In honor of Christopher Lee (Lord of the Rings, Dracula, The Man With the Golden Gun), the established English actor who recently passed away at the age of 93, today’s throwback review is the 1973 film The Wicker Man. Much better than the 2006 Nic Cage remake, this original version offers a much more interesting commentary on religion and, thankfully, there is no mention of bees or honey in the film.
Lee plays Lord Summerisle, the king-like figure of a remote and strange island somewhere off the mainland of the UK. Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) is summoned to the island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison (Gerry Cowper). Only, when he arrives on the island none of the patrons seem to have any knowledge of her existence. Howie, a disciplined and virginal Christian man, becomes highly uncomfortable with the strange religious practices and sexual freedom amongst the locals. They partake in “pagan” chants and songs that feel like mating rituals and believe in multiple Gods who will make their crops grow if they honor them properly at the annual May festival. Howie wrestles with his own temptation toward the landlord’s daughter Willow (Britt Ekland) as he struggles to be strong in his Christian values and solve the mystery of the missing girl.
The tone of The Wicker Man is continuous eeriness and unease as Howie observes the citizens of Summerisle as if they were from a different planet; something always feels off. Charming or funny scenes of singing children or drunk bar patrons become rather creepy within the film’s context. The story is initially very intriguing, but Howie spends nearly the entirety of the film doing the same thing, searching for the girl and getting nowhere, and it becomes repetitive after a while. However, the ending is a welcome surprise and must certainly have been satisfying, yet perplexing, to audiences in 1973.
The film posits Sergeant Howie as the protagonist for the majority of the film and wants you to identify with the superiority that he feels is inherent in his Christian faith. But throughout the film the story bridges the gap between Howie’s unflappable and more advanced beliefs and the inferior oddity of what the locals believe. Although, whether this clever deconstruction of different faiths is intentional is not entirely clear in the film, but it comes off as a thought-provoking critique on the dangers of cultish fanaticism within any organized and ritualistic belief system, including Christianity. Lord Summerisle and the locals are not clearly bad and Howie does not feel like a completely good and virtuous character either. The film does a good job of not pigeonholing its characters into these typically cliched roles; they just belong to different sides of the same coin.
The Wicker Man remains a very interesting film, but certainly has its flaws. It drags in certain places and spends too much time looking through the eyes of Sergeant Howie, who is not intriguing enough to carry the entire film. A more intimate look at the life of Lord Summerisle, along with other characters from the island, and an examination of their motives and morals would have added a lot to this film. Instead it sometimes feels like they only exist in relation to Howie’s story. Nonetheless, it is an often tense and well plotted mystery that waits until the end to unveil its most horrifying revelation.