doomsey reviews The Wicker Man

The Wicker Man 88 min., 1973
Written by Anthony Shaffer
Directed by Robin Hardy
Language: English
My rating: ★★★★★

Do not meddle in the affairs of warlocks, for they are tricksy and quick to set you on fire.

* * *

The 2013 release of Wicker Man is a success almost despite itself, a triumph of hard work and dedication over an almost unbelievable set of obstacles. I saw two versions, the original theatrical cut and the 93 minute “final” cut. The original cut was, after completion, declared “too long” and “not upbeat enough” by its original distributors, so the director removed some 20 minutes along with key plot points before its theatrical release. The resulting theatrical cut suffers dramatically from the cuts and rearrangements, which left a highly disturbing but somewhat scrambled movie that lacked sufficient context to truly understand everything that was going on.

Attempts to put the film back together were stymied by a loss of the original negatives, which were believed to be used as fill in on the M4 motorway; a reconstructed version was assembled, from a copy of the film distributed before the cuts, in 1979, but this copy of the film too was lost. More recently a broadcast master from the 1980s home video release was located, and used with the theatrical print to construct a recent re-release. This re-release, a 93 minute “final cut,” restores some but not all of the missing footage, and returns to the original ordering of scenes. These changes and restorations are enough for the movie as a whole to hold together. However, I would still not mind seeing the the “full” version that apparently still exists in some dark corner of the universe…

In the “Final Cut” version, the film opens with a scene deleted from the theatrical version of the film, where the main character, police Sgt. Howie, played by Edward Woodward, reads from the Bible to introduce the character and his puritanical Christian views. He then flies into a small island, Summerisle, from which he has received a letter stating there is a missing girl. Initially, the plot plays like a murder conspiracy, as Howie attempts to track down information on the missing girl. However, from the moment that Howie arrives on the Summerisle it is clear that everyone he talks to is hiding something. They deny knowledge (and the existence) of the supposedly missing girl, and there are significant inconsistencies that Howie attempts to investigate. In the meanwhile, the residents disturb the straight-laced Howie with their very different viewpoints on religion and sexuality.

Christopher Lee plays Lord Summerisle, the leader of the island, remarkably straight for much of the film, but with just a hint of contempt for the bumbling Howie. Lee, a masterful actor, pulls off this balance with aplomb. The script pulls off this balance as well, with supporting characters and circumstances being arranged so that Howie learns more than he thinks the islanders realize, and with less freedom than he sees. The supporting roles are also well acted and cast. I particularly enjoyed Aubrey Morris as the gravedigger, and Ingrid Pitt as the librarian, and many of the remarkably mischievous children.

The music of the film also plays a critical part in its success. Composed and arranged by Paul Giovanni (who has a cameos playing at the bar during some of the added scenes in the “Final Cut”), the music underscores many critical scenes of the film. Although the Wicker Man is not a musical, it carries some of the attributes thereof, and reportedly Hardy announced to the surprise of the cast that “We are making a musical!” during the production. Many of the characters sing in their roles, but do so more “in character” than a traditional musical, largely because music plays a large role in the ecstatic religious tradition of the island.

No discussion of the Wicker Man would be complete without a mention of the conclusion of the film, in which the islanders finally do their sacrifice by burning the enormous wicker man. When I watched the film, it was obvious that this sacrifice was coming, but the scene was handled with remarkable grace and power. And the sacrifice, the burning wicker man itself, is an image that will disturb me for a long time to come.

Due to its history, the quality of the recent Blu-Ray release is somewhat inconsistent; there are some strange discontinuities in video quality where the video footage from the original cut is added into the theatrical print. Visually, however, the film is a treat; the island (actually filmed at a variety of locations on the Scottish mainland) comes off as a character in its own right, and not a pleasant one. I was particularly impressed by the introductory aerial shots, and street scenes in which townspeople leer from the windows at Howie. The movie was made on a tight budget (Lee was so excited about the film that he agreed to participate without pay; if he were paid his usual rates the film could not have been made), and in some places this is apparent; for instance, because it was shot in fall but set in spring, the production decorated trees with fake green and flowers while yellow and brown dropped leaves are clearly visible on the grass. But these quirks do not detract from the overall power of the film, and the important parts, in particular the concluding wicker man itself, are done well.

Christopher Lee has said that The Wicker Man is a brilliant film, one of his best. He also said there was much missing in the theatrical cut, and these cuts diminished its brilliance. In its “Final Cut” form, however, this brilliance shines through. The film has been called a cult classic, but it’s not. It is a classic, full stop.

“The Wicker Man” was directed by Robin Hardy and written by Anthony Shaffer. It stars Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, and Britt Ekland. It ran for 88 minutes in the original, flawed 1973 theatrical cut, and 93 minutes in the vastly better 2013 “Final Cut” rerelease. It was remade in 2006 as an American film starring Nicolas Cage.

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One Response to doomsey reviews The Wicker Man

  1. John Bruni says:

    This is one of my favorite movies. I’m still baffled by the incredibly terrible remake. I’m trying to figure out why Nic Cage wanted to rape a classic movie so badly.

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