Long arm of the lore: Robin Hardy on The Wicker Man

Mauled by the studio, obsessed over by fans, deconstructed by academics, remade with Nicolas Cage – yet the pagan British weirdness of The Wicker Man remains fresh. Unveiling The Final Cut in 2013, its director recalls the making of a myth.

Vic Pratt

from our October 2013 issue

The Wicker Man (1973)

The Wicker Man (1973)

Come, it is time to keep your appointment with Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. Forty years old, the film burns brighter than ever across the scarred terrain of British Cinema. Famously championed by Cinefantastique stateside, as far back as 1977, as “the Citizen Kane of horror”, it took longer to ignite at home, but nowadays regularly ranks high in best film polls, with its star, Christopher Lee, having declared that in it he gave his greatest performance.

Certainly his Lord Summerisle – forever statuesque in natty sports jacket and yellow polo neck atop that Scottish island cliff, arms raised, fingers strangely crooked, hair flying in the wind, in front of the flaming you-know-what – has become familiar enough that he might conceivably challenge The Count as the part for which Lee is best remembered. Which doubtless pleases him no end.

Despite all this, back in the dark days of the British film industry of the early 1970s, The Wicker Man, unloved and unwanted, was condemned by the very company that released it as “hellishly difficult to market.” Great chunks were chopped to make it a supporting feature, ignominiously shoved out on the bottom end of a double bill with Don’t Look Now.

It wouldn’t have been surprising if – like many other difficult-to-label British features that litter that awkward decade – it had quietly faded into obscurity; but it didn’t. A legend grew around The Wicker Man, one perhaps more complex than the ingenious narrative at its heart. Its cause was taken up by a passionate band of fiercely dedicated aficionados, initially in the USA, then back in Blighty, all proudly wielding its undeserved neglect like a banner. Cut into more versions than anyone can keep track of, the film has a production history that’s shrouded in mystery and confusion. Those in the know still argue over the running times and respective merits of the ‘short’, ‘medium’ and ‘long’ Wicker Man. It became the textbook ‘cult’ movie, with word of its charms spread from fan to fan, in an analogue age, via whispered rumour and fanzines, back when your only chance of catching a forgotten film was if it turned up on telly late one night. And it was a 1988 BBC screening, with which Alex Cox launched his cult cinema series Moviedrome, that finally brought The Wicker Man home. They were supposed to be showing the ‘long’ version for the very first time; but instead they showed the ‘medium’. It was all very mysterious. The flames of fascination were fanned once more.

Now, four decades since release, reappraised, scrutinised, analysed, deconstructed and obsessed over, it is the subject of painstakingly researched books and worthy academic treatises, and it features on the media studies ‘A’ level syllabus. You can buy the soundtrack – an essential purchase – or the Hollywood remake featuring Nicolas Cage in a bear suit, which is possibly not so essential. With the remastered ‘medium’ version about to see British release for the first time, The Wicker Man teeters on the borders of the mainstream; perhaps elevation to the canon of cinematic greatness waits just around the corner. But in some ways that might spoil the fun.

 

Killing joke

Robin Hardy, in his eighties and still going strong, recently completed The Wicker Tree, a long-delayed sequel to the 1973 original, and is beginning the concluding part of the trilogy. “The third film is where the gods get their comeuppance. I set the whole thing in the parentheses of the last act of Wagner’s Ring cycle. And it’s in a Scottish setting… just to make it more complicated.”

Hardy doesn’t believe in making things easy for himself. “I think of a number of things we can have fun with, and can’t resist putting them all in.” Driven, determined, full of ideas, juggling various projects, grabbing funding where he can, he’s also developing a theme park based on Scottish history. “It’s a new idea of mine and uses all these incredible technologies that are now available to us in movies… to give the illusion that you were there when something extraordinary happened.”

Despite the extraordinary things that happened to The Wicker Man all those years ago, and though his original director’s fee remains all he ever took home for his efforts, he is more than happy to see the enigmatic colossus that was his feature debut shuffle slowly into the sunlight of mainstream acknowledgement. “I’m pleased about that,” he smiles. “Not just for myself, but for everyone else who was involved in it.”

Producer Peter Snell, Anthony Shaffer and Robin Hardy on location with The Wicker Man (1973)

Producer Peter Snell, Anthony Shaffer and Robin Hardy on location with The Wicker Man (1973)
Credit: Kobal Collection

The film grew out of Hardy’s friendship with Anthony Shaffer (author of Sleuth, screenwriter of Frenzy). Having worked together as advertising agency Hardy-Shaffer (Shaffer produced; Hardy directed), and sharing a dry, understated sense of humour, they combined forces to come up with the idea. “Tony was a great game player. And if you think about Sleuth it’s all about games. Two people playing games with each other. Over the course of our partnership – all those years – we played elaborate games with each other. Some were really very funny, some were appalling.” One ‘game’ saw Hardy, having foolhardily asked Shaffer to suggest a nice quiet spot for a weekend break, duped into booking a hotel in Sicily that just happened to be hosting a German Panzer unit reunion. Arriving, he was greeted by the sound of 900 soldiers hoisting their steins. “Tony had to do some very quick research for that one.”

“But think about The Wicker Man. It’s one huge game. We had been aficionados of the Hammer films. They used all the old clichés of the witchcraft thing, holding up crosses, garlic – things the Catholic church invented as propaganda against the still-surviving old religion that they had replaced. We thought it would be quite good to create a society where the actual Celtic religion informed everybody. We went for all the religious and quasi-religious things which informed the mythology of various nations going back, back, back. I had a house on a little island on the Thames… Tony came and spent a long weekend in 71 or 72 and we worked out the story there.”

The Wicker Man (1973)

The Wicker Man (1973)

It’s quite a story. The Wicker Man sees staunchly Christian police sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) fly to Summerisle, a remote Scottish island, to investigate the disappearance of young Rowan Morrison. Suspicions aroused by locals’ claims that there is no such girl, Howie is led a merry dance by a bizarre assortment of apparently friendly island folk as he attempts to locate her. He is disgusted by the islanders’ overt sexuality – the youngsters enjoy mass alfresco lovemaking on the village green – and horrified by their pagan practices. He finds himself tested by the pub landlord’s daughter, Willow (Britt Ekland), who, pausing from her sacred duty of ushering young men of the island into manhood, sings a sexy song through the inn wall which has the chaste policeman next door writhing in his pyjamas.

Howie encounters Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), the islanders’ charming, pantheistic leader, who has concocted the kidnap as a deception to lure the virginal Howie to his doom. A sacrifice to the sun god, Howie is to be burnt in the eponymous structure, in the hope that the islanders’ crops – recently blighted – will grow again. He – and the audience – only discover this in a masterful reveal in the closing minutes. The film is as elaborately constructed as a Hardy-Shaffer practical joke; but grander, darker, and genuinely horrifying. “Every five minutes there was a strong clue,” explains Hardy. “Howie picks up some but he doesn’t pick up others, and the audience has the chance to pick up some and see what’s going on.”

The Wicker Man (1973)

The Wicker Man (1973)

As Howie attempts to assert authority over this remote territory, humourless straight man to the islanders’ absurd antics, the film is somehow silly and serious at the same time, splendidly possessed of a very British eccentric sensibility. “It’s where Tony and I met,” says Hardy. “We enjoyed that sort of humour, that sort of bathos.” The film never leaves Howie to reveal the behind-the-scenes deception; we see the whole thing from his point of view. Never were so many bizarre blasphemies and pagan weirdnesses displayed for one so singularly unable to appreciate them.

The film was evocatively shot (by Harry Waxman) on location in Scotland – one contemporary reviewer meant it as criticism when he described the “folk custom travelogue” look, but this is precisely why it rings so true. The folk customs, tightly story­boarded by ex-art director Hardy and derived from his study of Frazer’s The Golden Bough, seem very authentic. Some critics have complained that they’re not that authentic – the sword-dancing comes in for particular tut-tutting – but if this is not how the customs were carried out, it is surely how they should have been. Everything is there, from corn dollies and choreographed maypole dances to the more ludicrous extremes of toads thrust into little girls’ mouths as a cure for sore throats and the gleeful hanging of ‘navel strings’ above the graves of the recently deceased.

Perhaps it all seems so real because the ‘old ways’ sit like vivid fissures in the surface of modernity. In the sweet shop, sugar hares sit beneath Emu erasers, next to Sherbet Fountains; in the inn, a psychedelic pin-up poster adorns the ancient ceiling beneath Willow’s bedroom. Summerisle’s trendy sneakers peep out beneath the traditional ‘man-woman’ costume he adopts for the parade. The present is piled on top of the past, evoking a distinctly plausible world of folk tradition. We can enjoy it all, vividly alive before our very eyes, a cornucopia of superstitions made real, without having to read any of those dry old books on folklore ourselves.

The Wicker Man (1973)

The Wicker Man (1973)

With the local youngsters beautiful, hairy, hollow-cheeked and horny, unashamedly copulating outdoors in slow motion, and even their elders making the most of a particularly permissive society, here, for perhaps the first time in cinema history, we got to see how cool and sexy folk culture could be. The music had a lot to do with it. No library music here, or dreary cod-folk orchestral stuff; this film was brimful with terrific folksongs, which – in defiance of the real-ale rep of much hey-nonny-no warbling – were achingly hip and dripped with smouldering sexuality.

“I thought it would be fun and entertaining and probably truthful if we used folksongs,” says Hardy. “Nearly all of Robert Burns’ great poems have been put to music, so we used those, and then there were ones that were cooked up and sounded more Victorian, like The Landlord’s Daughter.” Behind the soundtrack was the Italian-American playwright and musician Paul Giovanni, who somehow tapped straight into the British folk tradition, to trance-like, hypnotic effect. Seemingly situated somewhere outside the period in which it was recorded, or any period, Giovanni’s astonishing music, fused with Hardy’s beautifully composed imagery, is a major factor in The Wicker Man’s enduring appeal. “Songs like the maypole song tell you what’s going on without the need for a great deal of back and forth dialogue,” says Hardy. “It’s not new – opera has done it for years. But it was new in the sense of the kind of music we used.”

But unmusical discord awaited The Wicker Man. Producer Peter Snell, briefly in charge of British Lion, who had consorted with Hardy, Shaffer and Lee to bring The Wicker Man to the screen, duly delivered the film to his company. With Don’t Look Now also on the release slate, it looked like 1973’s film harvest would be bountiful. However, British Lion was soon to become but a small cog in the enormous, frighteningly named EMI Entertainment and Leisure Division. Michael Deeley and Barry Spikings, incoming bosses, were eager to sort out the deal; Snell stood in the way.

The Wicker Man (1973)

The Wicker Man (1973)

“The Wicker Man was something with which they could beat Peter Snell,” recalls Hardy. “They were pretty big shareholders in British Lion. They stood to make a lot more money if they could sell the company to EMI and therefore maximise their shareholding. But the two films that had been made that year were The Wicker Man and Don’t Look Now. So how do you fire the president of the company who didn’t want to see the sale go?” Spikings decided, “The Wicker Man was a very well-made, quirky movie that was going to be hellishly difficult to market.” Deeley, Lee claimed, was more damning, deflating the star at a preview screening with the blunt declaration: “It is one of the ten worst films I’ve ever seen.”

“They said: ‘We think it’s unsaleable!’ and put it out as second feature to Don’t Look Now,” says Hardy. “They did this to punish Peter.” The film was cut, without Hardy’s input. In retrospect, the director can live without the excised pre-credits footage, which saw Howie conversing with fellow coppers on the mainland – “I would cut that quite severely… it’s a bit Z Cars” – but remains outraged at the meddling with the island scenes, which saw the misguided removal of both the beautiful song ‘Gently Johnny’ and Lee’s wonderful entrance as Lord Summerisle, sporting a kilt, misquoting Walt Whitman poetry. “It’s an extraordinarily important sequence… it’s one of the loveliest songs in the entire film – and if you cut it you don’t meet Christopher for another quarter of an hour.”

Dismayed, Hardy returned to America, where he’d won awards art directing prestigious advertising campaigns. “There was nothing much I could do about it. I was only the director after all. I went back to the States. I was a bit pissed off with Britain at that point.”

The Wicker Man (1973)

The Wicker Man (1973)

In recent interviews, Deeley denied ever making rude remarks to Lee. What he actually said was “it was one of the ten most unsaleable films I’d ever seen.” And he did produce Blade Runner: ought not we to listen to him? The Wicker Man wasn’t your average horror flick. It did feature genre stalwarts Lee and Ingrid Pitt, and had a bit where a dismembered hand improbably burnt like a candlestick, but mostly it featured a policeman strolling about an island. Suppose Hardy and company, revelling in the strange, beautiful originality of their work, had ignored the fact that stuff like On the Buses was raking it in at the box office. Had they forgotten The Wicker Man had to be flogged to the punters?

It seems unlikely. Hardy and Shaffer knew all about commercial factors, as their years in advertising attest; besides, Shaffer was a bankable writer at the top of his game. The Wicker Man does straddle genres awkwardly, but was not without precedent in British Gothic cinema. The Plague of the Zombies had an ungodly squire manipulating assorted Cornish zombies for his own ends; Night of the Demon made it plausible that a charming fellow might be children’s entertainer one minute, leader of a Satanic sect the next; and Night of the Eagle inaugurated a film era where witchcraft could be carried out casually by whole communities in kitchen or classroom.

Besides which, Don’t Look Now, British Lion’s favoured 1973 release, was itself a cerebral fusing of genres, lacking in obvious horrors until the final grisly red-coated reveal, but no less brilliant for that. A terrific double bill they must have made, but un-butchered, properly promoted, The Wicker Man could surely have coined it in on its own account. For it must be the most splendid example of British ‘folk horror’, in which a remote regional community, and ancient customs and archaic superstitions, dismissed or marginalised by clever-clogs city folk, wreak havoc upon forces of modernity, order and authority.

Weird times

In fact, the time was exactly right for it. Strange things were going on in British pop culture in the early 1970s. As far back as 1967, those beloved British moptops The Beatles – once they’d joined the shaggy set – had sneaked arch-occultist Aleister Crowley on to the cover of Sgt. Pepper, and the Stones had even naughtily mentioned the Horned God in the album title Their Satanic Majesties Request. Disappointingly, perhaps, Jagger was no longer hanging around with Kenneth Anger or writing dangerous songs which saw him introducing himself as Lucifer; the new decade saw him instead submerged in bubbles in a sailor suit, anticlimactically declaring “It’s only rock ’n roll”. But the burgeoning folk-rock scene of the 1970s still seemed authentic: the perfect vehicle for the esoteric and the arcane.

Meanwhile, the children of the 1960s – disappointed that the revolution had not happened, perhaps, but their liberal minds expanded – had grown up to take their places in respectable society; an increasingly permissive society, if we were to believe the press. This was surely a film for them. They had become teachers. They had infiltrated the media. On television, the guys presenting Play School sported hefty facial hair and wore cheesecloth shirts; the gals were resplendent in multi-coloured maxi-skirts, and they’d brought their own guitars. One of the most memorable songs had one presenter sing “I like peace, I like quiet”, the other presenter’s loud riposte being “I like noise, I like riot”. Were they singing innocent songs to the nation’s youth, or was there a subtext of subversion? And if that doesn’t convince you, one Play School presenter was Toni Arthur who, as revealed in Rob Young’s Electric Eden, studied under the self-styled king of the witches, Alex Sanders.

The Wicker Man (1973)

The Wicker Man (1973)

The political fervour of the counter-culture might have been damped down, but the yearning to replace the old order with something more authentic and spiritually fulfilling still smouldered beneath the surface. It wasn’t gone; just insidiously embedding itself within the British cultural spectrum. Many longed for a return to spiritual values, though not those of the previous generation.

Folk custom, witchcraft and the occult were no longer absurdities; they might almost be an option. Certainly the old-fashioned movie monsters were passé and could no longer be taken seriously. The monsters of modernity were the breadheads: politicians, big business, corporations, all ravaging the nation. The Satanic Rites of Dracula saw Dracula (transformed into property developer D.D. Denham) behind a desk in an office block, figurehead of a sinister conglomerate.

An issue of Man, Myth & Magic magazine

An issue of Man, Myth & Magic magazine

Teens dipped their toes in the occult, albeit with their Waddington Ouija boards and subscriptions to Man, Myth and Magic – ‘The most unusual magazine ever published’ – which built up week by week into an illustrated encyclopedia of the supernatural. Like The Wicker Man it was not as lurid as it seemed: though it enticed readers with pictures of naked ladies and demons, the articles inside were penned by professors. Kids read the Pocket Chiller Library, monthly tales of witchcraft in comic strip form; on Saturday evening TV, they even saw contestants racing to make corn dollies on The Generation Game.

When they were old enough to get into an X film they might have seen Secret Rites, a 1971 documentary about modern witchcraft in England. It followed high-street hairdresser Penny’s initiation into Alex Sanders’s groovy young coven, wherein numerous lurid sex games were indulged in, before two young lovers sealed their troth, approvingly overseen by Sanders wearing the head of Anubis. After a spoof first scene, showing witchcraft as sensationally depicted in horror films, it revealed the accessible face of wicca, demonstrating how happening groovers could join up with likeminded libidinous young witches, all eager to throw off their clothes and dance around the fire. Everybody was doing it.

Not everybody. None of this went unnoticed by the forces of conservatism. The year 1972 saw Mary Whitehouse, Howie-like opponent of sex and violence in the media, but especially sex, launch the Nationwide Petition for Public Decency. When it was presented to Edward Heath in early 1973, it bore more than 1 million signatures. Whitehouse and the Nationwide Festival of Light, the Christian movement she figureheaded, were at their zenith in 1973 – while The Wicker Man awaited release.

The Wicker Man (1973)

The Wicker Man (1973)

It’s tempting to remember Whitehouse as a blue-rinsed figure of fun, but media bosses took her very seriously. For example, Casanova ’73, a BBC TV permissive society comedy series by Steptoe and Son’s Galton and Simpson, featuring Leslie Phillips as “a 20th century libertine”, was pretty mild stuff, all things considered – not much racier than your average Carry On film. But it dared to be offhand about extra-marital relations. Under the pressure of Whitehouse’s attack, it vanished from the schedules. We got Man About the House on ITV instead. Yes, it featured an unmarried man flat-sharing with attractive young ladies; but cookery student Robin Tripp was never seen engaging in anything more saucy than coq au vin followed by a quick snog on the sofa.

Whitehouse’s main area of influence was television, but cinema too was under increased scrutiny. Films like Witchfinder General and The Devils provoked fierce debate about what was and what wasn’t acceptable on screen; but these hid their subversion within period settings. Like Casanova ’73, but worse, The Wicker Man was worryingly contemporary. Imagine the potential hoo-ha over a film about an island full of unmarried pagans who brazenly get it on outdoors, with the women on top, no less, before cheerfully torching a Christian policeman, while they have a rousing sing-song. And nobody turns up to rescue him. Don’t Look Now, for all its modern horrors, centred on a nice, middle-class family. And most importantly, EMI Entertainment and Leisure may have noted, mummy and daddy were married.

The Evening News’s Felix Barker fuelled the fire with his piece headlined “They tried to keep THIS sex film quiet”. British Lion, he wrote, never showed The Wicker Man to the press, “but from readers’ letters, and word of mouth, it is clear that this film has captured audience imagination. With its beautifully filmed story of primitive sex rituals, carried out today on an island off the West Coast of Scotland, I can quite understand why. Try to catch it.” Few could, of course.

The Wicker Man (1973)

The Wicker Man (1973)

Across the Atlantic, Hardy and Lee embarked on a press tour to promote a film they resolutely believed in. Intriguingly, those ‘primitive sex rituals’ went down well in the Bible Belt, says Hardy. “We went to Bible breakfasts, showed the film, and there was much discussion. Funnily enough, they weren’t put off by the Britt dance or anything. But the religious side of it, the Christians just loved. They said it was one of the only films they’d ever seen that really explains what resurrection is about.”

Perhaps they’d twigged an important point: The Wicker Man was not a simplistic film which depicted counter-culture free spirits as heroes and uptight authorities as fools. Lord Summerisle – trendily polo-necked, down with the kids, but still, ultimately, landowning gentry – is out for his own ends, his propagation of pagan belief a handy tool for the control of his island serfs. Pagans might have more fun; but will sacrificing Howie cause the crops to succeed or fail? It remains bleakly uncertain. All we’ve learned, perhaps, is that nature cannot be controlled, people can – with religion a powerful means to that end. Don’t trust anybody, or believe in anything, in fact; it’s all a huge, dark existential joke. Hardy, an agnostic, describes himself as “a student of comparative religion” and has no particular sympathy for either side: “Really, you pay your money… and you take your choice.”

As the cult grew in the USA, Hardy, trying to rebuild the film, approached British Lion for access to the cut sequences. Eventually he was told the footage had been destroyed. Some say it was thrown out by accident during a vault clear-out; others that it was deliberately discarded, and used as landfill in the building of the M3. Apparently Snell was teased with a visit to the roadworks, where amused studio staff pointed down a hole, proclaiming: “The Wicker Man’s down there.” Christopher Lee still insists that the original negative is out there somewhere. Luckily, early on, British Lion sent the long version to Roger Corman for comments. His print, recovered, was used for a new internegative, and Hardy recut the film – excising that Z Cars sequence, restoring ‘Gently Johnny’ – to create the ‘medium’ version for US distribution.

The long and the short of it

All this film-in-a-hole stuff might sound like a folktale concocted by film-folk with a persecution complex, until you hear that the medium-length American internegative and prints all mysteriously vanished. “What puzzles me,” ponders Hardy, “is that that there must have been 30 or 40 prints in distribution.” Now, just as mysteriously, one of these prints has resurfaced and, digitally remastered, will see release as The Final Cut.

Once you’ve seen the medium or long versions, you’ll have little further use for the short one. But all are essential parts of the folktale. Lack of 35mm pre-print material means that the long version, as seen on recent DVDs, amalgamates materials from various sources, including a slightly fuzzy 1980s 1” video transfer of the Corman element. Hardy is not dissatisfied with ‘grainy’ qualities that sometimes appear mid-scene, as in the ‘Gently Johnny’ sequence; the main thing is his cut is intact. “I don’t notice it… it’s all set at night: night in Scotland. It could be a tiny bit foggy! It doesn’t worry me a bit. What would really upset me would be if it goes.”

The archivists among us surely long to see a fully restored version of the film derived from 35mm elements, and the new Final Cut should almost provide that, bar a few mainland minutes. Yet folklorists must surely enjoy the flawed long version; that old variation in quality, the sudden grainy sequences, are textural scars that remind us of a checkered past. The multigenerational flaws of decades-old transfer technologies are embedded in the images. Forever incomplete, with something added, something removed, like an old folk ditty with lyrics honed and melodies reshaped by time, The Wicker Man remains splendidly imperfect, the perfect folk film artefact.

The Wicker Man (1973)

The Wicker Man (1973)

Marvellous as it is to see the ‘medium’ version released, no version can be definitive. You get a glimpse, and wonderful it is, but never the whole story. If you register the imperfections in its surface – and many viewers don’t, Hardy has noticed – they restate the complex drama that surrounded its production. It’s hard to imagine anything visually like it happening in this ‘born digital’ age. When you switch on that hard drive, it either works, or it doesn’t; you get all of it, or none of it. Whereas different textures of analogue remind us of The Wicker Man’s patchwork history, the mystery, the indistinctness; it’s even a little like the visual equivalent of Brian Wilson’s unfinished Beach Boys album, Smile. Both are legendary; both were rebuilt, with newness layered upon the old, but neither can be experienced exactly as was originally intended. Incompleteness only adds to the fascination.

Forty years on, The Wicker Man still stands alone. Resistant to genre labels, of its time but ahead of its time, it also harks to a world outside time – a mysterious, tantalising world of indistinct folk memory, a distant Albion that lies within us all. Technological advances have not diminished our ache for something less artificial; and, as we plunge ever faster into an uncertain future, yet reach back and wonder at a shared folk history that remains just out of our grasp, The Wicker Man’s ribald relevance is endlessly refreshed, and its earthy allure grows stronger.

“It stands apart from time and space,” concludes Hardy. “I think it has endured because it’s about part of this country’s life, and mythology, and existence.” While we remain sceptical of modernity and power, and ponder what we might believe in, but still enjoy a joke and a sing-song, The Wicker Man will continue to tower enigmatically above us – whether we gather a good harvest or not.

More from this issue

Find out more

Access the digital edition

Back to the top