The Wicker Man (1973)

Three or four years ago, I noticed that TCM was showing classics on the Big Screen. Then someone told me that the Regency theater right next to the office was showing an “old” movie every Tuesday (where “old” meant anything from the ’80s to the occasional ’40s/’50s classic, like White Christmas). There were Friday showings at the local Tristone. And then I discovered that our beloved local theater chain (The Laemmle) was having a “throwback Thursday”. And so, for the least 3 1/2-4 years, I have carted around The Flower, The Boy and The Boy’s Girl to all of these movies that were either very good, or at least had some sort of cultural significance.

Early on one of these trips, I said, “Enjoy it now, because this will pass.” Because showing classic movies is inexplicably (to me) a matter of fashion. It was hugely popular when I was a kid with entire theaters devoted to revivals and cult movies, but TCM (ironically enough) killed that as a business model. (“Why go out when you can stay in?” is most people’s thinking, I imagine. Mine is “Why stay in when you can go out?” at least as far as movies go.) But since then, I have seen classic series show up at theaters, only to be canceled after a few months or years.

TCM’s Big Screen Classic is still going strong (also ironic, perhaps). The Regency stopped showing classics last summer, with a brief (tepid) revival for Halloween and Christmas. Tristone sputtered out last year. And when we showed up to The Wicker Man, we were informed this was the last “Throwback Thursday” with some friendly but meaningless corporate-speak about how they were going to maybe possibly relaunch sometime in the future. No real explanation but I presume they make a lot more money renting out the theaters to the myriad, endless film festivals than selling to even a packed house.

Where's Rutger Hauer when we need him?
Gone, like tears in the rain—er, wicker men in the flames.

For the past few years, two thirds of our 135-150 theater viewings have been classics and, frankly, it’s been great. You want to see CGI Will Smith as a genie? Or better, Cary Grant and Myrna Loy outwit themselves while building a house!

It’s sort of fitting that the last showing was The Wicker Man because this 1973 Edward Woodward/Christopher Lee musical has a kind of apocalyptic, end-of-an-era feel. I hadn’t seen it in about 40 years and recalled it as being a counter-cultural paean, a mockery of the old values. But it’s not that at all. I also didn’t remember it was a musical. But the characters do, in fact, break out into (poorly auditorily integrated, ’70s-style over-produced) songs.

The story is this: The officious (and devout) Sergeant Howie (Woodward) receives an anonymous letter from Summerisle, a small Scottish island, saying that a young girl (about 12) has been missing for a year. Summerisle is a sort of cloud-cuckoo land, however, where everyone acts a little queer and he get no straight answers to his questions. Instead, he gets vagueness, contradictions and outright lies. (Even the missing girl’s mother pretends she doesn’t know who the girl is. Later, when confronted, she’s positively blasé about her death.)

He is further provoked by the bizarre behavior of the islanders, which is outrageously pagan. There is open prostitution and promiscuity, with virgin boys being deflowered by the innkeeper’s daughter (Britt Ekland, whose body double does a rather provocative naked dance at once point). There are rituals involving maypoles, jumping through fires, and maybe, just maybe human sacrifice.

Those Swedish gals.
If I posted nothing but pictures of Britt Ekland (and her body double) here, would anyone judge me? Probably. So here’s one of the few pictures of her with clothes on.

This is all justified by the stentorian Lord Summerisle (Lee), who justifies it with an interesting history and a lot of sophistry. The history is that when his grandfather came to the island, it grew nothing and its people had despaired of escaping their poverty. With his understanding of agriculture—and by indulging the pagan inclinations of the populace—he managed to turn the island into a happy, productive place.

It’s really a shaggy dog story.

It’s meant to be a horror movie, and it works in a low key way. Howie never seems to realize that he’s in any sort of peril, despite the obvious madness of the islanders. And it is portrayed as such here. The story is sympathetic, on some level, to the Summerisle people—but without pretending they have any higher rationality or spirituality. They’re degraded, and worshipping tree spirits and forces of nature to resolve their problems. And that they have no particular qualms with sacrifice is apparent.

The fact that Howie is shielded by the crown and feels invincible does reduce the aura of menace, but also makes for a stomach-dropping conclusion.

How do you prance naked over a fire in a leotard?
The isles are chilly. Wear a leotard.

Woodward and Lee are terrific. Ekland (dubbed since her Swedish accent would stand out, and body-doubled because she didn’t like her own butt) is charmingly seductive. Robin Hardy’s direction of Anthony Shaffer’s script produces a lot of dreamlike sequences (many of which were left on the cutting room floor, for better or worse) and an aura of “realistic fantasy”.

Certain scenes—like Howie wandering around at night watching all the public air fornication—are going to be basically invisible on TV. By contrast, the girls jumping “naked” through the fire are very clearly wearing body stockings on a modern high-def screen.

The music (pop songs by “Corn Rig”) is as dated as you’d expect but not unbearable.

The only movie I’ve ever seen that starts with The Eucharist, but one of several (sometimes surprising) films in recent viewings with heavy use of Christian iconography. (Others include The Return of Martin GuerreAnnabelle Comes Home and A Job Near To Us.)

We liked it, though it was with a heavy heart that we left the theater: What the hell are we going to watch now?

It's grim.
Entering the cinematic graveyard of contemporary films.

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