‘Sumer is Icumen In..’

The story of The Wicker Man is a long and convoluted one that even has revelations of celluloid stock being discovered in motorway bridges of all places. Famously double billed, in a time when double bills were still part of cinematic tradition, with Don’t Look Now (1973), The Wicker Man, named for its titular punchline, has become a British classic. Although in some respects it is a film of its time, it somehow remains specifically modern; set apart from time and place, its characters and concepts of culture, religion and tradition continue to fascinate audiences to this day.

The film has a startlingly simple premise. Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) flies to the remote northern Hebridean island of Summerisle to discover the fate of Rowan Morrison, a young girl who has apparently disappeared without trace. His investigation is impeded by a number of elements: the island clearly has a close-knit community which appears – on the surface – to be normal, albeit a touch strange, but they all deny the existence of Rowan Morrison, let alone reveal anything about her disappearance. The devoutly Christian policeman also has difficulty understanding the islanders’ religion which appears strongly to contradict his own beliefs. The island’s affable leader Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) goes to some lengths to explain the local rituals and the reasons behind them to Howie, especially given the need for a good harvest this year.

Despite its labelling as a horror movie, and indeed its conclusion is undoubtedly horrific, The Wicker Man is significantly more complex than its genre tag would suggest. In many ways it’s a cultural arthouse drama with enough songs to qualify as a musical. It features many traditional aspects of pagan ritual that are familiar (maypole dancing, for example) but often not depicted on film in a religious context. It is like a helpful ritual introduction, almost a re-enactment of sections from James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion, coupled with a narrative that sees its protagonist discover these rituals first hand, even if he finds many of them disturbing and offensive to his own beliefs.

Even after multiple viewings The Wicker Man is ripe for rediscovery. And rediscovery is the important issue here given that this year some of the original 35mm negatives have been found, following a long media campaign. A version discovered at the Harvard Film Archives was confirmed by Robin Hardy as the cut that he had put together himself. Now named The Wicker Man: The Final Cut, this version will certainly ensure that the film retains its place as a classic of British cinema. Multiple versions of the film are available in the current DVD and Blu-Ray releases, together with its soundtrack. There are many extras including in-depth documentaries, commentaries and interviews which really enhance the background behind the film and its development as well as audience and critics’ reactions.

The Wicker Man remains a unique and utterly compelling film that has lost nothing in the forty years since its original release. Indeed the latest cut, closer to the film’s original concept, simply enhances that assertion. If you enjoyed the other versions this is still worth viewing. If you haven’t seen it (why not?) then this is absolutely an essential purchase. No burnt offerings for the viewer, just cult cinema at its finest.