An Appointment With The Wicker Man

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  July 23, 2013 — 38 Comments

On Monday morning the film production and distribution company StudioCanal announced, via director Robin Hardy, that they have acquired an existing film print of 1973 cult film “The Wicker Man,” long missing, and are restoring the film, converting it to Blu-Ray format, and overseeing a short theatrical run in the Fall. For devotees of the film, which includes myself, this is exciting news. Up until now, the only versions of the film you could easily get were the mangled “Theatrical Version” (aka the “short” version) which is what usually pops up on streaming services and DVD, and “The Extended Version” (aka the director’s cut/the “long” version) which was included in the two-disc edition released in 2006 (and earlier VHS releases). The problem with the previously released extended version was that it melded film-quality material from the short version with NTSC tape of the additional footage, creating rather glaring differences in video (and audio) quality. Better than nothing, surely, but hardly optimal.

Robin Hardy

Robin Hardy

“I’m very pleased to announce that StudioCanal has been able to find an actual print of The Wicker Man, which is based on my original cut, working with Abraxas, the American distributors, all those years ago […] this version has never been restored before, has never been shown in UK theaters before, has never been released on Blu-Ray before. This version of The Wicker Man will be known, optimistically, as the ‘Final Cut.'”Robin Hardy, director of “The Wicker Man”

So what does this all mean? It most likely means some version of the extended “director’s” cut, but with top-notch audio/video quality (for a definitive run-down of the various “Wicker Man” versions out there, see this site). What it most likely doesn’t mean is a return of material from the original filming that never made it into any version of the film. So not the completists dream, the Platonic ideal of “The Wicker Man,” but still, exciting news. This “Final Cut,” according to SFX Magazine, “will be released in selected cinemas on 27 September, and will be available on Blu-ray and DVD on 14 October.”

Still from "The Wicker Man."

Still from “The Wicker Man.”

For modern Pagans, “The Wicker Man” can be a divisive film. Many Pagans, especially those who saw it in American theaters in 1979 when it was re-released in it’s “middle” cut version and became a cult sensation, love the way Summerisle was portrayed: a village of happy, fun-loving, musical, Pagans. A depiction that cut deep into the psyche of many Pagans longing for a society and culture that reflected their ideals. However, there has always been a vocal minority of Pagans who detest the film due to the small fact that the fun-loving Pagans perform a human sacrifice at the end, thus undercutting all the smiley-faced folk songs and revels. While I was not quite old enough to see “The Wicker Man” in the cinema, I was part of a coven that provided my first viewing of the film, and I’ll admit I fell in instant love. A Pagan thriller-musical-procedural that invited deeper questions about belief.

 

1979 re-release era poster.

1979 re-release era poster.

I have long felt that there are no “heroes” or “villains” in the piece, but two world views in crisis clashing with tragic results. The sting is in undercutting our expectations for both the Christian policeman “hero” and the, in theory, villainous Pagan village. Over the course of the film we find that the hero is a stuffy, priggish, and deeply flawed man who has a hard time separating his duties as a Christian from his duties as a police officer (indeed he sees them as one and the same, which in turn helps lead him to his doom). Likewise, the Pagan villagers, who would be portrayed as creepy and devious in a true b-movie picture, are shown to be rather wholesome and moral, at least within the context of their worldview (something truly unexpected for a thriller feature from the early 1970s). You find yourself quickly rooting for them, and against the traditional hero. Robin Hardy and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer were smart enough to give an ending that, in a sense, gives everyone what they “want” within a religious context.

Sergeant Neil Howie: No matter what you do, you can’t change the fact that I believe in the life eternal, as promised to us by our Lord, Jesus Christ. I believe in the life eternal, as promised to us by our Lord, Jesus Christ! Lord Summerisle: That is good, for believing what you do, we confer upon you a rare gift, these days – a martyr’s death. You will not only have life eternal, but you will sit with the saints among the elect. Come. It is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker man.”

The Wicker Man is the first truly excellent film to be made in a post Pagan revival world. It plays with the same sources and mythic themes that the actual Pagan community used in reconstructing their own faiths, and as such strikes at something honest almost by accident. It struck at a moment when the idea of a “Pagan Community” was still forming and in flux. This was before “Drawing Down the Moon,” before “The Spiral Dance,” and well before the Internet. If you view it in this context, you can understand why “The Wicker Man” was so beloved for its portrayal of a Pagan village, because it gave a vision of “us” as a community. Something that was, and largely still is, rare on the big screen (I’d argue the 1980s television series “Robin of Sherwood” is important for similar reasons). So despite the sacrifice at the end, it has been deeply embraced, and continues to be heralded. Even today, a new generation are sharing images and animated gifs of the film on Tumblr, celebrating the Pagan imagery.

One hopes this “final cut” will finally enable a mass audience to see the film as it was meant to be seen, and in high quality, taking its place in a pantheon of provocative 1970s films that explore the tensions between the dominant Christian paradigm, and a religious/cultural “other.” I have no doubt that come October, there will be many, many gatherings and parties to re-introduce this film, and one can only hope it will come to a movie theater near me in September. I don’t know about you, but I plan to keep my appointment with “The Wicker Man.”

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    I love that movie!

    First time I ever saw it, I was enthralled. I have to say, I always thought of Howie as the antagonist and was extremely pleased to see how the film (and he) ended.

  • Eric Scott

    I have to admit, THE WICKER MAN makes me distinctly uneasy. It’s very, very hard for me to reconcile admiration for a Pagan enclave and the murder of anyone, even a stuffy jerk like Howie. (Squaredom does not warrant death.) The explanation that he “refused all the chances he had to escape, so he really did consent to the sacrifice” is rules-lawyering.

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

      As I said in my piece, it’s about two world views in crisis. When your life and livelihood is threatened, you consider terrible things to restore order.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      It is based on a more ‘historical’ view of Paganism, though.

      Let us face it, even most reconstructionists have a belief system only superficially like the Pre-Christian European tribes did.

      • Nick Ritter

        “Let us face it, even most reconstructionists have a belief system only superficially like the Pre-Christian European tribes did.”

        Speaking as a reconstructionist, I must admit that this is unfortunately true.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          Without fully recreating their entire ways of life (an impossibility), it is not going to realistically change.

  • Deporodh

    I know a tad too much about the flavor of “Christianity” that produced Sergeant Howie. In the 17th century of Scotland, they were known as the Covenanters, and if you think the Puritans of Plymouth Rock were rigid and right-wing, well, the Covenanters made ‘em look like pikers (their battle cry against Christian Highlander clansmen was “Jesus, and NO QUARTER!”—talk about blasphemy). So I was ALWAYS rooting for Howie to get his comeuppance, and Lord Summerisle’s comments about martyrdom made it almost an invitation and not a trap.

    My ex and I were fortunate enough to buy an ancient 104-minute VHS copy of the film still in its shrink-wrap at an early Panthecon (one of the San Fran ones in the late 1990s). I have watched that copy a couple of times through, but alas, it went with the ex when we separated. Nowhere in Jason’s excellent article does he or anyone else mention the LENGTH of what was recovered, but I hope it is at least that 104 minutes. I’ve also watched the 102 minutes that made it onto a DVD, and found it less than complete…

  • AndrasArthen

    This is great news. I saw The Wicker Man when it first came out (1973 or ’74), at the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge, MA — a now-historic theater, and one of the few places in the Greater Boston area that specialized in showing indie, art, and foreign films back then. Like you, I fell in love with it immediately. The Wicker Man became very popular from the start, and for a long time the Welles would bring it back at least once a year for a couple of weeks, so I started turning some of my pagan friends on to it. Eventually, it sort of became the equivalent of The Rocky Horror Picture Show for us: whenever the Welles would bring it back, a bunch of us would get together, have dinner in Harvard Square, get a little stoned, and walk over to the Cinema and sit in a clump in the middle of the theater. Then, as soon as the opening frames came on, we’d start the running commentary — saying key lines in unison with the actors, answering onscreen questions before the characters got to reply, singing along with the songs, heckling Sgt. Howie, and clapping, cheering and booing in all the “wrong” places. I’m sure we were extremely annoying, and we’d often get nasty glares from some of the other patrons when the lights came back up; but, hey, we were young… And, several times over the years it happened that people would come up to us after the movie, start conversations, and then, a few weeks later, turn up at somebody’s ritual. So, unintentionally, The Wicker Man became something of a recruiting tool for us. I’m looking forward to seeing the final cut, thanks for letting us know!

  • Kevin Silverstag

    Great article, Jason. I think you beautifully summed up the allure that this movie has had for us all these years.

  • Deborah Bender

    I haven’t read the novel on which the film is based, but it’s been reported that its author intended to depict both religions as rank superstitions. One can see some traces of this in the film, such as in one of the tombstone inscriptions and the creepy schoolgirl with the tethered beetle inside her desk. It’s ironic that a film made within the horror genre wound up presenting such an attractive picture of a self-confident Pagan community.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    I wonder if they will do a Blu-Ray bundle with the sequel?

  • Genexs

    The Gods and Goddesses have spoken: I need to purchase a BlueRay player.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      I could do with a new one, myself.

      • Genexs

        ‘ll keep that in mind during my prayers/intentions this Lammas. :)

  • Franklin Evans

    I’ve not seen the movie (except for a few minutes while flipping channels), so a request for opinions: Is the story better served by the “extended” cut, or will I get a good sense of the story with the original release? Thanks.

    • Kevin Silverstag

      Don’t even bother watching the “theatrical release”. It is bafflingly confusing. Not only did they cut a lot out, they shuffled scenes around so that it simply makes no sense. Get the 2001 “Director’s Cut” version which has the scenes in the right order and restores the cut scenes (albeit in poor quality).

      • Franklin Evans

        Thanks. A serious opinion about the editing is something to which I always pay close attention.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      Do not *EVER* watch the the Nichola Cage movie with the same name.

      Watch the extended cut or wait for this new edition and watch that.

      • Franklin Evans

        I am a good movie watcher. I didn’t even consider watching the remake version. :D

      • Raksha38

        Well, the Rifftrax of the Nicholas Cage version is pretty freaking hilarious! It’s the only thing that justifies the existence of that movie.

        Without the Rifftrax? The movie should only be experienced through the compilations of the “best” scenes on YouTube. I laughed so hard at this one that I got the movie from Netflix thinking the whole thing would be that funny, but…it was not.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          I try to refute its existence at all.

          Sadly, what I would like to believe does not match up with reality. :(

        • Genexs

          Hysterical. Had no clue a Rifftrax of this existed.

      • Ashley Yakeley

        My review, which you may appreciate.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          Read it.

          A review of your review: You made the obvious mistake of even admitting the film’s existence. You, like me will never get those long, long minutes back.

          The rest is pretty spot on.

          One thing that confused me in it was the supposed location of the island. I distinctly remember seeing a map with it off one coast of the US, but that it gets described as being off the other coast.

          I only watched it the once, though. (That was too many times.)

  • Zander Nyrond

    On every version of the film I’ve seen, there’s been a caption card thanking “The Lord Summerisle and the people of his island” for their co-operation in the making of the film. Bearing in mind that we, the audience, know Summerisle isn’t real, what does this mean in the context of the story?

    It means that the island, and its lord, not only still existed in their fictional world, but were perfectly happy to have a film made that recounted the events of that May. The inference is clear; brutal and wrong as it may have been, the sacrifice must have worked. Otherwise the card is inexplicable, an unnecessary and confusing piece of dressing.

    That’s my take anyway.

  • Anna H.

    I hate this movie. Hate, loath, despise, cannot stand….okay, the music and scenery are lovely. But the idea of human sacrifice – and animal sacrifice, remembering all the other critters stuffed into the Man – is so odious to me on every level, I just can’t abide it. I’ve seen it several times, being wed to a man who loves it and surrounded by friends who love it. Ugh.

  • http://www.walkofthefallen.com Labrys

    I disliked both versions; even tho’ I got a bit of a giggle out of the Jesus-loving cop being told he would get to be a happy martyr, because I have always been fond of the semi-serious jokes about “following Jesus means to the cross!”…and because I intensely dislike Nick Cage for inexplicable reasons.

    But I dislike the idea of sacrifice even while occasionally theorizing that it might be necessary in certain circumstances. But I think a victim needs to be a WILLING sacrifice, this is something I feel bone deep. Animals cannot consent in a way that has meaningful clarity, and I don’t see people lining up. A tricked victim strikes me as the same sort of ‘word not spirit’ of Christopher Lee’s other movies…..as Dracula invited over the threshold because the soon-to-be victims had NO idea what they were “consenting” unto.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      But animals sacrifice was commonplace in pre-Christian Europe and human sacrifice was not unheard of.

      • http://www.walkofthefallen.com Labrys

        I didn’t say it wasn’t a historical fact, I said I disagreed with it. After all, slavery and treating women as property are historical facts, too. Just because it existed in the past does not mean it needs to be part of the present or future. After all, we should LEARN from our mistakes.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          My point is that the Summerisle model of Paganism seems to be based on paganism of antiquity instead of the more moderate modern form.

          I have heard that some modern pagans do practice blood sacrifice, as well.

          I’m not inclined to judge either way.

    • Genexs

      Keep telling yourself “It’s only a movie, it’s only a movie, it’s…”

  • Rhuddlwm Gawr

    I have a complete collection of The Wicker Man VCRs and DVDs you will find a good description of the history of the movie at http://www.dynionmwyn.net/WICKERMAN/WickerMan.html

  • Ashley Yakeley

    I adore this movie, though I fault Summerisle for claiming that he is a “not unenlightened” heathen while resorting to human sacrifice rather than the scientific methods of his grandfather for his agricultural problems.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      The point (as I saw it) is that Lord Summerisle had already tried the scientific method of his grandfather, and it failed.

      As such, he tried a more ritualistic manner of remedying the situation.

      I can understand it perfectly.

      • Ashley Yakeley

        Hmm, it’s not clear.

        Howie: I know your crops failed. I saw the harvest photograph.

        Summerisle: Oh, yes. They failed, all right, disastrously so, for the first time since my grandfather came here. The blossom came but the fruit withered and died on the bough. That must not happen again this year. It is our most earnest belief that the best way of preventing this is to offer to our god of the Sun and to the goddess of our orchards the most acceptable sacrifice that lies in our power.

        I can’t imagine “a distinguished Victorian scientist, agronomist, free thinker” giving up like that.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          Summerisle is not his grandfather. He used his Grandfather’s methods, but was (apparently) far more spiritual than scientific.

          That we do not hear of any aftermath allows us to assume that the sacrifice was efficacious.

  • http://www.xkcd.com/285 Eran Rathan

    Hm. This seems like one of those “Love it or hate it” movies, but to me it was just sort of meh. I can understand the people doing what they thought was necessary (not that it was a good thing, but ‘necessary’), and Howie doing what he thought was right, but it never really did anything for me. There are plenty of other movies out there that are much better, in my opinion.

    • http://www.xkcd.com/285 Eran Rathan

      there is a shrug html tag. that totally makes my day.