“I think I could turn and live with animals. They are so placid and self-contained. They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins. They do not make me sick, discussing their duty to God. Not one of them kneels to another. Or to one of his own kind, that lived thousands of years ago. Not one of them is respectable, or unhappy, all over the earth.” -Lord Summerisle, The Wicker Man
On The Vichy Government’s debut release, the lyric to a track called ‘Oliver Cromwell In Weimar Berlin’ has proved to be a particular focus of attention for many listeners. As much as these two contradictory institutions are of interest me, I might have plucked any two encyclopaedia entries- I was merely borrowing them to embody a more universal preoccupation, that of the age-old conflict between body and mind. The conflict was presented, perhaps subconsciously, in a well-established model. We observe, through his own eyes, the adventures of an outsider with a set of objectives and/or rigid beliefs who has found himself lost in an alien land. Think of Kafka, refused access to his castle; Patrick McGoohan as Number Six, held prisoner in the Village; and the most important influence, Sgt Howie on Summerisle, meeting his appointment with The Wicker Man.
The film was initially a flop and its reputation remains shaky. As is so often the case, for every critic that lionises The Wicker Man as an essential classic there will be a punter at hand to scoff at the entire premise of this curio. The seventies haircuts and hippy-dippy score of Paul Giovanni give it the air of an early Belle & Sebastian video. That the initial letter to Howie is signed ‘Child Lover’ is an unfortunate indicator of how the film has dated. Its reputation is dogged by the (erroneous) anecdote that Britt Ekland failed to master the Scottish accent and had her lines dubbed on afterwards. How can it be taken seriously as a horror film?
The fact that it fails to really fit the genres of horror or comedy highlights its uniqueness, in the same way that Hamlet is considered a unique entity first and a renaissance revenge tragedy second. Hinging on the twist at the close of the film, it only makes the leap from suspense into horror 90% of the way through. As Howie’s helicopter scales the highland hills and seas, we have as little inkling as our protagonist that he is cruising towards his death.
The way in which a viewer reacts to The Wicker Man speaks volumes about the environment in which you have been raised, and therefore the way in which you see the world. A rigid, undoubting conservative in the George W. Bush mould would register dismay at the islanders’ refusal to pay anything other than lip service to Howie, their refusal to respect the authority invested in a police officer marking them out as dangerous. They may even feel that Howie goes above and beyond the call of duty by admitting no skeletons into his cupboard, keeping no cocaine wrap inside his Bible. If you are one of those fortunate fellows who has been brought up in a liberal, progressive environment, you will most likely take the side of the locals against this old world prig, who sets himself up for a fall by demanding that people conform to his Victorian values. There are others, however, who fall between these two stools, and who will find this film endlessly vexing and problematic. The straightforward story becomes a blank canvas, a mirror in which the viewer can scrutinise his own anxieties; and for an artist, that represents gold dust.
Perhaps my own origins dictate that this film will strike a particular chord. I am, like Sgt. Howie, a protestant Ulster Scot, and the austere Puritanism that he preaches is the one in which I received my education and grew up. Howie scornfully admits to his younger subordinates that the path he has chosen is not “fashionable”. Clinging to his faith but finding himself increasingly adrift in a changing world, Howie would feel at home amidst the unforgiving fundamentalism of Ian Paisley’s DUP. To a metropolitan bohemian, the ways of this indignant, highly-strung Sergeant might well seem as alien as those of the pagan society he stumbles across- but to me, the recognition is instantaneous. I might well be watching my old R.E. teacher on screen.
The action unfolds through Howie’s eyes in any case. We are introduced to his world on the mainland and follow him across on the helicopter; we seldom leave his side and on first viewing, we are as blind as he to the final, fatal twist in the plot. However clear and numerous the ways in which the two of us differ, I know where Howie comes from. I know that he has had the Protestant Work Ethic beaten into him, that his repression is essential to his ability to function, and for this I cannot help but feel an extra allegiance towards him.
Having drawn the boundaries by establishing the character of Howie and throwing him up against his antithesis, the film accommodates some greatly atmospheric scenes. Howie’s entrance into the Green Man inn, as the bawdy revellers fall silent, stare and clear his path, could match any Western saloon scene for tension. Lindsay Kemp, who tutored David Bowie in mime, makes a wonderfully arch turn as the polite but sardonic landlord. Throughout the film, the islanders’ comportment suggests that they know something we don’t; as Howie lectures each local about his investigation on the missing child a faint smile plays on every set of lips, in every pair of eyes.
Like its cousin The Prisoner, the film sizzles with intrigue as the central protagonist makes investigations into this labyrinth (one made as surreal and enchanting as Portmeirion village) but unlike The Prisoner, its boundaries far from clear-cut. The Village’s Number Twos are capable of ingenious cruelty, but with the exception of the maverick Leo McKern they are at heart small-minded, snivelling bureaucrats. None, certainly, come close to the charisma of Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle. Summerisle’s intellect dwarfs that of Sgt Howie. As he receives the “Christian copper” onto his immaculate estate, he can run rings around Howie with minimum effort. Howie’s incredulity often leaves Summerisle with a tap-in before an open goal; “Naturally they are naked- it’s much too dangerous to jump through fire with your clothes on.” The stuttering Sergeant is humiliated by Summerisle’s manner- one of indulgence towards an incredulous child, all demure enquiries like “How perplexing for you. What do you think can have happened?”
Next to a flamboyant dandy in his own lair, Howie appears gruff and joyless, the limitations of his black-and-white perception exposed ruthlessly. In short, he is the determined but doomed underdog. When he attempts to fight off the villagers and rescue Rowan Morrison, we are thrilled by the notion that he might succeed; when he fails, we are dismayed. He is the butt of every joke and the more serious he becomes, the less seriously people can take him. As he quizzes the village doctor over the cause of Rowan’s death, he is told: “she was burnt to death. As my lunch will be if I continue here talking to you.” Prickteased by Britt Ekland’s siren song and nude dance, Howie agonises over the possible invitation. In the end though, he ignores the scenario and hides amongst the bedsheets in order to preserve his sanity. When he barges in to find Ingrid Pitt’s sexy librarian masturbating in the bath, he displays all the awkwardness of a Carry On novice. He is an average man; he is everyman.
The conflict played out in The Wicker Man is certainly related to body and mind, but it’s hard to say whether each faction can be assigned a particular province. If we assume that the mind is revolted by the baseness of our animal half whilst the body embraces gratification, then Howie would be the cerebral one, fighting against the inevitable force of natural urges. But the film is more complex than this. On a logical level, the villagers are enlightened enough to know that the central premise of Christianity is rubbish. As the schoolteacher explains, “the children find reincarnation easier to comprehend than resurrection”. As an atheist who has emphatically rejected Howie’s belief system, I should feel contempt for his blindness and intolerance, should join the villagers in scoffing at him; but instead, I feel for his plight with fierce emotion. Rats who have been kept in laboratories for dozens of generations still organise themselves around the same principles as rats in the wild. Irrespective of whether we ought to, we cannot simply erase centuries of guilt, piety, and self-hatred. It infiltrates our genetic make-up. My brain tells me to reject Howie, but my gut instinct tells me that I owe him my allegiance. Who then represents mind, and who the body?
The denouement is borrowed directly from the greatest of mediaeval romances, Sir Gawain & The Green Knight. At the pivotal moment, Howie realises that he was the quarry and has been caught in a watertight trap. His fate will be sealed by his behaviour over the preceding few days, when he was quite unaware of his being judged, of the gravity behind what seemed like inconsequential decisions. According to his mainland values, resisting the temptation of the landlord’s daughter was a virtuous decision- but according to the criteria of Summerisle, it saw him confirm his status as virgin and fool.
Does Howie then deserve the fate he is met with? His priority throughout is to unswervingly pursue a case of apparent child murder (“I am interested in one thing only- the law”). To my mind, he is a deeply sympathetic character and the ending can only be viewed as a chilling atrocity. His imminent death sees Howie’s faith waver for the first time, as he tries to keep singing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ whilst the flames choke and scorch him. It brings to mind that horrific scene from The Exorcist, where the priests try to shout down the levitating girl with their refrain of “the power of Christ compels you to obey”, that elicits no response whatsoever. What is the breaking point of faith?
Even as we watch the highlights of a football game that we know our team lost, we involuntarily will for a happier outcome. One of my life’s ambitions is to attempt a remake of The Wicker Man, starring Martin Kemp as Sgt Howie and James Nesbitt as Lord Summerisle, in which a police search party manage to rescue Howie at the eleventh hour and the villagers find themselves held in a Lossiemouth detention camp under charges of sexual subversion. That is idle wishful thinking on my part, but if the controller of ITV1 should be reading…