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50th Anniversary Rewatch Review – The Wicker Man

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Well, we’re into December and it seems appropriate that a religious film should be being watched. But, before we grab our hymn books and rosary beads, we need to remember that, as Hamlet said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” The religion practised on Summerisle is much older than the Abrahamic ones. For those who haven’t seen it, The Wicker Man is a film about a devout Christian policeman who goes to investigate the goings on of a remote Scottish island. Given that the film is half a century old I’m not going to worry too much about spoilers!

Fifty years ago, back in 1973, it was generally assumed that the United Kingdom was a Christian country. The official census back then didn’t explicitly ask the question of personal belief but other polling organisations weren’t  so reticent about asking. Back then over 70% of the population believed in a Christian God; the latest figures are about 46%. So when Sgt Howie (Edward Woodward) keeps saying about this being a Christian country it probably didn’t seem so odd. Nowadays less than six per cent of the population go to church each week in the UK compared with around 40% in the USA or nearly 90% in Nigeria. Now there are nearly a hundred thousand practising Pagans in the UK. 

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They Never Learn Anything Of Christianity?

So, do you need to trek all the way to a remote Scottish island to see an example of a Pagan ceremony? Well…no! I can’t speak for all towns and villages throughout the UK but I have been to one celebrating Beltane, that’s the May Day one. In The Wicker Man the local pub is called The Green Man and, over the May bank holiday, the market town of Knutsford in Cheshire holds their Jack-in-the-Green festival which is led by the Green Man; basically a man dressed as a bush. I know because I have attended it, my first wife was a former Rose Queen. But that’s just Knutsford. Similar things happen on May Day in Hastings, Bristol, Deptford, Oxford, Hammersmith, Whitstable, and many more.

Anyway, The Wicker Man starts with a small seaplane landing in a harbour and the sole occupant, Sgt Howie, comes ashore to be met by a colleague. As they walk away there is a graffito on a wall. It says “Jesus saves”; round our way this would be accompanied by “But Keegan scores on the rebound”.  The colleague says something about it being a good message but Sgt Howie’s reply was along the lines of “Yes, but not there. Get it cleaned up.” Subsequent scenes show him not just in church but giving a reading and taking communion. So we know that Howie is a religious man as well as a law abiding one.

Only As A Comparative Religion

Then a letter arrives from Summerisle. It says that a twelve year old child has gone missing and nobody is taking the disappearance seriously. Howie flies over to the island and starts his investigations. While there he is horrified to discover that, unlike the mainland, Summerisle is not a  Christian community. Their bawdy songs, lack of licensing laws, and very public displays of intimacy shock him to the core. He is continuously blustering about the lack of religion and gets gently rebuffed by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) who points out that they are deeply religious…just not the same religion as him! The final outcome, involving the eponymous wicker man, is given away on the poster.

One of the things about The Wicker Man is that you can never really be sure which version you’ll be watching! There’s the original release, the first restoration, the US VHS version, the director’s cut, and the final cut but, apparently, there has never been a complete cut. Some of the actors and extras are on record as saying that they filmed scenes which have never seen the light of day. Rumours have it that the original negative of the full-length version was used as landfill in the construction of the M3 motorway! Despite that, it led to Edward Woodward getting the leading role in The Equaliser TV series and Christopher Lee has said that he considers this to be one of his greatest ever roles. 

Happy 50th birthday to The Wicker Man!

Movie Grade: A+

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