I recently got to see the 1973 British horror film The Wicker Man on the Big Screen. It had been on my radar for a long time, what with my unnatural love of early 70s transgressive films.
In a nutshell, a Scotts police sergeant (a pre-Breaker Morant Edward Woodward) travels to the Hebridean island Summerisle, in search of a girl missing from the main village. In the course of his investigation he discovers (not that anybody is hiding it) that the island is populated by pre-Christian pagans, benevolently governed by Laird Summerisle (Christopher Lee).
The premise “how would it be if a small community never accepted Christianity, but kept their old Celtic gods?” is a cut above standard horror templates, and I expected the easy conclusion--a Christian comes to town, and zap! He’s gotta go. But The Wicker Man surprised me by being subtle, by going deeper. The townspeople aren’t just wicked pagans; they’re quite happy with their lives, connected deeply to nature and the cycle of birth, joyous living, death, and rebirth. It’s Woodward’s character that seems pitiable, lashing out at a perfectly viable way of living, clinging to an imported religion that brings him little joy.
The writer took pains to research the old religions of Northern Europe and show how modern people might live using a pagan ethical compass. It’s not a bad life. Lots of hanging out at the local pub (The Green Man, which should be a flag to any English majors out there), drinking, and having sex. (Not that staid, Christian sex in bedrooms with the lights off. Think orgies in the town park.) Refreshingly, the children are brought up knowing the Birds and the Bees, and sex is just another part of the cycle of life.
Of course, if the crops fail…well, I think we know what has to happen.
Christopher Lee has said that this was one of his favorite roles, and he obviously had a marvelous time. In fact he spearheaded the project, enlisting screenwriter Anthony Shaffer to create a script that would be more interesting than the Hammer horror roles he had been doing for the last decade.