, Shaffer wrote a script treatment for The Loathsome Lambton Worm, a direct sequel with fantasy elements. Hardy had no interest in the project, and it was never produced. In 2006, an ill-received American remake was released, from which Hardy and others involved with the original have dissociated themselves. In 2011, a spiritual sequel entitled The Wicker Tree was released to mixed reviews. This film was also directed by Hardy, and featured Lee in a cameo appearance.
Police Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) journeys to the remote Hebridean island Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison (Gerry Cowper), about whom he has received an anonymous letter. Howie, a devout Christian, is disturbed to find the islanders paying homage to the pagan Celtic gods of their ancestors. They copulate openly in the fields, include children as part of the May Day celebrations, teach children of the phallic association of the maypole, and place toads in their mouths to cure sore throats. The Islanders, including Rowan's own mother (Irene Sunters), appear to be attempting to thwart his investigation by claiming that Rowan never existed.
While staying at the Green Man Inn, Howie notices a series of photographs celebrating the annual harvest, each featuring a young girl as the May Queen. The photograph of the most recent celebration is suspiciously missing; the landlord (Lindsay Kemp) tells him it was broken. The landlord's beautiful daughter, Willow (Britt Ekland), attempts to seduce Howie, so that he would no longer remain a virgin, but he refuses her advances. Howie enters the local school and enquires about Rowan among the students, but all deny about existence of Rowan. He checks the school register and finds Rowan's name in it. He questions the school teacher and she tells him about her burial plot.
After seeing Rowan's burial plot, Howie meets the island's leader, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), grandson of a Victorian agronomist, to obtain permission for an exhumation. Lord Summerisle explains that his grandfather developed strains of fruit trees that would prosper in Scotland's climate, and encouraged the belief that old gods would use the new strains to bring prosperity to the island. Over the next several generations, the island's inhabitants fully embraced pagan religion.
Howie finds the missing harvest photograph, showing Rowan standing amidst empty boxes. His research reveals that when there is a poor harvest, the islanders make a human sacrifice to ensure that the next will be bountiful. He comes to the conclusion that Rowan is alive and has been chosen for sacrifice. During the May Day celebration, Howie knocks out and ties up the innkeeper so he can steal his costume and mask (that of Punch, the fool) and infiltrates the parade. When it seems the villagers are about to sacrifice Rowan, he cuts her free and flees with her into a cave. On exiting it, they are intercepted by the islanders, to whom Rowan happily returns.
Lord Summerisle tells Howie that Rowan was never the intended sacrifice – Howie himself is. He fits their gods' four requirements: he came of his own free will, with "the power of a king" (by representing the Law), is a virgin, and is a fool. Defiant, Howie loudly warns Lord Summerisle and the islanders that the fruit-tree strains are failing permanently and that the villagers will turn on him (Lord Summerisle) and sacrifice him next summer when the next harvest fails as well; Summerisle angrily insists that the sacrifice of the "willing, king-like, virgin fool" will be accepted and that the next harvest will not fail. The villagers force Howie inside a giant wicker man statue, set it ablaze and surround it, singing the Middle English folk song "Sumer Is Icumen In." Inside the wicker man, a terrified Howie recites Psalm 23, and prays to Christ. He curses the islanders as he burns to death. The wicker man collapses in flames, revealing the setting sun.
- Edward Woodward as Sgt. Neil Howie
- Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle
- Britt Ekland as Willow MacGregor
- Annie Ross as Willow MacGregor (voice)
- Rachel Verney as Willow MacGregor (singing voice)
- Diane Cilento as Miss Rose
- Ingrid Pitt as Librarian
- Lindsay Kemp as Alder MacGregor (the landlord)
- Russell Waters as Harbour Master
- Aubrey Morris as Old Gardener/Gravedigger
- Irene Sunter as May Morrison
- Jennifer Martin as Myrtle Morrison
- Donald Eccles as T.H. Lennox
- Walter Carr as School Master
- Roy Boyd as Broome
- Peter Brewis as Musician
- Geraldine Cowper as Rowan Morrison
- John Young as Fishmonger
- Myra Forsyth as Mrs Grimmond
- Alison Hughes as Sgt Howie's fiancé
- John Sharp as Doctor Ewan (longer version)
- John Hallam as Police Constable McTaggart (longer version)
- Tony Roper as Postman (longer version)
In the early 1970s, the actor Christopher Lee was a Hammer Horror regular, best known for his roles in a series of successful films, beginning with The Curse of Frankenstein (as the monster, 1957). Lee wanted to break free of this image and take on more interesting acting roles. He met with screenwriter Anthony Shaffer, and they agreed to work together. Film director Robin Hardy and British Lion head Peter Snell became involved in the project. Shaffer had a series of conversations with Hardy, and the two decided that it would be fun to make a horror film centering on "old religion", in sharp contrast to the Hammer films they had both seen as horror film fans.
Shaffer read the David Pinner novel Ritual, in which a devout Christian policeman is called to investigate what appears to be the ritual murder of a young girl in a rural village, and decided that it would serve well as the source material for the project. Pinner originally wrote Ritual as a film treatment for director Michael Winner, who had John Hurt in mind as a possible star. Winner eventually declined the project, so Pinner's agent convinced him to write Ritual as a novel instead. Shaffer and Lee paid Pinner £15,000 for the rights to the novel, and Shaffer set to work on the screenplay. He soon decided that a direct adaptation would not work well and drafted a new story based only loosely on the story of the novel.
Shaffer wanted the film to be "a little more literate" than the average horror picture. He specifically wanted a film with a minimum of violence and gore. He was tired of seeing horror films that relied almost entirely on viscera to be scary. The focus of the film was crystallised when he "finally hit upon the abstract concept of sacrifice." The image of the wicker man, which gave the filmmakers their title, was taken from one sentence in Julius Caesar's account of his wars in what is now France. Caesar claimed that the local tribes there had executed their most serious criminals by burning them alive in a huge man-shaped sculpture of woven twigs. For Shaffer, this was "the most alarming and imposing image that I had ever seen." The idea of a confrontation between a modern Christian and a remote, pagan community continued to intrigue Shaffer, who performed painstaking research on paganism. Brainstorming with Hardy, they conceived the film as presenting the pagan elements objectively and accurately, accompanied by authentic music and a believable, contemporary setting. One of their main resources was The Golden Bough, a study of mythology and religion written by Scottish anthropologist James Frazer.
Television actor Edward Woodward was cast in the role of Sergeant Neil Howie after the part was declined by both Michael York and David Hemmings. In Britain, Woodward was best known for the role of Callan, which he played from 1967 to 1972. After The Wicker Man, Woodward went on to receive international attention for his roles in the 1980 film Breaker Morant and the 1980s TV series The Equalizer.
After Shaffer saw her on the stage, he lured Diane Cilento out of semi-retirement to play the town's schoolmistress. (They lived together in Queensland from 1975, and married in 1985.) Ingrid Pitt, another British horror film veteran, was cast as the town librarian and registrar. The Swedish actress Britt Ekland was cast as the innkeeper's lascivious daughter, although two body doubles were used for her naked scenes below the waist. Ekland found out that she was three months pregnant with her son Nic, to Lou Adler two weeks into filming. Stuart Hopps (the film's choreographer) called upon Lorraine Peters who gyrated at the doorway, whilst local 18-year-old extra Jane Jackson was filmed in the wall scenes (although in reality, the bedrooms of Willow and Sergeant Howie were not "through the wall" from each other: Willow's was upstairs in the Cally Estates offices in Gatehouse of Fleet whilst Howie's was 35 miles (56 kilometres) away in a family home in the Main Street of Whithorn). Her speaking and singing voices were dubbed by Annie Ross and Rachel Verney respectively.
The film was produced at a time of crisis for the British film industry. The studio in charge of production, British Lion Films, was in financial trouble and was bought by wealthy businessman John Bentley. To convince the unions that he was not about to asset-strip the company, Bentley needed to get a film into production quickly. This meant that The Wicker Man, a film set during spring, actually began filming in October 1972: artificial leaves and blossoms had to be glued to trees in many scenes. The production was kept on a small budget. Christopher Lee was extremely keen to get the film made; he and others worked on the production without pay. While filming took place, British Lion was bought by EMI Films.
The film was shot almost entirely in the small Scottish towns of Gatehouse of Fleet, Newton Stewart, Kirkcudbright, and Creetown in Dumfries and Galloway, as well as Plockton in Ross-shire. Some scenes were filmed in and around the Isle of Whithorn, where the owners of the castle, Elizabeth McAdam McLaughland and David Wheatley, plus several other local people, featured in various scenes. Culzean Castle in Ayrshire and its grounds and Floors Castle were also used for the shooting. Some of the opening flying shoots feature the Isle of Skye, including the pinnacles of The Storr and the Quiraing. The cave scenes were filmed inside Wookey Hole in Somerset. The amphibious aircraft that takes Sergeant Howie from the religious certainties of the mainland to the ancient beliefs of the island was a Thurston Teal, owned and flown in the aerial sequences by Christopher Murphy. The end burning of the Wicker Man occurred at Burrow Head (near a caravan site). According to Britt Ekland, some animals did actually perish inside the Wicker Man, whereas Robin Hardy said in an interview that great care was taken to ensure that the animals were in no danger of being hurt during this scene and that they were not inside the Wicker Man when it was set on fire.
The film's soundtrack often forms a major component of the narrative, just as with other important arthouse films of the era such as Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's Performance. Songs accompany many important scenes, such as the plane's arrival, Willow's dancing, the maypole dance, the girls jumping through fire, the search of the houses, the procession, and the final burning scene. Indeed, according to Seamus Flannery in a subsequent documentary, director Robin Hardy surprised the cast by suddenly announcing midway through filming that they were making a "musical".
Composed, arranged, and recorded by Paul Giovanni, and performed by Magnet (in some versions of the film credited as "Lodestone"), the soundtrack contains 13 folk songs performed by characters in the film. Included are traditional songs, original compositions by Giovanni, and even a nursery rhyme, "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep".
"Willow's Song" has been covered or sampled by various rock music bands. It was first covered by the English musical project known as Nature and Organisation on their 1994 release 'Beauty Reaps the Blood of Solitude'. It was covered by Sneaker Pimps as "How Do", and is included on their 1996 release Becoming X. "How Do" can be heard in the movie Hostel (2005); the song is incorrectly credited in the end titles as being composed by Sneaker Pimps. Additionally, the band has covered "Gently Johnny" as "Johnny"; it is featured as a B-side on their single "Roll On" (1996). It also was covered by Faith and the Muse on their 2003 album The Burning Season, and The Mock Turtles on their album Turtle Soup.
The songs on the soundtrack were composed or arranged by Giovanni under the direction of Hardy and Shaffer, whose research into the oral folk tradition in England and Scotland was based largely on the work of Cecil Sharp, a 'founding father' of the folk-revival movement of the early 20th century. Using Sharp's collections as a template, Shaffer noted to Giovanni which scenes were to have music, and in some cases provided lyrics which would be appropriate to spring pagan festivals. Other songs on the soundtrack come from a later folk tradition, for example, "Corn Riggs", by Scotland's national bard, Robert Burns, accompanies Howie's arrival on Summerisle. The lyrics of this song were taken directly from the Burns song "The Rigs of Barley", but Giovanni used a very different tune. Burns' tune was based on "Corn Riggs", and altered to match his lyrics. The song sung by the cultists of Summerisle at the end of the film, "Sumer Is Icumen In", is a mid-13th-century song about nature in spring.
The Wickerman Festival was an annual music festival held near Auchencairn in Galloway. Dubbed "Scotland's Alternative Music festival” It began in 2001 when the festival’s artistic director Sid Ambrose hit upon the idea of a local counter-culture based family-friendly festival due to the surrounding area being inextricably linked with various locations used within The Wicker Man. It was held annually until 2015 at East Kirkcarswell Farm, Dundrennan.
By the time of the film's completion the studio had been bought by EMI, and British Lion was managed by Michael Deeley. The DVD commentary track states that studio executives suggested a more "upbeat" ending to the film, in which a sudden rain puts the flames of the wicker man out and spares Howie's life, but this suggestion was refused. Hardy subsequently had to remove about 20 minutes of scenes on the mainland, early investigations, and (to Lee's disappointment) some of Lord Summerisle's initial meeting with Howie.
Original release Edit
The first screening of the film was to trade and cinema distributors on 3 December 1973.
The first public theatrical release was a week of test screenings at the Metropole Cinema London on the 6 December 1973 ahead of the official public release in January 1974. It runs 87 minutes.
A copy of a finished, 99-minute version was sent to American film producer Roger Corman in Hollywood to make a judgment of how to market the film in the US. Corman recommended an additional 13 minutes be cut from the film. (Corman did not acquire US release rights, and eventually Warner Bros. test-marketed the film in drive-ins.) In Britain, the film was ordered reduced to roughly 87 minutes, with some narrative restructuring, and released as the "B" picture on a double bill with Don't Look Now. According to Lee, the cuts adversely affected the film's continuity.
First restoration Edit
During the mid-1970s, Hardy made inquiries about the film, hoping to restore it to his original vision. Along with Lee and Shaffer, Hardy searched for his original cut, or raw footage. Both of these appeared to have been lost. Cult film director Alex Cox said in his Moviedrome introduction in 1988 that the negative had "ended up in the pylons that support the M4 motorway." Hardy recalled that a copy of the film made prior to Deeley's cuts was sent to Corman, who, it turned out, still had a copy, possibly the only existing print of Hardy's original cut. The US rights had been sold by Warner Bros. to a small firm called Abraxas, managed by film buff Stirling Smith and critic John Alan Simon. Stirling agreed to an American release of a reconstruction by Hardy. Hardy restored the narrative structure, some of the erotic elements which had been excised, and a very brief pre-title segment of Howie on the mainland (appearing at a church with his fiancée). A 96-minute restored version was released in January 1979, again to critical acclaim.
US VHS version Edit
Strangely, the original 99-minute version was available in the US on VHS home video from Media Home Entertainment (and later Magnum) during the 1980s and 1990s. This video includes additional early scenes set inside Howie's police station which Hardy had left out of the 1979 restoration.
Director's cut Edit
In 2001, the film's new world rights owners, Canal+, tried to release the full-length film. Corman's copy had been lost but a telecine transfer to 1-inch videotape existed. Missing elements were combined with film elements from the previous versions (in particular, additional scenes of Howie on the mainland were restored, showing him to be the object of gossip at his police station, establishing his devout religiosity). The extended DVD cut was released by Canal+ (Anchor Bay Entertainment handling US DVD distribution) in this 95-minute hybrid, considered the longest and closest version to Hardy's original 99-minute version. A two-disc limited edition set was sold with the shortened theatrical release, the new extended version and a documentary, The Wicker Man Enigma. In 2005, Inside The Wicker Man author Allan Brown revealed he had discovered stills taken on the set showing sequences from the script that had never been seen; it had never been certain that the scenes had been filmed. They include scenes where Howie closes a mainland pub open after hours, encounters a prostitute, has a massage from Willow McGregor and sees a brutal confrontation between Oak and a villager in The Green Man, which were featured in a revised edition of Inside The Wicker Man. Anchor Bay released a limited edition wooden box of The Wicker Man. Fifty thousand two-disc sets were made, of which twenty were signed by Lee and Woodward, Shaffer, Snell and Hardy. In June 2007, Lee discussed the lost original cut, "I still believe it exists somewhere, in cans with no name. I still believe that. But nobody's ever seen it since, so we couldn't re-cut it, re-edit it, which was what I wanted to do. It would have been ten times as good".
The Final Cut Edit
European distributors of the film StudioCanal began a Facebook campaign in 2013 to find missing material, which culminated in the discovery of a 92-minute 35mm print at the Harvard Film Archive. This print had previously been known as the "Middle Version" and was itself assembled from a 35mm print of the original edit Robin Hardy had made in the United Kingdom in 1973, but which was never released. Robin Hardy believes that the original edit will probably never be found, saying, "Sadly, it seems as though this has been lost forever. However, I am delighted that a 1979 Abraxas print has been found as I also put together this cut myself, and it crucially restores the story order to that which I had originally intended."
Hardy reported in July 2013 that Studiocanal intended to restore and release the most complete version possible of the film. Rialto Pictures announced that they were to release the new digital restoration in North American cinemas on 27 September 2013. This new version was also released on DVD on 13 October 2013. It is 91 minutes long, shorter than the director's cut but longer than the theatrical cut, and is known as The Wicker Man: The Final Cut.
The Final Cut (UK) Blu-ray (2013) features short documentaries "Burnt Offering: The Cult of the Wicker Man", "Worshipping The Wicker Man", "The Music of The Wicker Man", interviews with director Robin Hardy and actor Christopher Lee, a restoration comparison, and the theatrical trailer. The second disc features both the UK 87-minute theatrical cut and the 95-minute 2013 director's cut, along with an audio commentary on the director's cut and a making-of for the commentary. The third disc is the soundtrack to the film.
David McGillivray of The Monthly Film Bulletin praised the film as "an immensely enjoyable piece of hokum, thoroughly well researched, performed and directed." Variety wrote that Anthony Shaffer's screenplay "for sheer imagination and near-terror, has seldom been equalled." Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times called it "a witty work of the macabre" with "the splendid performances typical of British films." Janet Maslin of The New York Times was more negative, calling it "handsomely photographed" with "good performances," but "something of a howl" even though "it seems to have been made in all seriousness."
The Wicker Man initially had moderate success and won first prize in the 1974 Festival of Fantasy and Science Fiction films in Paris, but largely slipped into obscurity. In 1977 the American film magazine Cinefantastique devoted a commemorative issue to the film, asserting that the film is "the Citizen Kane of horror movies" – an oft-quoted phrase attributed to this issue.
Decades after its release, the film still receives positive reviews from critics and is considered one of the best films of 1973. At the film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, The Wicker Man holds a 88% "Fresh" rating based on 48 reviews, with a weighted average score of 7.75/10 and the site's consensus: "This intelligent horror film is subtle in its thrills and chills, with an ending that is both shocking and truly memorable". In 2008, The Wicker Man was ranked by Empire at No. 485 of The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time. Christopher Lee considered The Wicker Man his best film. Edward Woodward meanwhile has said that The Wicker Man is one of his favourite films and that the character of Howie was the best part he ever played. In addition to Lee's admiration of the final shot of the film (of the collapsing Wicker man), Woodward said that it is the best final shot of any film ever made.
In his 2010 BBC documentary series A History of Horror, writer and actor Mark Gatiss referred to the film as a prime example of a short-lived subgenre he called "folk horror", grouping it with 1968's Witchfinder General and 1971's The Blood on Satan's Claw. In 2003, the Crichton Campus of the University of Glasgow in Dumfries, Dumfries and Galloway hosted a three-day conference on The Wicker Man. The conference led to two collections of articles about the film. In 2004, The Wicker Man ranked No, 45 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments.
British heavy metal band Iron Maiden wrote a song called "The Wicker Man," inspired by the film, for their 2000 album Brave New World. In May 2016, British band Radiohead released the music video for a song named "Burn the Witch", made in stop-motion animation and whose storyline greatly resembles that of The Wicker Man.