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.

Review – The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

As good a writer as JRR Tolkien was, he wouldn’t have got very far in Hollywood if his description of the epic battle of orcs, elves, dwarfs, men and anyone else lying around was anything to go by.

And so we come to the end of Jackson's Middle Earth fellowship. LOTR-lite it may be, but fantasy cinema is all the richer for The Hobbit having been in it

And so we come to the end of Jackson’s Middle Earth fellowship. LOTR-lite it may be, but fantasy cinema is all the richer for The Hobbit having been in it

Passed off by Tolkien in just a few words, Peter Jackson obviously had other ideas when imagining how he’d like to conclude his stint as Middle Earth’s resident director.

It’s a decision in keeping with the whole exercise of making three movies out of a 300-page book, which is ironic when you consider he originally envisaged making two films out of The Lord Of The Rings; a three-book saga spanning more than 1,000 pages.

The loyal band of dwarfs prepare for war in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

The loyal band of dwarfs prepare for war in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

That said, Jackson has thrown everything and the kitchen sink into this final chapter of his prequel trilogy and, while there is much to enjoy, it won’t change anyone’s opinion that The Hobbit ultimately remains the poor cousin of LOTR.

We pick up where we left off last time, with the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) on his way from the Lonely Mountain to smite Laketown and its terrified folk. It’s a breathless opening salvo, arguably the best sequence in the entire trilogy as Bard (Luke Evans) desperately tries to bring the beast down as the town is incinerated around him.

Watching on helplessly are hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his dwarf companions, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who disturbed Smaug’s slumber in search of untold wealth and the coveted Arkenstone, a precious gem Thorin is desperate to reclaim.

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) looks on worried in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) looks on worried in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

When word spreads of Smaug’s death, an elf army under Thranduil (Lee Pace) marches to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim lost treasure, while a separate force of orcs led by Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) also approaches. While all hell breaks loose outside the mountain, as men, dwarfs and elves go to war against the vast numbers of orcs, inside the mountain an increasingly unstable Thorin exasperates his fellow dwarfs and Bilbo by refusing to see sense.

Just as Jackson coiled the spring in the first half of The Return Of The King before unleashing CGI-infused mayhem, he employs a similar approach in The Battle Of The Five Armies. Characters look either pensive or defiant as they talk of impending war, while Jackson cranks up the expectation by regularly cutting to the orc hordes drawing ever nearer to the Lonely Mountain.

Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) looks his usual grumpy self in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) looks his usual grumpy self in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

When it finally does come, the battle is everything you expect; brutal and frenzied, with seemingly endless waves of orcs pitted against the dwindling alliance. However, as visually impressive as it is, it doesn’t involve you as much as the epic battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers.

The stakes may be just as high, but the clammy terror of a band of brothers fighting for their lives against an implacable army of Urak Hai is what sets Helm’s Deep apart. Too often, Jackson is content to pit CGI army against CGI army; an impressive enough site to be sure but one that will never grab you as much as seeing real people at each other’s throats.

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) look worried in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) look worried in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

While the skirmish is the film’s key selling point, it works best when boiling things down to the struggle going on inside Thorin’s mind. Overcome by ‘dragon sickness’, his slide into mental illness is convincingly played by Armitage, who shows enough of the old Thorin to convince Bilbo (a conversation between the two that starts with an acorn is a standout) and co that he’s not gone completely off the deep end. Jackson has brilliantly played up the possessive effects ‘precious’ treasure can have on otherwise strong-willed characters throughout his Middle Earth saga and the lightning bolt moment Thorin experiences during a surreal hallucination is particularly effective.

Freeman does his best with the limited screen time Bilbo is given and lights up every scene he’s in, but once the battle kicks in he’s pretty much sidelined in favour of head-butting dwarves and snarling orcs.

Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and fellow elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) go in search of orcs in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and fellow elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) go in search of orcs in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

Also left on the sidelines is Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, whose rescue from the clutches of Sauron by his fellow White Council members (most notably Cate Blanchett’s luminous Galadriel) is an early highlight, but feels rushed (ironic, I know). Once Gandalf joins the party at the Lonely Mountain he soon gets swallowed up in the rest of the action.

And so we come to the end of Jackson’s Middle Earth fellowship. LOTR-lite it may be, but fantasy cinema is all the richer for The Hobbit having been in it.