Monday 5 December 2016

We Don't Go Back #20: The Wicker Man (1973)

I'm going to assume you know how The Wicker Man ends. You do.

I mean, it's like Planet of the Apes to that extent, in that both films have the shock ending pictured on the front of the DVD box, the assumption being that if you care enough about the film to buy it, you've either already seen it or you've got a basic knowledge of how it goes.1

What matters really is how unique The Wicker Man (directed by Robin Hardy, script by Anthony Shaffer) is, and how good it is. It is the only horror film that you could call "delightful". Also. It's a musical.

It really is! People break into song and dance numbers, and the songs advance the plot. When someone breaks into song, the music is always diegetic (that is, when you hear a guitar playing, for example, the film shows someone playing a guitar) but they are honest to God choreographed song and dance numbers.
Song and dance.
And some of these (and I'm especially thinking of "Willow's Song" here, where Britt Ekland dances topless around her room and bangs on the wall between her and Sergeant Howie, driving him to distraction, and where she sings directly to camera) only make sense in the filmic language of the musical. One of the things that's so great about The Wicker Man is how incongruous the musical elements are in relation to the dour Scottish policeman who keeps wandering into the musical numbers and interrupting the songs with his tiresome insistence that this is Serious Police Business. In some ways, the signifiers of cheeky, cheerful musical cinema are made into a malevolent psychodrama against which the protagonist fights.
This caption though, at the start. So funny.
And there's a degree to which I can talk about these aspects of The Wicker Man and it's almost like I have to go, no, no, no, wait, seriously, it does all this but it's brilliant, really, and it's almost like you have to run after people and stop them walking off, because if you haven't seen the film it sounds like a hard sell, really it does, and then after all that, you say that this is widely considered one of the greatest horror films ever made! It seems hard to believe.

But it truly is one of the great horror movies. It is really that good. All of it works. It shouldn't, but it does.2
The usual. Rape. Sodomy. Sacrilege. You know.
There are at least three versions of it: the 87-minute theatrical version, the 2001 Director's Cut (99 minutes), and the 2013 Final Cut (92 minutes). The 2001 version (which is misnamed, because it isn't really the Director's Cut at all, that's the 2013 version) is the longest and the best of the three in my opinion, since it contains several scenes that for some years were rumoured to have ended up in landfill under a motorway. Most of the extra scenes are in the first half of the film, and they do much to humanise the protagonist, and communicate why he is who he is, and why he's doing what he does the way he does it.3
A summary: Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), a humourless, devoutly Christian and staunchly principled Scottish policeman, receives an anonymous tip that a young girl has gone missing from Summerisle, a little island, probably somewhere in the Hebrides or Western Islands. To his horror, the Sergeant finds that the happy, carefree islanders (who keep breaking into song and dance numbers) are pagans, led by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), the local gentry. Howie finds that they're worshipping fertility gods and having orgies and stuff, and he disapproves sternly, but he is somewhat more appalled by their cavalier attitude towards life and death, and by evidence of sexual abuse of the children.

Howie begins to find evidence suggesting that the missing girl, Rowan, has been murdered, and then, later, that she might yet be alive but that she might be soon sacrificed for the sake of a good harvest – last year's harvest of the famous Summerisle apples failed in a big way. At the big celebration, he infiltrates in the hope of finding Rowan, and he does, but then he finds out, too late, it wasn't ever Rowan they wanted, and he's the true sacrifice they wanted all along, with his kingly power and his virginity. Everything, from the letter on, was a trail of breadcrumbs leading him to this point. And now he's going to die a martyr's death.
Two of these characters are not like the others.
I haven't mentioned that Lord Summerisle is played by Christopher Lee. Well, I mean, I have, but when people say Lord Summerisle is Christopher Lee's best role, when they made special mention of it in the obituaries, despite him having played Saruman the White four times and Dracula roughly seventy eleven hundred times, it's because Lord Summerisle is such a great character.
Lord Summerisle: We don't commit murder round here. We're a deeply religious people.
Sgt. Howie: Religious!? With ruined churches? No ministers! No priests! And children dancing naked!
Lord Summerisle: They do love their divinity lessons.
Sgt. Howie: But they are – they are naked!
Lord Summerisle:
Naturally. It's much too dangerous to jump through the fire with your clothes on.
Ebullient yet grave, charming, friendly, plain speaking. And in the way that all the most supposedly plain-speaking people are, he's a smug, cynical hypocrite, amoral to the core in his understanding, never quite said out loud, that the religion he and his ancestors palmed off on the islanders is just to keep them happy should the apple harvest fail.

And that's the why of it, the committing of a conspiracy to murder for the sake of giving a community someone to blame for nature dealing them a bad economic hand.
How can you not root for this?
A question raised by some of my friends who care about such things, and which I put to my own limited public a few weeks ago, was, why do pagans dig The Wicker Man so much, when the pagans are, you know, the baddies?

Some said, this time the pagans win. Which is fair. That hasn't tended to happen in history or fiction, and it's nice they get a go. At least one said that of course they were going to root for the pagans, because Sergeant Howie is such a hideous person.

But is he? So much is written about how great Christopher Lee is as Lord Summerisle, that it's easy to miss how great Edward Woodward is as Sergeant Howie.
Spot the lessons below though.
Let's not beat about the bush. The islanders are killing someone who is wholly innocent because they want more apples (just not, you know, the innocent Sergeant Howie thinks they're killing). And then there's the early scene (in the Director's Cut) where Sergeant Howie witnesses Lord Summerisle delivering up a boy of no more than fourteen or fifteen to the landlord's daughter Willow (Britt Ekland, dubbed with a Scottish accent) for the sake of losing his virginity.
Are you in? I've just come to enable a sex offence
It's doesn't matter how you spin that, that's actually, legally and ethically, child abuse. They teach young girls to do fertility rites. It's abuse. A man watches approvingly through the window of his mansion as girls, girls who are almost certainly below the legal age of consent, caper naked. How else are you going to frame that?
Why in God's name do you do it, girl?
Sergeant Howie is horrified and baffled in equal measure at the casual smiling cruelty of a Summerisle child who tortures a bug.
Daisy Pringle: The little old beetle goes round and round. Always the same way, y'see, until it ends up right up tight to the nail. Poor old thing!
Sergeant Howie: Poor old thing? Then why in God's name do you do it, girl?
He is deeply offended at a grave desecrated with carelessly scattered apple crates. Yes, he's very bothered by the paganism and says so in pretty insulting terms, but here's the issue again: in the world of the film, Sergeant Howie is right. And Lord Summerisle pretty much admits it: the islanders' religion was made up by a previous Lord Summerisle to keep the islanders happy. He was brought up with it. Howie calls him a pagan. And Lord Summerisle admits it: "a heathen, perhaps, but not, I hope, an unenlightened one."

Just as Howie says, it's a fake religion. Lord Summerisle knows it. It's a fake religion, made up.

But then, aren't they all? Perhaps. But some are more made up than others.
Neither the time nor the place. Have it removed.
On the mainland, in one of the first scenes of the movie (again, in the Director's Cut this is), Sergeant Howie finds on the side of the police station the scrawled words, "JESUS SAVES". He isn't amused, although PC McTaggart thinks he should be. McTaggart finds his sergeant's seriousness intensely amusing.
Howie: Any serious problems while I've been away?
McTaggart: No, Sergeant, nothing serious. Just the usual. Rape. Sodomy. Sacrilege. You know. [He smirks; Howie gives him a look.]
He says it's going to have to be scrubbed away. There's a time and a place for it, he says. And that's actually pretty key, and a thing a lot of people seem to miss. His duty as a lawkeeper comes first.

Howie's men mock him behind his back for his backwards views: they make a thing of his attitudes on "sodomy" which is an attitude he never expresses in the movie (although in the 1970s if you were from that sort of church background, you were going to be a homophobe, so it's a moot point); they snicker about him having kept himself for his wife to be.
Fertility rites.
Howie's virginity is an important plot point. In the brief scenes you see him with his fiancée, at church, he's the happiest he is at any point in the film. It's the only time he smiles. And the main object of his respect is his wife to be. He's keeping himself a virgin because he's holding himself to a high standard. And keeping to it. And he does just that throughout the film, even though he meets temptation and struggles with it.

Howie's virginity is a virtue for him, and in the end, it's his virtue that is his undoing, because the plot of the pagans on the island, the big theatrical production that they're all playing a part in, only works as long as Howie does the right thing. And Howie is right.
Hand of glory.
I think that part of the exquisite discomfort The Wicker Man inspires is exactly down to that: Howie is right. He is right. Yes, here is all his disapproval, all that he judges the pagans for their immorality (and try to tell me that inducting young adolescents into sex rites isn't immoral, just try. And even if it isn't immoral, it's illegal, which is perhaps more pertinent). But his actions are impeccable. Regardless of what he says, Howie acquits himself as a police officer should. He's not here to fraternise, he's here to find a missing girl and save her from being murdered, and as amusing as the islanders find his behaviour, he's doing this because he believes the life of a child is in danger. And he is a policeman. He does his duty, a duty he takes more seriously than even the expression of his faith.

Howie is right. I don't think I've seen a discussion of The Wicker Man that really goes into Sergeant Howie's approach to his duty, but the fact is that he is an exemplary police officer. He rides roughshod over politeness and islander ways, but he believes that a child's life is at stake and he has a duty to stop that. What is there to be polite about? And the islanders are banking on him doing the right thing. He's doing police work. Good police work.
Willow's Song.
They don't know him, except by reputation. But his doing good, and good police work, is the linchpin of their evil intention. If he was anything less than a really good policeman, the plot wouldn't work. His religious views actually have little to do with his actions, because although he expresses himself as a devout evangelical, he acts like a policeman. He embodies authority. And the islanders say just this at the end, as they have him trapped:
Willow: A man who would come here of his own free will.
Librarian: A man who has come here with the power of a king. By representing the law.
Willow: A man who would come here as a virgin.
Librarian: A man who has come here as a fool.
His virginity is why they want him, but the fact that he is a really good copper is how they trapped him.

Sergeant Howie is no hypocrite. He's not likeable, no. But he's not here to be liked.

I spent a lot of time over the last twenty years among Christians of various kinds. And the very best of them have been, for all the opinions I've disagreed with profoundly, so profoundly I ended up breaking friendships and leaving behind communities, conservative evangelicals. I'm not generally talking about the American variety here, because to be honest, they're indulging in a weird sort of Manichaean witchcraft that left historical expressions of Christianity behind in the dust decades ago. But there's a sort of evangelical Christianity that, even when expressing ideas that are homophobic, transphobic, exclusivist, behaves as if these things don't matter. I have known evangelical Christians, and enough of them for it to be more than a statistical outlier, who have friends who are Muslim, gay and atheist and trans whom they nonetheless treat exactly the same way as they treat their Christian friends.

And in some respects you have to do that to survive in a society that isn't made in your shape anymore. But the best conservatives do good, even when they talk bigoted. And it stands in direct opposition to the progressive stance that language matters, that what you express is absolutely vital first and foremost. And to be honest, I've seen just as many progressives who talk the talk exquisitely but who get away with doing the most appalling, dishonourable shit. But if you talk like a progressive, who cares if you throw colleagues under the bus in the most unprofessional way imaginable if they're not towing your linguistic line? I've seen this happen, to me and to others.4

And this exact phenomenon is what those conservatives who unironically invoke Orwell with respect to progressive identity politics mean. They're not afraid of inclusivity, at least not entirely. They're afraid of the setting up of discourse above honourable behaviour.

Listen, this blog speaks for itself as to where I stand on issues of identity, and of course, it's a little disingenuous of me to compare the best conservatives and the worst progressives, but, and this is where I bring it back to The Wicker Man, that's precisely what the film is doing.
Howie is right. And he knows it.
Here's Sergeant Howie, spitting judgement, hellfire and damnation, and putting himself on the line for the sake of a kid brought up in a religion he thinks is horrible and not thinking twice, feeling a terrible anger at what he (correctly) identifies as the sexual abuse of children for the sake of what he (correctly) identifies as a lie. Consider: the only time he breaks from being a competent, by the book policeman is when, after he's found his plane's been sabotaged and he's not going to be able to call in the larger force, he decides that he's got no choice but to lay his neck on the line and have a go at rescuing her on his own. He goes above and beyond.

And when he screams at Lord Summerisle that when the apple harvest fails next year, he, Lord Summerisle, will be next for the bonfire, Howie is right, and Lord Summerisle's face in that second's pause before he composes himself reveals that he knows that Howie is right.
Howie: No matter what you do, you can't change the fact that I believe in the life eternal as promised to us by our Lord Jesus Christ. [He yells it at the assembled islanders] I believe in the life eterrnal as promised to us by our Lord Jesus Christ!
Summerisle: That is good, for believing as you do, we confer upon you a rare gift these days: a martyr's death. You will not only have life eternal, but you will sit with the saints among the elect. Come. It is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man.
[Howie snaps to, composes himself.]
Howie: Now wait. All of you! Listen to me! You can wrap it up any way you like but you're about to commit murder. Can you not see? There is – there is no sun god! There is no goddess of the fields! Your crops failed because your strains failed. Fruit is not meant to be grown on these islands! It's against nature! Well, don't you see that killing me is not going to bring back your apples? Summerisle, you know it won't. Well go on man, tell them it won't!
Summerisle [grim-faced, unable to meet Howie's eye]: I know it will.
Howie: Well, don't you understand that if the crops fail this year, next year you're going to have to have another blood sacrifice? And next year, no one else than the King of Summerisle himself will do! When the crops fail, Summerisle, next year your people will kill you on May Day!
Summerisle: They will not fail! The sacrifice of the willing king-like virgin fool will be accepted!
(Notice, by the way, that it's Howie who appeals to nature, Howie who appeals to reason.)

Howie goes to his fate terrified and hysterical, but also with the courage of a true martyr. He could have recanted. He could have betrayed his fiancée Mary by going into Willow's room the night before and having her, as she offered. But they knew he wouldn't. Because he's a man who won't betray his principles.  

Here are the pagans of Summerisle, all smiling and polite and talking gentleness, and living a lie and sexually abusing children and staging an immense conspiracy to ritual murder for the sake of some fucking apples.

The Wicker Man accurately represents how conservatives see themselves and how conservatives see progressives. It is a conservative film. And consider: in the 1970s and 1980s, conservative Christians believed that pagans and occultists actually literally did this stuff. The Cleveland ritual abuse scandal of 1987, for example, began with well meaning evangelicals convincing Social Services that the plot of The Wicker Man was really happening on their doorstep. It's nearly impossible to overstate how much harm this did.
So friendly.
But the people of Summerisle are so nice! No. They talk nice. And they groom children and conspire to murder. The Wicker Man presents the rarely expressed but usually assumed conservative point of view that talking progressive is a cover that allows you to get away with all sorts of terrible acts, and the conservative fear that no matter how much they stick to a principle, the hypocrites will win.

But for all that, I think that if like me, you've bought into the progressive belief that language does matter, that what you express is vital, it's still nonetheless pretty easy to root for the islanders.

I think it's why The Wicker Man works, why it's genuinely shocking, happy singing pagans and all. But it's got a good conservative and bad progressives, a juxtaposition not seen as much in cinema as you'd think, and it makes much of the difference between action and performance, which is I think a conservative preoccupation. The islanders are stereotypes (specifically, they're the cast of a musical) but neither Howie nor Lord Summerisle are, and the tension between these two men (and the movie they find themselves in) drives the film.

Folk horror is rarely presented this way. In pretty much every other example (except maybe The Blood on Satan's Claw, now I come to think of it), you have progressive city folk or figures of authority facing off against conservative country folk following old ways. In The Wicker Man, however, the religion is a Gardneresque neopaganism, and the real old religion is Sergeant Howie's faith. The flipping of old and new makes The Wicker Man fresh, compelling, even after forty or more years. And it allows for an identification with modern pagans that the old religions of film and TV do not otherwise often have. In most folk horror the warning is there that we don't go back. But in The Wicker Man, the subtext is just as much that we don't go forward.

1They also share the misfortune of having been given terrible, terrible remakes written and directed by men who have made much better films and should have known better. (back)

2But just you wait until I get to talking about The Wicker Tree. (back)

3These scenes include the entirety of the mainland sequence, and within that segment the whole of John Hallam's memorable turn as McTaggart, the constable who laughs about Howie behind his back. More importantly, it also includes a scene where he's in church with his fiancée Mary; the hymn they sing together is the same that Sergeant Howie attempts to sing at the end of the film (when, you know, he's in the thing where the thing is happening), offering a symmetry that the original theatrical version doesn't have.

Later on, there's the scene where Lord Summerisle offers up a teenaged boy to Willow for sex (which frames the themes of child abuse and puts the other scenes where the kids are doing fertility rites into a context), and a scene where Sergeant Howie passes a woman who is apparently pleasuring herself on a gravestone.

The biggest change the 2001 version makes to the order of the plot (rather than an addition) is that the scenes are rearranged in such a way that the bit where Willow dances around topless and sings the poor man into a hysteric state is on his second night, about two thirds of the way through the film rather than quite near the beginning, giving his reaction more of a context.  (back)

4And yeah, this is the big problem I have with my progressive friends who find it hard to see how you can be a conservative and a good person; in fact, it's all harder, more complicated and impossibly difficult to untangle. (back)