Four Frames – The Wicker Man (1973)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised website that shows film in a wider context. The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews during April with the theme of ‘faith’. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from Robin Hardy’s 1973 cult horror The Wicker Man.

The words “oh God” have been uttered countless different times in cinema, but never with such uncomprehending horror as when Edward Woodward’s sacrifice-in-waiting howls them out in The Wicker Man.

Religious intolerance and zealotry have been unfortunate bedfellows for thousands of years and are brought to the fore in Robin Hardy’s cult classic.

The Wicker Man

Ostensibly about the mysterious disappearance of a young girl, the film is drawn more to the inimical conflict between the God-fearing police officer Sgt Howie (Woodward) and the equally devout community of Summerisle, a remote island off the Scottish mainland whose paganistic residents are investigated by the “Christian copper”.

Equal parts dumbfounded and appalled by the beliefs and actions of the “raving mad” islanders, Howie confronts its larger-than-life leader Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee at his fruitiest) about their faith. “And what of the true God?” implores Howie, to which Summerisle drily retorts: “He’s dead. He can’t complain; he had his chance and in modern parlance, he ‘blew it’.”

The Wicker Man

The film opens with Howie proudly singing a hymn in church alongside his fiancée before giving a reading from the Gospel of Luke about the Last Supper and Christ’s imminent sacrifice – a passage loaded with the symbolic weight of the events to come.

As his investigation hits one wall after another, his stunned outrage reaches new heights when a group of schoolchildren enthusiastically espouse the phallic association of the maypole, while their teacher explains to Howie their belief in reincarnation and the elemental power of nature (“children find it far easier to picture reincarnation then resurrection… rotting bodies are a great stumbling block for the childish imagination”).

The Wicker Man

It’s never clear which side the film falls on. Our natural reaction is to side with the Christian Howie; he is after all being led a merry dance by Lord Summerisle and his fellow pagan worshippers. However, Howie’s religiosity is beset by intolerance towards the community’s faith, which he brands a “fake religion” because it doesn’t conform to the notion he holds true. Howie talks down to virtually everyone, while his evangelism borders on sanctimoniousness.

In Summerisle’s eyes, the officer’s sacrifice to the sun god and goddess of the fields is both a religious necessity and a rare gift – “a martyr’s death”. Stripped of the fool’s costume he stole to infiltrate the community’s May Day parade (attire that has extra significance once he realises he’s the one who has been duped), Howie’s arms are outstretched in a crucifix pose as he is dressed in a virginal white robe before being led to the brow of the hill, where he eyes his fate and wails: “Oh God! Oh Jesus Christ!”

The Wicker Man

As the flames dance around the doomed man, Summerisle’s words spoken moments before to Howie linger in the mind: “You will not only have life eternal, but you will sit with the saints among the elect.”

The Wicker Man remains highly provocative, not least for the disturbing endgame played out by the devout in the name of religion.

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19 comments

  1. ckckred · April 29, 2015

    Nice review man. I’ve never seen this, though I’ve seen the remake. It has to be better than that, it pretty much killed Nic Cage’s career.

    • Three Rows Back · April 30, 2015

      Yes, the words Nic Cage, bees and Wicker Man don’t go together very well.

  2. le0pard13 · April 29, 2015

    One of the truly dark 70s classics. Fine look at this, Mark.

  3. Wendell · April 29, 2015

    What a wonderfully bonkers film this is! It’s equal parts insane and thought provoking. And I love the way it switches genres mid-stride. We go from dark comedy to musical to horror and back. Excellent review.

    • Three Rows Back · April 30, 2015

      Thanks mate. It’s been described as a musical before and I didn’t appreciate how much that was the case until I rewatched it.

  4. Andrew · April 29, 2015

    LOL, I haven’t seen this or the remake but every time I hear the name I think of Cage being attacked by bees or something like that…

    • Three Rows Back · April 30, 2015

      Unfortunately, that movie (and that scene in particular) has soiled the good name of the original.

  5. ruth · April 29, 2015

    I also didn’t know there’s an original version of Wicker Man. This one sounds haunting, and it’s sad how people have done such despicable things in the name of religion.

    • Three Rows Back · April 30, 2015

      Yeah, forget the Nic Cage one Ruth. That’s the imposter. This is the original and by far the best.

  6. Stu · April 29, 2015

    Great write up man. I love the ending and agree about that “Oh God” line. Great delivery from Edward Woodward. Imagine seeing this and Don’t Look Now on the same bill!

    • Three Rows Back · April 30, 2015

      That would’ve been intense. It’s hard to believe this was originally released as a B-movie.

  7. Jordan Dodd · April 30, 2015

    Nice post mate. I -still- need to watch this movie. Though talk about faith reminds me of a film I recently watched, Stations of the Cross. It is German, about how seriously some take their religion of choice. I just wrote about it – Highly recommended!!

    • Three Rows Back · April 30, 2015

      That film seems to be getting a lot of love recently. I think I need to see it soon!

      • Jordan Dodd · May 1, 2015

        Check out my review to see if its something you’ll like 🙂

        The fixed camera angles are somehow hypnotic… 14 angles for the entire film!!

  8. Victor De Leon · May 2, 2015

    one of the strangest and haunting flicks ever made but oh so compelling, no? love to watch this at least once a year around halloween. great write up! good work, man.

    • Three Rows Back · May 2, 2015

      Cheers Vic. There’s something quite hypnotic about the film isn’t there? Christopher Lee is on full Christopher Lee mode!

      • Victor De Leon · May 2, 2015

        Haha yes! Most definitely. He added a large part of the creep factor in this film!

  9. Tom · May 5, 2015

    I really love these features you run. I unfortunately had the luck of coming across the Nic Cage version first so my enthusiasm to sit through another version of it has been somewhat tempered. But I know it just has to be better than what I have already sat through. It just has to be, right? 😉

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