The Wicker Tree and The Wicker Man’s Legacy

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 28, 2012 — 28 Comments

One of my favorite films is the 1973 cult-classic “The Wicker Man.” Set in a remote Scottish island, it pits a priggish Christian police officer against a population that has rejected Christianity in favor of a revived Paganism. As the policeman slowly unravels the mystery of a missing girl, he’s drawn ever tighter into a conspiracy that will seal his fate. While the slow-burning plot is serviceable, it’s really the atmospherics, songs, and attention to detail that make the film transcendent (by the way, if you aren’t watching the restored extended version of the film, you are truly missing out). Many modern Pagans have embraced “The Wicker Man” over the years for transmitting an idyllic vision of Pagan culture that portrayed the inhabitants as happy, cheerful, and well-adjusted. As Lord Summerisle says during the film: “We don’t commit murder hereWe’re a deeply religious people.” Indeed, in the minds of the inhabitants, Sgt. Howie’s dreadful fate isn’t murder at all, but the ramifications of choices he unwittingly made during the film.

Still from 1973's "The Wicker Man".

Still from 1973's "The Wicker Man".

Like many cult films, there had been talk for years about a sequel, or a remake. The remake happened in 2006, a disaster of a film starring an inane and overacting Nicolas Cage. The film managed to remove nuance and any sympathetic characters from its treatment, and is largely seen as an unintentional comedy today (despite that, Cage is talking sequel). Then came word that a follow-up to the 1973 film, written and directed by Robin Hardy, who also directed the original, was in the works. Originally titled “Cowboys For Christ,” the new film would be a spiritual “companion” to the original film, not a direct sequel.  In production for years, and beset by money problems early on, the film, renamed “The Wicker Tree,” finally hit the festival circuit in 2011. It got mixed reviews at Fantasia 2011 and FrightFest 2011, with Total Film complaining that the new film had a “near-absence of momentum or intrigue.”

Now, at the beginning of 2012, “The Wicker Tree” is finally seeing a limited theatrical release. Andy Webster at The New York Times gives it a sympathetic review, but notes that it can’t live up to the “raw, earthy and mythic power” of the original film.

“In “The Wicker Tree,” two born-again Texans, Beth (the fresh-faced if one-dimensional newcomer Brittania Nicol) and Steve (Henry Garrett, slightly better), bring drawls, a cowboy hat and door-to-door evangelizing to rural Scotland (played unconvincingly by genteel Oxford), only to be drawn into a similar conspiracy, led by the nuclear-power magnate Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish, vainly trying to match the presence of the original’s Christopher Lee, who makes a cameo here).

Again, the town’s natives are a randy lot, with Honeysuckle Weeks playing the Britt Ekland temptress role and providing abundant nudity. But the decadence is more restrained; the gore, as before, is minimal. Inside references — animal carcasses, a costume horse-head, a sun pendant — drop in amid innovations, like an amusing crow’s-eye perspective. But finding sympathy for the leads isn’t as easy as it was for the forceful if self-righteous Woodward. Still, “The Wicker Tree” does manage to leave you with a haunted, agreeable unease.”

But will Pagans enjoy this new version? Pagan author and philosopher Brendan Myers has seen it, and gives it a thoughtful, somewhat positive, review.

“In a way, the film is about the inexorability of fate: Lord Summerisle himself says as much in a cameo appearance. So the plot of the film is an unfolding of Beth and Steve’s fate. We as audience members know what is going to happen: all the mystery and surprise is in how it happens. In that sense the film is a bit like a prequel. [...] I must also say, there were some moments at the end I genuinely didn’t expect. Beth and Steve met their fate as we knew they would, but the shock you feel when director Robin Hardy’s thesis is revealed – the thesis that great evil can come when people’s beliefs in the rightness of their actions is strong enough – came from an unexpected direction. This too helped make up for the weaknesses of the film: the unstable union of comedy and tragedy, the wooden-ness (dare I say wicker-ness?) of some of the characters. I’d give the film three out of five stars, although somehow I feel as if I should be giving it more. There’s still lots of depth and richness to be explored in the world of the Wicker Man, and lots more terrors to be seen as well. Robin Hardy, if you’re reading this, I hereby volunteer to write the script for the third film.”

Most mainstream reviewers are pointing out that this new film simply can’t live up to the original film, and that Hardy’s sensibilities as a director are a touch out of step with modern mores. I predict the consensus will be that “The Wicker Tree” is a noble failure that tries and ultimately fails to capture the magic of “The Wicker Man.” Better, by far, than the remake, but still a flawed attempt to “update” the basic story for a modern audience. Still, I’m interested to see what the wider Pagan response to this new film will be, and I look forward to judging the picture for myself.

I think that “The Wicker Man” caught hold of something at just the right time, British psychedelic folk and folk-rock bands were still riding high, occult practices and modern Paganism were becoming something more than an oddity, and this film seemed like a tuning fork that vibrated to the tensions and possibilities of that era. It became a touchstone for those who recognized that tension within their own lives, the desire to create a new world, to live in a new context, to break from the “straight” Christian world. The intrusion of Howie, and his undoing, can be read as a parable for the irreconcilable differences between the mainstream and the counterculture, the end of a “fool” who thinks this society should play by his rules. In a way, it is much like “The Exorcist,” which also played on tensions between cultures, but for different reasons, and to different ends.

I’m generally not a fan of remakes, and I think attempts to bottle the magic of “The Wicker Man,” no matter how faithful or well-pedigreed, will run into problems. Put simply, we live in different times, and the nature of tensions between Christianity and competing faiths and philosophies are different.  I think an excellent film can be made about those tensions, but I fear “The Wicker Tree” will not be that film.

For those wanting to see the extended version of “The Wicker Man”, you can still get it used for a reasonable price.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • http://witchesandscientists.blogspot.com/ Gene

    I’m glad the extended version can be had for such a good price. I have the fancy wooden box version with the cool branded image of the
    Wicker man. Also available is the complete sound track. To a large degree, music took center stage in the movie and I think it’s one of the elements making the film so powerful.

  • Kilmrnock

    I have the wooden box version as well . Love the film myself . Hadn’d heard of an extended version will have to put that one on my films to find list . With current economics this list is being tended to slower than i’d like , but so it goes . I just finally got Dogma for yule , that one was at the top of the list . so it goes .Kilm

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

      The wooden box set has the extended cut in it, along with the theatrical cut.

  • Ecstaticlght

    I watched Wicker Tree last week. It took me a bit to wrap my head around the idea it was not a send up of Wicker Man. I’m like Brendan. I get it, and I know I’ll need to watch it a few more times to see the small details, but the music was weak and I wanted to shoot the TV with a rubber dart gun and make that stupid cowboy hat go away, although I got the symbology of it (loss of innocence etc). The other issue was the idea that any church group in the US would think they needed to send missionary kids in to Scotland, just did not make sense being the movie is set in the current time frame. I’d say if I wasn’t jaded by loving Wicker Man so much and being a picky movie watching Pagan, Wicker Tree would catch my attention, because it still has that bit of the wild and forbidden in it.

    • Paracelsus

      Well, believe me, sometimes it seems that the entire UK is positively pullullating with clean cut young missionaries from Utah, so it isn’t that far fetched…

    • Hylomorphic

      No, Protestants send people over to Scotland on missionary trips /all the freaking time/. I know at least a dozen Presbyterians who’ve done that. I think it’s mostly an excuse to take an overseas vacation than anything else, but they do call it missions.

  • Kilmrnock

    Jason i’ll have to look at my wooden box set again has been a while since i looked at it , good tho to know . Kilm

  • The Anonymous Phantom

    I am a big fan of the original “Wicker Man” and, as such, I was appalled by Nicholas Cage’s silly remake. As a new film maker, I feel that even I could have done much better. The original film was moody, sexy, and probably was an unintentional tribute to modern paganism and magick.

    What really made the original great, was the music!!! It was clever, bawdy, mystical, erotic and well done. If I had had the rights to that film, I would have made it into a musical! A few more well composed songs and ritualistic dance numbers and it would have been complete.

    I also would have put a raving, intolerant muslim in the wicker fire along with his christian counterpart.
    — So Mote It Be –

    • Obsidia

      A musical! I love that idea!

      The actors and actresses in the original “Wicker Man” were great ones….we won’t see their like again for a long time. Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Eklund, Ingrid Pitt, and the rest….what a wonderful group! They created film magick.

  • Medeina Ragana

    Be careful when ordering. I ordered what I thought was the original version from Amazon and ended up with the Nicholas Cage version, which I can’t get rid of. Sigh…

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters
      • http://vermillionrush.wordpress.com Vermillion

        This is the ONLY way to watch the movie IMO. I laughed so hard I thought I was going to have an accident.

      • Grimmorrigan

        Rifftrax…add to crap and enjoy!

  • Hotstreak12

    I’ve never seen the movie so I may be talking out my ass, but from the synopsis I read it seems the Wicker Man is Anti-Pagan, showing the pagans as murderers of a pious christian who did nothing more but follow the (sic) righteous tenants of his faith. I am no believer in the Christian faith and tenant’s I am just playing (sic) devils advocate as it were. Like I said I have never seen the movie so I do not know the personalities of the characters or it’s ambiance, Just giving an opinion of what the synopsis makes it sound like.

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

      It’s a complex movie, as a Pagan who loves this film I wouldn’t call it “anti-Pagan.”

    • Nick Ritter

      You really should see the film, then. No synopsis will give you an accurate picture.

    • Harmonyfb

      It doesn’t come off as an anti-Pagan film to me – more a lesson on group morality. As Jason said, it’s complicated. I’ve used it as a moral lesson for teens, showing that just because people are pleasant and familiar doesn’t mean they’re always right, and just because people are unpleasant and foreign doesn’t mean they’re always wrong. The viewer is invited to sympathize with the villagers and despise the obnoxious Sgt Howie from the get-go…right up to the point where they shove him in the Wicker Man and light it on fire. It’s a very powerful scene, and one which leads one to serious thoughts about mob rule, negative groupthink, etc. Howie tries to wake them up by shouting ‘Think what you’re doing!’, but they ignore his (true) exhortation that it is murder they’re about. (This also recalls murders by mobs from other faiths under the rubric of religion. As I said, powerful.)

      In some ways, it’s a love letter to Paganism – the villagers are healthy, happy, and have a fully-developed, joyous faith. In contrast, Howie’s faith is presented as stultifying, rigid, joyless. We see a community in which all members are valued, and in which the values of faith are found everywhere. This makes the film’s ending all the more shocking.

      When one Pagan woman says solemnly ‘You’ll simply never understand the true nature of sacrifice’, the viewer perceives this as true. Howie doesn’t understand, even though his religion is predicated on the notion of one person’s sacrifice. Does he understand at the end? Perhaps. It’s certain that Lord Summerisle’s character understands, because he mentions that they are giving Howie a ‘rare gift’ – a martyr’s death. And this understanding doesn’t mitigate Howie’s horrific premeditated murder by the singing villagers.

      You should definitely see it (though make sure you’re not getting the theatrical release cut, because it was so poorly edited that it makes no sense at all.)

    • Jack Heron

      As other people have been saying, it’s a film where sides aren’t simple. On the one hand, the villagers are fun-loving, have a close-knit community and seem very in touch with their surroundings. On the other hand, they lure an innocent man (pun intended) to his death so that they might get more apples. Sergeant Howie is a close-minded and intolerant person who seems to be suffering some repression in his religion – but on the other hand he is brave and determined enough to risk his own life to save a young girl (even if it doesn’t turn out that way…).

      I would reiterate what Harmonyfb says – get the Director’s Cut. It’s the *only* cut.

    • http://www.paganprincesses.com/ Jax Garren

      I have seen Wicker Man, and I’m one of the Pagans who was, I don’t know if offended is the right word, but I was really bothered. Yes, up until the end the rituals are neat to watch and the music is pretty… but when you’ve got a group of people who set somebody on fire because they believe it’ll help their crops grow (and, if I remember correctly, one of the defining reasons they chose Howie was because he wouldn’t cheat on his fiance by sleeping with the village hottie), it doesn’t matter if the protagonist is a little priggish. Those characters are unforgivably wrong in the head. Besides, Howie was there to save a child, which automatically puts him in the “good guy” category, regardless of him being a little leery of the populace. As it turned out, the prejudice he started with was absolutely justified.

      If we lived in a world where Paganism was readily accepted, I don’t think I would’ve had such a problem with it. But (at least where I’m from) people are already worried that we’re crazy, superstitious types with bloodthirsty gods, and this movie plays exactly into that fear. Add to it that the Pagans are likable, friendly people living in a tight knit community, and it’s saying, “Pagans may seem nice on the outside, but on the inside we’re superstitious zealots who are ready to murder people in horrible ways.” I had a viscerally negative reaction to this movie; the last scene made me physically ill. It was very well done, so kudos to the makers from a quality standpoint, but I felt like I was being labeled a dangerous nutter, and I hope that nobody in my family (many of whom have a hard time with me being Pagan) ever sees it, because it’ll play right into what they’re terrified of.

      • Moorep31

        Speaking as one who loves the film, I think this is one of the best comments I’ve ever seen about it. Wicker Man divides humanity into two (simplistically, Pagan and Christian) and presents both halves as admirable and hateful – not necessarily at the same time. Thoughtprovoking, eh? – and with good music. Good enough to unsettle a clever Pagan and provoke s/he to making this post.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-Carron/100001353268347 David Carron

    The best re-make of Wicker Man is here:

    http://issuu.com/soundofdrowning/docs/muppetwickerman

  • Wendy

    I found Cage’s remake profoundly misogynistic, not silly.

  • http://johnfranc.blogspot.com/ John Beckett

    I saw “The Wicker Tree” today. It’s not bad, but it can’t hold a candle – much less a burning effigy – to “The Wicker Man”.

    There were so many sensual-yet-innocent Pagan customs in “The Wicker Man”: the Maypole, the Pagan lessons in the school, the fertility dance and the costumed procession – those are all but gone in the sequel. Even considering the ending, there was a joy in “The Wicker Man” that’s mostly missing from “The Wicker Tree.”

    If you want to see “The Wicker Tree” then go see it, but see it with no expectations.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/C457RWVNM2URJSL52FSWFKJJ6U A. Marina P. Fournier

    There are two “extended version” versions: one is the wooden-boxed set, which is primarily a numbered limited edition, and another, with a rather yellow cover, which has slightly different offerings.

    What I was unable to find was where in the Bay Area the Wicker Tree movie will appear, or even “if”. LA, yes, farther north, who knows?

  • A.C. Fisher Aldag

    Youse guys ever read the original book? Way better.

  • A.C. Fisher Aldag

    Youse guys ever read the original book? Way better.

  • Kilmrnock

    Cage’s version of the wicker man was ridiculous . I didn’t like the whole feminist take on summerisles inhabitants at all . My humble opinion of the movie is that it was a sham , pure unadulterated crap. Buts thats just me ,what can i say. Kilm

  • Eric S.

    I finally had a chance to see the film and although I still am not sure what all I think and certainly wouldn’t dare to compare it with The Wicker Man it is beginning to grow on me. Like its predecessor it is a complicated film that deserves a considerable amount of thought and study, and is at times inspiring, at times disturbing, at times quite funny… One of the things that made the Wicker Man so fascinating was the moral ambiguity of the film… it can be taken as a celebration of the community, freedom, beauty, and connectedness of pagan religions, a commentary on cult mentality, a modern saint’s life drama about the martyrdom of a righteous man, a critique of religion in general or a postmodern reflection on the waning of the Christian establishment in Scotland in the wake of the ‘60s (I especially see that element in the opening of the film where Howie is criticizing the Christian graffiti art as lawlessness, unable to keep up as even his own religion becomes looser and more anarchistic with the changing times…

    The Wicker Tree is about a different time and a different culture, it is still a very postmodern reflection on religion… even more so perhaps… The Scotland of this film is one that has become fully secularized, and a character like Howie, already something of an anachronism in the world of the film would be unheard of. Beth and Steve in this film represent a lively and enthusiastic, but shallow Christianity rooted in American revivalism… The paganism of the community, likewise is fairly baseless… I greatly missed the rootedness the Wicker Man had in rural Scottish folk customs and ancient Roman propaganda… I also found Lachlan to be as unimaginative as he was cynical… Lord Summerisle and Lachlan were both using religion to control workers… but Lord Summerisle was also so enthusiastic and devilishly charming that you couldn’t not like him. Lachlan readily admits that the religion of the community is simply a means to an end… this was offset nicely with the character of Lolly… who was given one of the only genuinely pagan moments in the film (her conversation with Steve about the River Goddess was beautiful)… as well as near the end of the film trying unsuccessfully to avert the destiny of the ill-fated heroes.

    I was mixed about the ending… one of my favorite moments is near the end, presenting the community turning to song and ritual as a way of coping with and finding meaning in a tragedy that befalls them (though with a good deal of forced persuasion)… but for the rest of it I was torn between fascination with the direction they took the analysis of the pagan elements of Christianity and disappointment with the lack of necessity the fates of the main characters had to the plot and the apparent lack of research that went into the nature of said fates…

    Musically the film suffers from the loss of the late Paul Giovanni… most of the songs are well known hymns and traditional songs or parodies of the Country Pop genre… which is a sad shift from the soundtrack that brought us Willow’s Song, Corn Rigs, Gently Johnny, and The Highland Widow’s Lament and helped jumpstart the Pagan Folk genre of music… To the film’s credit, however, the film gives us an absolutely breathtaking rendition of the song of the Fiana from the legend of Oisin that more than earns its place alongside those classics:

    “You will have horses of the fairy breed,
    You will have hounds that can outrun the wind;
    A hundred chiefs shall follow you in war,
    A hundred maidens sing thee to your sleep.”

    Whatever other issues I may have with the film, I can say that it is a film that is continuing to seep into my consciousness… that has given me a lot to think about this week and that has a wealth that it will take a while to really tap into. It gave me much the same feeling I had upon first seeing The Wicker Man which I didn’t expect would be possible. I remember hating that movie the first few times I saw it because of the discomfort it made me feel and the reflection on my own religion it required me to go through and it has since become one of my favorite films. I hope that this one will continue to grow on me in much the same way. For now I give it 3 and a half out of 5 stars (and growing)…