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.
“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.”
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.
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.”