wickerman

Breaking the Narrative Episode 90: Are You Sure About That? A Study of The Wicker Man!

This time around I had some trouble finding something that wasn’t swarmed all over, yet could concern what we usually discuss here. So, I thought I would cover a classic of suspense and intrigue, the 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man! Now I know what you are about to ask: How the fuck does such an old Christopher Lee vehicle relate to contemporary Men’s Issues? Well, I hope that most of the past month’s worth of articles should make this obvious – we are going to be once more showing the importance of perspective, but also we have proven that when it comes to the issues we face, the source of them has not changed at all within the past few centuries.

For those who never seen this movie I want you to go and watch it immediately. I mean this. Not only because this is not going to be so much a review as much as a discussion of this work, but because it is a timeless work. Even to this day I’m still noticing aspects of. It is that good of a film. That being said, we are going to cover only what is within the original theatrical film and nothing of the deleted scenes, nor the attempted reboot staring Nicolas Cage, or even the soft sequel The Wicker Tree.  At least, we won’t do that at this time. I do have all three films available. With that in mind Happy belated Midsommer and Let’s Hammer This In!

We start the movie with a Scottish folk song watching a Constabulary short plane piloted by our ‘protagonist’ Sergeant Neil Howie in the final days of April. The reason I soft quote protagonist here is that he is who the film primarily follows. However, he is only a ‘good man’ in the thought that he does represent the law and he is portrayed as a painstakingly devout Catholic man. If one looks into the history and beliefs of Edward Woodward, who portrays the man, and director Robin Hardy, its quite obvious that they are just as devout in their Catholicism, something they are free to be but in which they fail to realize the beauty of what they created. This is compounded by the fact that the film’s treatment is loosely based around a 1967 piece known as Ritual, written by actor David Pinner, who seemed to have a mix of similar beliefs considering the time, but also a distinct fascination with both traditional and neo-Pagan faiths of the Isles.

Its after this beautifully shot introduction for the time that we have our ‘hero’ arrive on Summerisle, a small farming colony off the Northwestern coast of Scotland in the Hebrides Archipelago. Being rather remote, they don’t get much in the way of visitors, but usually do well with their harvests. You find, though, through a very interesting show-don’t-tell that they didn’t fare so well the previous harvest.

Sergeant Howie is there to investigate the disappearance of a local girl, Rowan Morrison. The locals try to turn him away at every possible moment, even to the point of warning him that he wasn’t going to like how things end. After questioning May Morrison, the girl’s mother, who doesn’t state the truth Howie gets the idea he isn’t being told the whole story. Frustrated with their twisting of how things were understood, he is unable to help himself. He remains, and continues his investigation.

This has to do with the fact that the residents of the Isle know they have to do something within their vein of beliefs or the gods would not grant them a good harvest in the year after.

Its here that I wish to state that I’m only referring to the fictional depictions shown within the confines of this movie – not the beliefs surrounding what would be the same Celtic gods sourced originally from the British Isles, as there are very few of the original sources of the ancient literature on these gods. This is because an overwhelming amount are recordings made by the Roman Catholic Church over the past millennium, which did seek to vilify the previous inhabitants as ‘wrongthinkers.’ While there is historical evidence in South America of human sacrifices, there isn’t to the same level in the Western European world. I will admit that could be due to the usual pyre burning of bodies that had preceded the dug graves we commonly perform today, but that leaves only hearsay evidence from the Catholics one way or another. Henceforth I personally see it as a your mileage my vary on those accounts as the religion had been kept underground by its practitioners from the eras of the Crusades all the way to the 20th century due to persecution committed.

Getting back to the story of the film, it comes to pass that the Sergeant knows he is getting nowhere fast, so he requests a room at The Green Man Inn from the landlord Alder MacGregor after he and the bulk of the Islanders deny once again knowing a thing about Rowan. It’s from here he goes to his room and says his prayers, having been led to it by Willow, the Landlord’s Daughter.  During the night we see Willow dancing nude in the vacant room next door, and Howie having issues sleeping. Whether this is due to a suggested spell being put upon him by Willow as a test, or his own mind having perverse delusions that he tries to quell himself, I’ll leave to your interpretation.

The next morning we see the Sergeant heading off to the school of Summerisle to inquire once more about Rowan, watching the start of a Maypole dance in preparation for Beltane, made referred to in the movie as May Day. We realize at this point that boys and girls are indeed taught in separate classes at this age, perhaps due to puberty. It is by looking at the school’s records that he finds not only that he has been ‘lied’ to, but also of the Isle’s nature as a pagan colony, a fact that horrifies the good Catholic policeman, particularly when references are made to the “phallic symbol” being a natural generative force. In looking back at so many records of how Catholicism had been taught in both Scotland and Ireland, such reverence was given to the Virgin Mary that its apparent that the film and the culture of those behind its creation are unapologetically gynocentric.

This is not unreasonable to see, as the origin of the gods in both Gaelic and Celtic lore are from the Mother Goddess of the Earth. In Gaelic tradition of the Tuatha De Danann, known in Ireland, she is named Goddess Danu, the pantheon name translating to “The People of Danu.” Of course, this isn’t referenced in the film, as the director didn’t much care for accuracy – however its my suspicion that the editor had some desire to depict the pagans of this story accurately. Whether that is to respect their faith or to make it more frightening to those who researched the reality of it is debatable. I doubt in the culture of the time, he would approach it anywhere near honestly.  After skirting away from a charge of obstruction, it is here that the teacher of class, Miss Rose, informs Neil about Rowan’s ‘passing,’ showing something that is actually likely rare for the location in this village, a gravesite.

Its here that we see the brilliantly played ‘villain’ of Lord Summerisle as portrayed by the late Sir Christopher Lee. It comes out that, being the grandson of a late Victorian agriculturalist, the previous Lord decided that he would yield more productivity if he ‘returned’ to the people of the Island their old joyful gods, and refrained from the practice of Christianity upon the island, likely himself being something of an atheist. The cult following he engendered led to his son and grandson both embracing the old ways of the gods of nature out of love for the faith and for their progenitor, though the original source of the prosperity of these fruits and were probably due to selective growing.

Now it could be argued that loss of prosperity could stem from a lack of diversification and drifting from the original Lord Summerisle’s scientific ways, but it is shown that Lee’s Summerisle is as well versed in his grandfather’s practices and theories as he is in the religion. He likely learned them hand in hand with the faith provided and lovingly embraced. This makes the Lord a very cunning and frightfully intelligent man. By the end of the conversation, Sergeant Howie is given full permission to exhume Rowan’s grave. Its here that he finds that in the grave is a large March Hare, what we find throughout the movie is Rowan’s spirit animal.

After realizing that he has once again been lied to and taken for a fool, he decides on this Mayday to do a full investigation of the Island. His dedication, impressive and unwavering, shows how far he as a man will go for the sake of a girl he has never met. Some would argue its due to his nature as a ‘good man of God’ but I wager its due to the nature of men in general

It’s during this investigation that we also see that the Islanders see in him an inquisitive soul, and one of the teachings of these faiths to always answer questions asked about the faith. It is here that they open up to him, informing him of what their beliefs actually are, while all the time implying that he doesn’t have to believe them, merely respect that its their belief.

At this point Howie ‘deduces’ that Rowan is intended as a human sacrifice for penance over the bad harvest. After knocking out MacGregor and stealing the costume of the “Fool” from him, Howie plays along and participates in the parade of the village.

Another name for the fool is the “King of the Day.” By the end of this ritual that Howie has taken part in (unwittingly breaking his own faith in doing so) he is approached by Summerisle himself. Summersile is dressed as the Queen for a bulk of this ritual which isn’t unheard of but is in reality supposed to be performed by the High Priestess of the coven in question. It should have been Miss Rose taking that part. This can be forgiven however due to the nature of how the faith was taught there and the fact that he is supposed to be the leader of the Isle and is likely the High Priest.

At this time Summerisle comes clean stating that Rowan was never the intended sacrifice, and we see that Rowan gleefully enjoyed her participation of the deception. They needed a very specific soul to send along, one that fit four very specific requirements:

-That he came of his own free will: Howie did by following his calling as an officer of the law.

-That he has the “power of a king.” Again, an officer of the law and the Crown.

-That he is a virgin. Being a devout and at the time unmarried Catholic, this is true, and Willow attempting to tempt him was a test of his piety.

-That he is a fool. This is shown not just by Howie wearing the costume of the fool, but by being foolish enough to not heed the many times the villagers warned him to go back.

It’s through these rites that he is made the “King of the Day, Fool for a Lifetime” and is cornered and anointed to go within the impressively large and eponymous Wicker Man, resisting the entire time until he is all but locked into the belly of the wooden effigy along with goats and chickens. It is then set ablaze, as Howie cries out that the strains will fail again, and that when that happens no less than the sacrifice of Lord Summerisle himself next Mayday would suffice if they were to believe in those ways and not in Christ, hoping to trigger Summerisle’s sense of self-preservation to show the zealotry of the ‘cult.’

So where does this leave the perspective aspect of the argument?

Simple, Sergeant Neil Howie in this was an authoritarian who jealously thought his puritanical ways were the only way to live. Much like the feminists we face part and parcel today, the villagers and Lord Summerisle himself being more libertarian in their outlook in life by stating that the Sergeant is free to do as he pleases upon the island, that they had no actual intention to obstruct him in his pursuit of ‘justice’ for an innocent. In fact, if one views the ideals and intents of Summerisle to be genuine, then he likely in universe saw Howie as a dear and fast friend by the end of it all. I realize that is odd to say considering that he burned the man alive and let his friend be drenched in goat’s piss in his final moments. Yeah, its actually stated in the documentary that in the one shot scene they made for the burning of Edward Woodwoard, who portrayed Neil Howie, the goat above him was pissing all over his head. Talk about taking the piss.

It’s also obvious that not only due to the nature of the religious beliefs in question, but by the way the Sergeant is portrayed throughout the film, that everyone involved put women on a pedestal to be venerated. Add to the fact that they would rather sacrifice a grown man than a young girl and that Howie put a young girl’s life before his own even though it had seemed that her own mother all but gave her up, and the gynocentrism here is rampant. The real horror is  how quickly they would sacrifice a man in lieu of a woman, proving male disposability outright. Add to the fact that there was very little blood and absolutely no gore within it, and the idea that this is considered one of the greatest horror films of all time is impressive. In fact, the late Sir Christopher Lee has been often quoted that out of the 275 films he has taken part in, that he viewed The Wicker Man to be his masterpiece.

This is likely due to the fact that in it, Lee played an antagonist who, while slightly manipulative, wasn’t at his core an evil being. Lord Summerisle believed in the righteousness of his cause and had faith that his gods would accept his offering unto them. Considering that in the soft sequel, he does make an appearance, he was apparently correct.

Like he said in the film he loved his faith and didn’t want to see those following it under his stewardship lose it. So he needed a special sacrifice, and he wasn’t about to sacrifice the people under his care as he saw them as his family. That makes an outsider like the Sergeant ideal for his needs.

With that in mind what is my final verdict on the story of the film? It has the attitude right for both groups, but shows inherently the conflicts spurred by religious zealotry and the gynocentrism that often fuels it. More balance variants do exist today if you know where to look, and one should be free to follow as one deems fit within reason. Do as ye will but harm ye none. In the end, if this cult classic has a true ‘villain,’ its the Victorian Lord Summerisle for putting this in motion, as his grandson is only honoring the ways taught to him by his father. Those involved all mean well but are misguided in one way or another throughout the film, which is the true tragedy of the whole thing; the tragedy of the narrow mind and the unwillingness to let another be free… the horror of power and its corruption.

I love this movie not only for its depictions of a faith similar to my own, but due to the fact that it is a very intelligently written work. Like I said in the beginning, if you haven’t already watched this movie you need to, regardless of its dating. It’s not a terribly long affair and you’ll be on edge the entire time. Next week I’m hoping to have something a little more ‘patriotic’ handy, considering. Until then Please Remember to Game Freely!

Alex Tinsley
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Alex Tinsley

A student of Fine Arts and Japanese culture of six years at Murray State University. Having never graduated due to difficulties with a specific teacher has gained a unique perspective upon the issues being faced by men and boys. A father of a young boy and loving husband.
Alex Tinsley
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Alex Tinsley

A student of Fine Arts and Japanese culture of six years at Murray State University. Having never graduated due to difficulties with a specific teacher has gained a unique perspective upon the issues being faced by men and boys. A father of a young boy and loving husband.

  • Barry McCann

    Very interesting article but one flaw. Howie is not Catholic, he is Scottish Episcopalian and therefore part of the Anglican Communion. Granted, this is not pinpointed in the film’s dialogue, but the church scenes depict Episcopalian mass, not papist. That apart, very well written and thought provoking piece. ,

    • Alex Tinsley

      I thank you for the correction. I’m not as versed in Episcopalian as I should be as I am more the Pagan here.