Film and Television Features

The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)

A precarious quest for identity but more visibly an exercise on the sharp contrast of values between the old and new worlds, The Wicker Man (1973) sustains as a cult favorite from writer Anthony Shaffer and director Robin Hardy.  Following the scenic aerial tour of the Scottish Isles over the opening credits, Catholic police officer Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives at the remote Summerisle off the mainland in search of a missing adolescent named Rowan Morrison.  Instead of trailing a series of logical clues from the anonymous letter he received, the townsfolk mislead Howie into a sinister and perverse dance of rhetorical answers.  Their Pagan customs are seen as barbaric to the dutiful officer, but the tone of the film and its characters are not defined by inherent malice but by "the inspiration of a belief system, an anthropology," as philosopher Robert Farrow writes.  Therefore, no unequivocal good or evil perspectives exist in its distinctively postmodern terror.  This realization also facilitates a disparate genre pairing; while The Wicker Man is typically regarded as a psychological thriller, it is simultaneously darkly comic and psychedelically musical with numerous traditional songs re-arranged by Paul Giovanni and performed by Magnet.

The beguiling melodies that surreptitiously introduce Celtic and Pagan lore amplify the film's iconic power.  As Howie lands on the exotic land, he is struck by the residents' numerous allusions to transmigration and sexual candor through song and practice.  Although too entrenched in his own chaste philosophy to fully perceive these suggestions, he eventually finds himself prisoner to temptation through the barkeep's daughter Willow (Britt Ekland)'s nocturnal siren song.  Frolicking in the nude like a nymph against the adjacent room's wall, she sings, "Heigh ho.  I am here.  Am I not young and fair?  Please come say how do the things I'll show to you?"  Intercut like a fever dream, this sequence effectively exposes the contentious dogma of sexuality.  The former day Howie happens upon children singing and affixing a wreath atop a maypole in celebration of fertility and rebirth.  A schoolmaster leads their whimsical chant, "...And for that man there was a grave.  From that grave, there grew a tree," a seemingly harmless prelude to the native people's grand machination.  Of course, while the central revealing discourse is delivered through the imposing Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), his words on the origins of his family's island, divinity, and parthenogenesis- a form of reproduction without sexual union- all trigger Howie's desperate investigation into the disappearance of Rowan in the latter half of the film, which are attested as accurate and Catholically just.

A psychoanalytic essay by Donato Totaro correlates Freud's The Uncanny with Stephan Harper's The Other Copper in discussion of The Wicker Man.  Fundamentally, the uncanny represents a cognitive dissonance where one's emotional and psychic anxieties are projected onto a foreign object to produce a sensation of the strangely familiar.  In Hardy's film, Harper eyes a child's doll, a dead hare, a candle-hand, and the villagers' animal masks that not only symbolize Howie's alienation and looming downfall but embody his ignorance.  In a complementary dissertation, Games of Truth, Anthropology, and Death of 'Man,' Robert Farrow thoroughly explicates Foucault's postmodern concern of relative truths, stressing "identity is best understood as an amorphous shifting fiction that is to be exposed."  The often amusingly deceptive behavior of Summerisle's residents force Sergeant Howie to linger in a perpetual state of disbelief as he is asked to uncover the true nature of a belief system outside his bounds of understanding.  Both communities contend over moral and devotional validity, but each inherently denies the other's construct of identity, which pits the production as a crisis of the self and perhaps most evidently captures the essence of the postmodern condition.

Typifying each of the domineering personalities beyond the borders of the film is the eternal spiritual conflict of the monotheistic authoritarian v. Pagan polytheist.  Demonstrated by use of extreme high- and low-angled shots and handheld first-person point of view, The Wicker Man probes the minds of its two primary fundamentalists to reach both universal likeness and incongruity, equalizing the emotional perspectives of both parties.  The illustrious climax of the film acts as the most potent revelation; in accordance with his faith, Howie is forced to accept the role as the martyr while Lord Summerisle stands resolute in his sacrificial fulfillment to the Goddess of the Orchard/God of the Sun to restore the fertility of the island's soil.  Both men practice prophetic duties through divergent acts of absolutism and utilitarianism, and yet their behaviors are mutually based on mere superstitious conviction.  Further extending the similarities and discrepancies of the two ideologies, a final clash of hymns is juxtaposed with the hanging image of a blood orange sun caught halfway between the infinitude of space and the Earth, neither nullifying nor endorsing the possibility of rebirth or heavenly ascent.  In this sense, The Wicker Man is an ambiguous anomaly in its classic horror classification- a cunning union of low-budget and high-concept that parallels its central themes.