The Wicker Man
directed by Robin Hardy
(British Lion, 1973)

An upright and moral Scottish police officer is summoned to a remote island off the coast to investigate a young girl's disappearance.

But what might seem at first glance to be a simple mystery or suspense-thriller turns out to be much, much more. The proper Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward) runs into immediate blockades when none of the close-mouthed Summerisle residents will admit to even knowing Rowan Morrison, the missing girl. When the inspector finally proves her existence to the recalcitrant islanders, they tell him she's dead.

Suspecting foul play, Howie gains permission from the very amiable Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) to exhume the body and finds ... well, no, that would be telling.

The twist that prevents The Wicker Man from being just another mystery movie is the pagan faith of the islanders. Led by Lord Summerisle, the entire population has reverted to an ancient faith and performs rituals with a sincere zest. Howie is horrified at this discovery, and becomes convinced that young Rowan has been kidnapped to serve as a Beltaine sacrifice to revive the island's faltering harvests.

As his investigation continues, he dodges the seduction ploys of the innkeeper's daughter, Willow (Britt Ekland), avoids couples copulating in the fields, witnesses a schoolyard maypole dance and explicit classroom discussion of the custom's origins, averts his eyes from young, nude girls dancing in a circle and leaping through a fire, desecrates a pagan altar in an abandoned churchyard and has a generally bad time. He tries to fly his one-man airplane back to the mainland for assistance, but finds his plane stalled.

Somehow, through all that, director Robin Hardy manages to avoid making Howie look like a bumbling Keystone Kopp. In fact, his investigation is quite thorough and efficient, with leaps of analytical brilliance -- which is exactly what the islanders were counting on.

The director and writer (Anthony Shaffer) also avoid painting paganism as evil, hokey, crazy or supernatural -- a real rarity. Nor does it take the other approach and vilify Howie's unshakeable Christianity. He's straitlaced and a bit pompous, but he's sincere and manages to hold onto his convictions under trying circumstances indeed.

The movie is dated in some respects and the sound and editing quality aren't up to modern standards, but The Wicker Man remains an excellent piece of storytelling which refuses to reveal its secrets 'til the dramatic conclusion.

As Neil Howie, Woodward is stiff and unyielding -- utterly believable for his character. Lee is an exuberant lord of the manor and high priest of the faith, and his subjects are perfect enigmas until they, too, explode into festival revelry.

The only sour note is a questionable scene of Ekland's. Her efforts to seduce the inspector turn at one point into a naked, wall-pounding music video, and the abrupt transition doesn't work very well. Otherwise, she performs perfectly as the knowing and sexually aggressive distraction. (Ekland apparently has even more scenes of this nature in a hard-to-find extended version, but I've only been able to track down the shortened release.)

Overall, the movie keeps you guessing throughout, and I defy anyone to figure out exactly what's going on before Howie does. The ending is startling, disturbing and at the same time right.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 14 June 1999

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