Wednesday, May 27, 2009


I started The Agitation of the Mind to celebrate great movies, not to carp about mediocre ones. To indulge my passion in the art form, not to slate it. I wasn’t interested in playground-level name-calling over films I didn’t like.

Which was all very noble and high-minded. But it hasn’t stopped me, over the year and a half I’ve been running this site, from vituperatively drubbing the likes of ‘The Happening’ and ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ and having a high old time doing it.

So, before I get on with the business at hand – a two-parter* on Robin Hardy’s cult oddity ‘The Wicker Man’ in honour of Christopher Lee’s 87th birthday – there’s something I need to get off my chest and I’m going to be very immature about it.

Neil laBute’s 2006 remake starring Nicolas Cage is a great big pile of poo. So nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah!

Right. Back to business.

Christopher Lee was riding high on his popularity as Dracula in a seemingly endless parade of Hammer films when he came across David Pinner’s novel ‘Ritual’ and recognised its potential. Anthony Shaffer was also riding high: the film version of his Tony award-winning play ‘Sleuth’, starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, had garnered great acclaim, and he’d been engaged to script Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate film, ‘Frenzy’.

Shaffer’s adaptation retained little of Pinner’s narrative, instead fashioning an enigmatic mystery rich in symbolism and enigmatic mise-en-scene based around a conflict between belief systems (Christianity and paganism). Robin Hardy landed directorial duties and probably had no idea how maligned, misappropriated, controversial and – finally – revered his film would become.

Produced through the ailing British Lion, the company had just been acquired by John Bentley. Faced with union concern that he was going to asset-strip the company, Bentley rushed ‘The Wicker Man’ into production. The May Day setting, crucial to the film’s aesthetic and imagery, called for a springtime shoot; instead, Hardy and his cast and crew found themselves shooting in October. Fake blossom was glued to trees and the dancers called upon to perform au naturel and al fresco in the fertility rite scene braved the late autumn chills.

An eclectic cast was assembled: alongside Christopher Lee and fellow Hammer alumnus Ingrid Pitt were Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland and, after David Hemmings and Michael York passed, the lead role of Sgt Neil Howie went to Edward Woodward, best known then for his role in the TV series ‘Callan’.

An opening credit thanks “The Lord Summerisle [Lee’s character in ‘The Wicker Man’] and the people of his island off the west coast of Scotland for this privileged insight into their religious practices”. However, in his magnificently titled autobiography ‘Lord of Misrule’, Lee recalls “we went to Ayrshire, Kirkcudbrightshire, Newton Stewart, the Logan Botanical Gardens and Culzean Castle … and with these and other sites on the Scottish mainland, we stitched together a totally plausible island”.

If Lee refers to the fictitious island as being “stitched together”, then Hardy’s original 100-minute cut of the film was summarily unstitched, reduced by 15 minutes and the remnants re-cobbled together with little regard for continuity. During shooting, British Lion had passed from Bentley to EMI and was now being run by Michael Deeley, who deemed ‘The Wicker Man’ one of the worst things he’d seen and enforced the cuts which brought the running time down to B-movie length; it was eventually released on a double bill with Nic Roeg’s ‘Don’t Look Now’.

It’s a testament to the atmosphere of creeping dread that suffuses every frame of ‘The Wicker Man’, as well as to the performances and Hardy’s off-kilter direction (the film has the feel of a waking dream; or, in its final stages, nightmare) that even in its ravaged 84-minute incarnation, it’s still one hell of a movie. I first saw it in this version on TV in my mid-teens and it wormed into my subconscious and twenty years later I still find it unnerving and intriguing and compelling.

Robin Hardy subsequently attempted to recover the excised footage and reassemble his original cut. The film canisters, however, were missing, popularly thought to have been amongst a consignment of obsolete stock used as landfill during construction of the M4 motorway. Which could have been the end of the story, except for a print of ‘The Wicker Man’ that had been sent, pre-Michael Deeley’s interference, to Roger Corman who was considering releasing it to the drive-in circuit.

Although there was a limited cinema re-release in 1979 (six years after the ignominious original release), it wasn’t until the 2001 DVD restoration produced by Canal+, who had, by this time, acquired the rights, that Hardy’s complete version of ‘The Wicker Man’ gained any degree of widespread distribution.

The restoration is crucial in terms of pacing, characterisation and establishing Lord Summerisle and his subjects’ paganism in stark contrast to Howie’s devout Christianity. We follow Howie’s increasingly frustrated investigation over two nights on the island (the Deeley-savaged version compresses the entire narrative across one night, making for a cluttered second half where exposition and continuity are sacrificed and Howie lurches from one set-piece to the next); more of the islanders are seen to play a part in the proceedings; and Howie’s character arc from piety to outrage to martyrdom is more effectively – and poignantly – achieved.

Interestingly, Robin Hardy – whose only directing credits since ‘The Wicker Man’ have been ‘The Fantasist’ (in 1986) and some episodes of ‘E Street’ – is currently trying to secure financing for the intriguingly titled ‘Cowboys for Christ’, described as the projected second part of a ‘Wicker Man’ trilogy and slated to reunite the director with Christopher Lee.

‘Lord of Misrule’ by Christopher Lee (Orion, 2003)
‘The Wicker Man’: Wikipedia article
‘The Wicker Man’ website

*The behind-the-scenes stuff today, followed by an appreciation of the film itself tomorrow.

No comments: