Weekend Film Recommendation: The Wicker Man

1973’s The Wicker Man has deservedly attained cult status as an original, exceptional horror film

The-Wicker-Man-4-561x300Our Edward Woodward tribute continues this week with a big screen triumph he made not long after the Callan TV show ended (RBC Recommendation here). This week’s recommendation is an unconventional low-budget horror film that has no monsters or ghosts, includes almost no night time scenes, blood, gore or special effects, yet is unquestionably harrowing: 1973’s The Wicker Man.

The plot: Uptight, devout and dedicated Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives alone by seaplane at a small Scottish island to investigate reports that a little girl has gone missing. He finds a strange community of back-to-nature types who claim never to have heard of the girl, much to Howie’s frustration. He is further inflamed by their paganistic world view, sexual expressiveness and apparent disregard for his authority as a representative of HMG. He eventually meets the head of the community, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), who confounds him further even while ostensibly supporting his quest to find the missing girl. His anger and anxiety mounting, Howie presses his investigation to the limit, but matters become only more maddening and much, much more dangerous.

It’s easy to see why Christopher Lee, who has made almost 300 films, declared that this was the best one he was ever in. He, Woodward, and the actors in other key roles (Diane Cilento and Britt Ekland) give performances that are somehow both realistic and otherworldly at the same time. And Anthony Shaffer’s script has the perfect set-up for suspense: A man absolutely alone in a strange place that he cannot understand and in which no help is available.

In addition to being scary, The Wicker Man is also sensually pleasurable. It features among other sexually charged moments one of the most erotic and original seduction scenes in the history of film. The soundtrack is also rich and stimulating. It would have been easy to simply have the music of the islanders be a recycled collection of old Celtic folk songs, but instead Paul Giovanni composed authentic sounding music that adds immeasurably to the atmosphere.

wickerman5 Warning: This film had an unhappy history post-production, with many cuts being made both by studio suits who didn’t get the film and morality police who hated the sex. The lack of respect for the film at the time is best expressed by the fact that the negative ended up buried beneath the M4 motorway (not a joke, sadly). Work very hard to get as long a cut as you can; Wikipedia has an account of all the versions here.

I hope you will take the time to discover this cult classic of British horror cinema. After the jump, I offer an interpretational addendum for those of you who have already seen it.


When I first saw The Wicker Man many years ago, I read it incorrectly. As Sergeant Howie yells out Biblical verses while being burned alive by Lord Summerisle and his happy, dancing pagan followers, I took the filmmakers to be implying moral equivalence, i.e., one religious zealot destroying another. But when I re-watched the film to prepare for this review, I realized I had misapprehended Anthony Shaffer’s script. Yes, Howie is judgmental, moralistic and a bit of a prig, but his goal is to save an innocent child, and he pursues it with bravery and intelligence. In contrast, the pagans are cold-blooded, calculating murderers. Shaffer’s protagonist thus dies a martyr’s death at the hands of his theological enemies, not as their equal, but as their moral better.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

9 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Wicker Man”

  1. The “final cut” version is available on a Region 2 DVD, but not in Region 1 yet. That is apparently scheduled for January.

  2. Yes, they are cold-blooded, calculating murderers. They are also _right_.

    The song during the seduction scene you rightly praise is quite excellent, and was recut by the Sneaker Pimps. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that it’s not Britt Ekland’s voice in the song. And actually, it’s not her (then-pregnant) body either in the scene.

    What would they have done if she had succeeded?

    1. They are also _right_.

      Not sure if you are being ironic here; like Howie they certainly believe they are _right_. In any event, in Shaffer’s script, the islanders think that burning a virginal human and some animals to death will revive extinct vegetable and fruit strains. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion of the rightness of this viewpoint, but the script (which is what I was interpreting) does not portray it as reasonable.

      What would they have done if she had succeeded?

      This raises the intriguing question of Willow’s motives. She may have been trying to save him, or, more darkly, to test to make sure that he really was an appropriate sacrifice.

  3. dr. humphreys, i’m sorry but i find your reappraisal of the overall message of the film to be unconvincing. sgt. howie is priggish, small-minded, and prone to interfere in anything that doesn’t fit into his narrow conception of true religiosity. were it not for his noble motivation of saving a life and the dignity of his passing he would clearly be the villain of the piece, as it is the arc of his character within the web of the story places the ending much more into the moral equivalence region than otherwise, especially as the villagers do believe in the pagan or heathen mores and ideals regardless of what summerisle believes. you seem to forget that one person’s cold-blooded, calculating murderer can be another person’s true believer which is, i believe, the point of the film.

    1. I don’t follow this at all. On the one side we have “priggish, small-minded, and prone to interfere,” and on the other we have “murders innocent people by burning them alive.” Yep, Sgt. Howie must be “the villain of the piece!”

      If Howie were a different person, then I guess he would be a different person–which is honestly about all I can get out of your third sentence. Cause honestly, “villain?” We can’t lay more than a bit of cultural insensitivity at his feet. You have to be deeply invested in the evils of Christianity and the virtues of any conceivable paganism to see the islanders as anything other than the baddies.

      1. the villain of the piece is clearly lord summerisle. the villagers, not so much. summerisle is a cynical manipulater of their beilief who does not himself believe. that is why i put howie and the villagers on the same level. which is why i concluded my comment above as is did.

      2. You have to be deeply invested in the evils of Christianity and the virtues of any conceivable paganism to see the islanders as anything other than the baddies.

        Well said.

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