The Wicker Man (1973)

Directed by Robin Hardy

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The Wicker Man draws more of a line between the pagan cult and Christianity than I would’ve presumed.  The story is simple, a man wanders into an unconventional community and finds that he is a sacrifice for their greater good.  He would seem to be the “ordinary” one and the community that strange “other.”  Because of how strange and even sadistic this community is, the sacrificial protagonist need not be hyper-defined.  The more bland or the more ‘every man’ he is, the more he contrasts with the “other.”

But here he is notably Christian, and he refers to his Christianity multiple times.  Because of how often it is brought up it feels as though The Wicker Man has more to say about Christianity than it does about idiosyncratic, violent cults.  It’s less about community and culture then and more about religious perseverance.  When the protagonist is eventually burned at the stake he has become a martyr, a sort of Joan of Arc.

That protagonist is Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), a police officer who arrives at a remote Scottish island in search of a missing girl.  What he finds on the island is a stable, ordinary-looking community, but the veil of normalcy quickly falls away to reveal a community of either disturbed or enlightened folks.  Either way he finds it alienating, and he lets them know.

There is a sense of humor to this film, as there probably should be.  Howie is at first a stoic, professional man.  He’s here to do a job and that’s that.  There will be no friends made, no alliances forged and no judgment cast.  He is a man of the law, there to enforce and protect it but not to interrogate or defend it.

And yet the community’s initial apathy to the missing girl frustrates him, not Howie the Sergeant but Howie the Man.  He doesn’t understand them, and the more he learns the more assertive he gets.

When Howie fights back, believing he has located the girl (that she is a sacrifice for the island to gods who will give them a good harvest), he fights not as an officer but as, well, a saint.  At least that’s how he surely sees himself.  This unexpected pagan cult directly confronts the essence of his being, of his beliefs both lawful and philosophical.  They are an affront to everything he finds solace in.

So as the film chugs along Howie fights back against this costume-wearing festival-celebrating cult community.  But as he fights he grows more desperate, and there’s something kind of funny about his desperation, how quickly he slaps at the people who would seem to torment him, not cowering from the horror they represent but swatting at them like flies.

In a sense he grows petty, and while his soon to come destruction is harrowing, there’s something very unromantic about how it all goes down.  Even as he is proclaimed a martyr (mockingly by the people who kill him, but you can tell he believes it) he feels like something much less prominent.  You’re watching not just the death of a man but of a worldview.  Sure he clings to his faith as he dies, but it never saves him nor do you believe it ever will.

And at the same time it’s not as though this sacrifice confirms the oppositional belief.  The pagan cult believes that with Howie’s death they will have a plentiful harvest the next year, but Howie pointedly asks what will happen when they don’t?  Who will die next?

The leader of the cult, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), seems to hesitate before insisting that there will be a plentiful harvest.  There is no room for doubt because doubt is akin to an admission of powerlessness and fraud.

So these are two opposing beliefs that seem equally as dire.  In the end we all depart, I suppose, and we’re allowed to hold on dear to the things that will help us in that passage.    The film seems to both honor and mock these beliefs, as the characters do with each other.  So in the end no one is right, and we all end up in the same place.

Up Next: Undertow (2004), Booksmart (2019), The Morning After (1986)

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