The Wicker Man: a satire on religious bigotry and fanaticism, in whichever religion these are found

Robin Hardy “The Wicker Man” (1973)

In spite of a small budget and the set-backs it suffered during filming and the post-production process, this short movie quickly achieved cult status and has become a much-loved British classic in satirising religious fanaticism and control. Police sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), a devout Christian, comes to the Scottish West Highland island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. He is astonished to find vegetation and fruits not native to the island growing in apparent abundance. He is even more horrified to discover that the islanders practise nature-based rituals and customs with clear sexual undertones that offend his Christian religious sensibilities. In his investigation of the girl’s disappearance, Howie comes to learn more about the island’s religious rituals and in particular its May Day ceremony, which the islanders are about to celebrate very soon. He also learns something of the island’s history from Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) who tells him that the adoption of pagan religious elements and rituals was a brainwave of his Victorian-era ancestor to motivate the local people to work at growing food in the island’s volcanic soils under temperate year-round weather influenced by the Gulf Stream.

Howie soon becomes convinced that the girl is not dead and that the islanders have hidden her and plan to sacrifice her during May Day celebrations. He infiltrates the May Day parade dressed as a foolish clown figure and gives himself away to the islanders when he spies the girl on a hillside apparently dressed up as a sacrificial lamb and tries to save her. Too late he realises that the girl was part of an entrapment scheme, the result of which seals his own fate …

As a religious bigot, unable to appreciate the folkways of what turns out to be a very different culture in spite of the islanders wearing Western dress and leading a way of life not very different from other rural Scottish villages of their time, Howie should have been a very unlikable man who deserves what’s coming to him. Woodward’s excellent performance as the police officer grappling with his beliefs, his conscience and his uncertainty, however manages to elicit some audience sympathy for his fate. Increasingly confused by the islanders’ antics, the tricks they play on him (including sabotaging his seaplane) and their indifference to his orders and pleas, Howie resorts to spouting religious dogma in such a way that one wonders if his own faith is wavering and his courage is failing him. In this, for all his faults Howie becomes as much a victim of his own faith as he will be of other people’s beliefs. No less inflexible is Lord Summerisle, whose own fanaticism soon becomes apparent beneath the urbane exterior. Lee delivers a performance that ranges from friendly warmth and sophistication to cold, grim religious zeal in leading a group of people who initially seem New Age hippie-ish in their ideas and beliefs but turn out to be rigidly superstitious and lacking in genuine spirituality and compassion.

The supporting cast ranges from good to mediocre; Britt Ekland as the innkeeper’s comely daughter should never have been advised to give up her day job, whatever it was in the early 1970s. The cinematography captures perfectly the strange atmosphere surrounding the lush vegetation on farmland, the wild green plains and the mighty waves lashing the rocky coastlines. The pacing can be a bit slow for a police action thriller and perhaps some of the folk songs featured in the film could have been pruned back or even left out once viewers accept the pagan character of Summerisle. The film’s horror, at once astounding and horrifying, is revealed close to its end; but plenty of dread and unsettling strangeness was cultivated throughout the film, leading up to its unforgettable climax.

Significantly Howie warns Lord Summerisle that if the island’s crops fail again as they did the previous year – because they really are not suited to the island’s physical environment – then the Lord himself may be subjected to the same fate as Howie. Here is a lesson in having humility and accepting that your own religious system has its limitations and cannot be applied to all possible situations.

There are many ambiguities in the film due to its tight budget and corresponding tight production schedule. The pacing can be a bit slow, at least until the film’s climax. Apart from these details, the film does well in slowly revealing the full Gothic horror behind what would have been a normal police procedural drama.