It was a curious missing persons case reported directly to Sergeant Neil Howie of the West Highland Constabulary, an anonymous letter stating that twelve year old Rowan Morrison had not been seen for some time, the concerns leading Sergeant Howie to fly to remote Summerisle on Sunday 29th April 1973 where the welcome from the eccentric residents was polite but perplexed, saying that they knew of nobody of that name living on the island.
Nevertheless, he persisted, taking a room at the Green Man and proceeding to interview those who might have known Rowan, first and most obvious the postmistress Mrs May Morrison, then the schoolteacher and her class, the island registrar and Lord Summerisle himself to whom the others defer, all of them unhelpful to the point of obstructive, behaving as though rather than a police investigation they were all playing a game, the rules of which Sergeant Howie could not determine.
Originally released in December 1973, it was an unseasonal debut for The Wicker Man, a film centred around themes of rebirth and renewal set in fictional Summerisle, an oasis of sunshine and orchards beyond the desolate and forbidding rocks of the approach, created from a mosaic of locations primarily around the south west of Scotland, Culzean Castle, Anwoth, Logan Botanic Gardens, Kirkcudbright and Burrowhead among them, though the harbour scenes were filmed further north in Plockton.
Directed by Robin Hardy from a script by Anthony Shaffer, at that time best known for Sleuth, the cast was led by Edward Woodward, chosen by Hardy for his performance as a damaged and bitter but dedicated government hitman who couldn’t leave the job he hated in the title role of Callan, alongside Hammer stalwart Christopher Lee in what he later described as one of his favourite roles of his long career, allowing him to play a more sophisticated gentleman more befitting his stature and talent rather than a mute monster.
Most commonly regarded as a horror film and later recognised as one of the finest horror films ever produced in Britain and a key text in the “folk horror” subgenre, despite the belated reverence that is a disservice to The Wicker Man which is as unique as the islanders, a population diverse and perhaps peculiar but no more than any other self-contained and self-sufficient island community, possessed of their own religion and accustomed to making their own entertainment and so liable to burst into song at any moment, the film in many ways a musical with the soundtrack labelled as “ballads of seduction, fertility and ritual slaughter.”
A difficult film to sell to a wide audience, The Wicker Man was substantially altered before release with some scenes moved and others cut entirely, yet still it managed to grow a cult following; a director’s cut with as much of the missing footage as could be found was released in 2001 then “the final cut” followed in 2013, a more considered version which trimmed some of the reinstated scenes which were superfluous, this version being the one which has now been restored in 4K by Studio Canal for the fiftieth anniversary of the film, though with the variety of sources the picture quality is unavoidably variable.
In many ways a counterintuitive film, The Wicker Man gives away its final scene in its title, the iconic image of the burning effigy shown on the poster and known to many who have not even seen the film, and equally baffling to those who are unfamiliar with the work is that despite being the apparent protagonist as the first character introduced and representative of law and order, Sergeant Howie is not in fact in control of anything that happens, off-balance and distracted as he denies himself worldly pleasure while simultaneously increasingly outraged with the islanders who are liberated from such repressive notions, unashamedly indulging in what Howie describes as public indecency.
Lord Summerisle infuriatingly sanguine when confronted with these accusations which he acknowledges with quiet pride, to him Howie is not the hero so much as a hostile intruder possessed of a regressive colonial attitude that his righteous beliefs are not only right but the only ones which are within the natural order, anything else primitive and barbaric; the islanders fully aware of this, Howie is not incorrect in his impression that they are mocking him, though even as he dresses the part to infiltrate their ritual procession he remains oblivious to how they play him for a fool.
The theme of the cycles of nature running throughout the film which takes place at the cusp of Beltane and May Day, the return of summer and the promise of bountiful harvests after the harsh winter, many of the characters are named for trees, Lord Summerisle’s majordomo Oak, missing Rowan Morrison, her sister Myrtle, publican Alder McGregor (Lindsey Kemp) and of course Willow (Britt Ekland), celebrated in song as The Landlord’s Daughter then later the embodiment of physical temptation as she serenades Howie through the wall.
Lord Summerisle describing the ethos of the islanders and by extension the film itself as being in harmony with “the reverence of music and drama and the old gods,” it is something the joyless Howie not only cannot comprehend but is outraged by, piously devoted to duty and a God who does not save his lonely sheep lost among the heathens, a man so half-formed he is not even given a Christian name until the final moments as the sun sets and he accepts his fate, the “rare gift” of a martyr’s death, another unexplained missing person in the archives of the West Highland Constabulary.