The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)

“Come. It is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man.”

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At once an engrossing mystery thriller and an intelligent study of the ancient clash between Christianity and Paganism, The Wicker Man stars Edward Woodward as a devoutly religious but sexually repressed Protestant cop who travels to a remote Scottish island inhabited by pagans to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. As uptight as he is upright, Woodward becomes morally indignant upon witnessing the exhibitionist displays of free love indulged in by the heathenistic pagans. Of course, his indignation is as much a product of his repressed lust as it is of his spiritual convictions, and so he soon finds himself struggling to resist the temptations of the beautiful pagan seductress, Britt Ekland, even as his efforts to convert the “heathens” to his “one true god” prove pathetically futile.

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The pagans, meanwhile, appear to be a happy and carefree people, spending much of their time singing and dancing and fucking. (The bawdy ballads written by Paul Giovanni are surprisingly memorable). But it’s hard to shake the feeling that something nasty is afoot, that dark and sinister motives lurk beneath their jovial surface. This is especially true when Woodward meets the island’s pagan leader, played to unctuous perfection by Christopher Lee, who relates the history of the island to Woodward as he shows him around his lush, verdant estate, calmly and politely explaining that he was brought up to “reverence the music and the drama and the rituals of the old gods, to love nature and to fear it, and to rely on it, and to appease it when necessary.” Only when it’s too late does Woodward fully comprehend the threatening implications behind these seemingly innocuous words.

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Woodward’s distrust of┬áLee turns out to be well-founded, but not in the way he suspects. His investigation leads him to the conclusion that Lee plans to ritualistically sacrifice the missing girl as a May Day offering to the sun god in exchange for a bountiful crop. But he doesn’t have that quite right. In one of cinema’s most devastating twists, Woodward learns that he has been lured into an elaborate trap: it is he, a good Christian, who has been the intended sacrificial offering all along.

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By the time Woodward realizes the truth he’s already being led to the giant wicker man – a freaky totemistic funeral pyre, inside of which Woodward will meet his end along with some sacrificial goats, chickens and pigs. The screenwriter, Anthony Schaffer, an atheist, is making a point about the fundamental irrationality of religious belief, exposing not only the potential barbarism inherent in religious fanaticism but also the futility of faith in the face of an uncaring universe. Woodward’s desperate pleas for deliverance prove no more meaningful than the braying of the sheep, the clucking of the chickens or the snorting of the pigs. His words fall on deaf ears. His “one true God” has abandoned him. His hope for salvation is no more believable than the pagans’ belief that a blood sacrifice will yield a plentiful harvest. As Woodward futilely prays to the mute, indifferent heavens, the pagans celebrate the appeasement of their own nonexistent deity, and one can only stare aghast at the tragic folly of it all.

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One Response to “The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)”

  1. OTOH, speaking as a Heathen, the movie does have a happy ending.