Friday, 20 January 2012

Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man (1973)

Fig. 1. The Wicker Man poster.

The Wicker Man is, as well as a horror film and a police procedural, a study in Western attitudes to indigenous religions, and perhaps an unintentional one. Christian policeman Neil Howie is called to Summerisle, an apple-growing island off the coast of Scotland in response to a child being reported missing. When all the natives of the island deny knowledge of the child, including the child’s alleged family, Howie is drawn into a web of intrigue.

Crop failure and fertility rites are a driving force of the movie – the natives of Summerisle seek to placate an apparently angry god of the fields when their apples fail, and need a pure, virgin sacrifice with the authority of a king to give their life of their own free will. Howie is chosen as the sacrifice, and is driven into the trap through a convoluted May Day festival.

Fig. 2. Summerisle fertility ritual.

What is particularly interesting about The Wicker Man is what it reveals about Western conceptions of paganism; the film takes an unashamedly Christian-centric worldview, presenting paganism as base, perverted and a vile mockery of Christian values. Churches are defiled, sexuality is worshipped, and it appears that along with the May Day celebration, the only things the writers knew about Celtic paganism was that they performed sacrifices, valued fertility and were big on trees. While it is possible that the egregious mockery of Celtic lore is deliberately played up to make Howie uneasy, it nevertheless sticks in the craw.

It could be argued that the film ultimately presents Howie’s strict Christianity as his downfall – his insistence on remaining a virgin is what gets him killed, after all. However, the film seems to paint him as a martyr, a victim of the debased heathens. Combined with Howie’s unrelenting honesty compared to the residents of Summerisle’s deceit, there is no doubt that Howie is the moral victor. “Unlike most films about witches, this one does not suggest that somewhere a genuine Satan is manipulating events” (Honeybone, 2010), but it nevertheless seems to suggest that paganism, at least in the way it is portrayed, is immoral.

Fig. 3. The wicker man.

However, the film does present one final twist; as Howie is dragged to the Wicker Man, he tells Lord Summerisle that if his death does not bring back the apples, the people will turn to make their Lord their sacrifice. Lord Summerisle hesitates a moment, as though he is suddenly hit by the consequences of his theocracy, but then insists that the crops will not fail. This could be interpreted as Lord Summerisle not actually believing the religion he uses to maintain his authority, and that perhaps religion in and of itself is simply a means of control by authorities. “The two worldviews stand face to face, both unmasked, and in the end nothing is resolved.” (Greydanus, unknown)

Illustration List
Hardy, R. (1973).Fig. 1. The Wicker Man poster. (Accessed on: 20/01/2012)
Hardy, R. (1973).Fig. 2. Summerisle fertility ritual. (Accessed on: 20/01/2012)
Hardy, R. (1973).Fig. 3. The wicker man. (Accessed on: 20/01/2012)

Honeybone, N. (2010). (Accessed on: 20/01/2012)
Greydanus, S. (unknown). Decent Films Guide. (Accessed on: 20/01/2012)

(Aside: apparently some people think this film is morally ambiguous. Apparently some people missed the part where Howie was burnt alive.)

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