The Wicker Tree and The Wicker Man’s Legacy

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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.