Posts Tagged ‘Edward Woodward’

Something of a charming tradition is beginning to develop at the Phoenix Picturehouse in Oxford – towards the end of October last year, the cinema hosted a personal appearance by the director Robin Hardy along with a showing of his most recent film, The Wicker Tree. This year, Hardy was not present in person, but – one is tempted to say – more than making up for this is the appearance of a welcome re-release for a restored print of the director’s 1973 masterpiece, The Wicker Man.


This is not the first time I have written about Hardy or The Wicker Man, and apologies to long-term readers who may be experiencing a disagreeable sense of having been here before several times. But look on the bright side: I wasn’t able to get tickets to a recent showing of Singalonga Wicker Man, rather to my regret, so the world was spared my thoughts on that particular extravaganza (Hardy was going to be present for that one; God knows what he made of it all).

Hardy’s film is justly celebrated, and – as mentioned – I have already reviewed the original 1973 cut of the film. The version showing at the Phoenix this week makes no substantial changes to the story. As ever, it concerns Howie (Edward Woodward), a fiercely devout, somewhat pompous and rather self-righteous policeman called to a remote Scottish island by a report of a missing child. He is appalled by what he sees as the licentiousness and degeneracy he sees everywhere amongst the islanders – they are pagans, and their community leader, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee – of course it’s Christopher Lee!) is very articulate in defence of their paganism. A series of clues leads Howie to develop a terrible suspicion as to the likely fate of the missing girl – a suspicion which proves to be very accurate, and yet at the same time wholly false in every important aspect…

This is, I think, the third version of The Wicker Man I have seen (and the second on the big screen). I recall another restoration broadcast on British TV at the end of 2001 which reinserted a number of scenes on the mainland featuring John Hallam’s scenes as a colleague of Howie’s. Those are missing from the Final Cut version, which begins with Howie attending a church service (this adds a welcome touch of ironic symmetry, as it means the film opens and closes with him singing the same hymn) – also gone, rather regrettably to my mind, is the tongue-in-cheek caption expressing gratitude to Lord Summerisle for allowing permission to film on his island.

The Final Cut is not substantially different to the original short version, which remains the iteration of the film most widely in circulation. The two main changes are the reinsertion of another musical number accompanying the initiation of a young islander, which brings forward the first appearance of Christopher Lee quite substantially and gives him a memorable speech about the virtuousness of animals as compared to humans, and the reorganisation of a number of scenes so Britt Ekland’s naked song-and-dance routine occurs at the end of the second act of the film rather than near the beginning. Believe it or not, this gives the thematic importance of the naked dancing rather more clarity and makes it feel less gratuitous (no matter what point in the film it’s moved to, though, it’s still odds-on that this is the moment at which an unsuspecting elderly relative will walk in while you’re watching the movie).

The changes may be small, but they have a considerable effect on the impression made by the movie – it’s very difficult to summon up much enthusiasm for the short version once you’ve seen any other. What they reinforce, confirming that the makers of Singalonga Wicker Man have been rather astute, is just how crucial the music and the songs of the film are in creating a sense of the rich, bizarre, alien culture of the Summerisle people. This, I think, is where the film gets its eerie, peculiar power from – the queasy lurch one experiences upon the realisation that this society may look virtually indistinguishable from our own, but its ethics and principles and essential nature are something wholly different and – to an outsider – deeply disturbing.

Hardy’s achievement is partly in generating this sense of a real place, but also in treading an incredibly narrow tightrope. It becomes obvious quite early on that something is afoot amongst the islanders and that Howie is being led around by the nose – and given he’s so pompous, priggish, prudish, and inflexible, it would be all too easy for the audience to lose any sense of sympathy or identification with him. It’s to Hardy’s credit, and that of screenwriter Anthony Shaffer and (of course) Edward Woodward, that this never completely happens and Howie’s eventual tribulations retain their considerable power to disturb.

When I spoke to Robin Hardy last year he was rather dismissive of the various outlandish plans of Wicker enthusiasts to recover the rest of the original negative – digging up sections of the motorway for which it was used as landfill, for example – and so it may be that this really is the definitive version of the film available to us (if not necessarily the longest). Well, any version of The Wicker Man is an unquestionable masterpiece, it’s just a question of how flawed that masterpiece is. The Final Cut is the best version I’ve seen of one of my favourite movies: one to relish and revisit regularly – if not every Halloween, then certainly every May Day.

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I am aware that writing in anything approaching detail about Crusade and its associated ephemera probably constitutes a waste of effort, for this is a series which is little remembered and less liked (although, and this may well be clutching at straws, doing so will at least set a precedent which will let me write about Hammer House of Horror at some future point with a little more self-respect). There was a whole raft of (broadly speaking) space opera TV shows which launched round about the turn of the century – this one, Enterprise, Firefly, Farscape, Andromeda, Lexx – and while some of them were more successful than others, none of them really had the impact that their makers were probably hoping for (I am astonished to learn, by the way, that Andromeda had the longest run of any of these series). This kind of honest-to-God starship drama seems to have gone entirely out of fashion, possibly as a result, which I think is rather a shame.

Crusade itself crept onto UK screens in the much-coveted (I lie) middle-of-the-night spot. Literally, about 3am – presumably the tiny amount Channel 4 could recoup from selling advertising meant it was more profitable to show Crusade than the test card. Lord knows how much they paid for the rights; probably a pittance. This was a train which everyone knew in advance would never be reaching its destination, or even the first stop along the way.

Observe the happy, smiling faces of a bunch of people who’ve just learned their show’s been cancelled before the first episode even got transmitted.

Compounding the problem, in a slight case of history repeating, the broadcast of Crusade was not preceded by the TV movie which sets up its premise (just as Babylon 5‘s first UK broadcast omitted The Gathering). JMS insists that A Call to Arms is a Babylon 5 movie, not the Crusade pilot per se, which seems very disingenuous to me.

I suppose he has a point in that only a couple of the Crusade regulars actually appear in the movie, and they are somewhat indicative of the tone of the series: there is a beautiful female thief and a wily, enigmatic sorcerer, and if this suggests to you that Crusade has much stronger fantasy overtones than the parent show, I would agree.

It all starts in fairly traditional B5 style with President Sheridan off to inspect some new warships the IA has been building since the end of season 5 (several years have passed in-universe). Garibaldi is along to give him another B5 regular to talk to. However, he is mystically contacted by a renegade Technomage, Galen (Peter Woodward), who shows him visions of a planet devastated by a Shadow superweapon and shows him the faces of a group of individuals he needs to gather to avert a terrible threat to Earth…

Well, Galen has many interesting powers, but key amongst them is a total mastery of Plot Contrivance – how else does he know all this? How else can he be so enlightened as to who to get Sheridan to bring along? Why, come to that, are the Drakh expending so much energy against Earth, a planet which effectively stayed neutral during the final Shadow War? If Galen is so clued-in to Drakh doings, why hasn’t he found out about their ongoing manipulation of a major planet like Centauri Prime? That said, the Drakh clearly have the same gift, as the project manager on the new ship site is one of their agents (his name is Drake, which is surely a bad move on the part of the Drakh – it’s a bit like the Shadows firing Morden and hiring someone called Shardow to work for them: not exactly subtle). Quite what Drake the Drakh agent has been doing is unclear, but his presence is very useful when the plot needs to be unravelled and Jerry Doyle needs something to do to justify his appearance fee.

It goes on in this vein most of the time. Tony Todd, an actor with a certain presence, makes what’s essentially an extended cameo appearance, but doesn’t get what you’d honestly call prime material to work with – he’s fourth or fifth banana in terms of plot significance and essentially just there to put a human face on a contrived self-sacrifice that resolves the movie plot. But not the ongoing plot – for the Drakh contrive to infect the Earth with a sort-of Five Year Flu, which will kill everyone on the planet, only not for five years.

It’s initially suggested this long delay is because the Drakh don’t really know how the Five Year Flu works, but later on we learn it behaved exactly the same way when the Shadows used it in the previous Shadow War (the one in the 13th century). Whatever the truth, this gives Earth a handy breathing space during which time a cure can be rustled up, the process of which can theoretically be covered by a weekly TV series.

Or so the theory went. The actual Crusade series is… well, first off, I haven’t seen it all yet. I caught the first three or four episodes during the UK transmission, basically lost interest, eventually bought the run on discounted VHS box-set out of a vague sense of loyalty to the B5 brand, never actually popped the cellophane on them, and didn’t really give it another thought until I picked up the complete B5 box last Autumn.

Anyway, nearly a third of the way in, I’d say that Crusade is a show it’s possible to like, in an indulgent sort of way, because it’s a curious mixture of a few really good bits, a lot of bad and/or baffling ones, with a sprinkling of just utterly weird moments: not entirely unlike Blake’s 7, but with less of a sense of humour.

Most of the episode plots don’t sound very special on paper and could potentially be rewritten to suit the Trek series of your choice fairly easily. I’m watching the series in JMS’s recommended viewing order, rather than that of actual transmission, and so for me the first four were Racing the Night, The Needs of Earth, The Memory of War and The Long Road.

Racing the Night and The Memory of War both revolve around the investigation of mysterious dead planets with dark secrets; one ties into the Five Year Flu (there’s a flashback in which the Shadows actually appear; I found myself bizarrely pleased to see them again), the other to the Technomages. Neither of the secrets is particularly difficult to guess even while watching the episode for the first time. The Needs of Earth is a sledgehammer-to-the-cranium-subtle exercise in commenting on cultural vandalism and the value of art, with one of those cod scenes where an alien hears Mozart for the first time and instantly realises how wonderful human beings are. (I suspect if we ever do make contact with extra-terrestrial intelligences, as a species we’re going to feel very silly about this sort of thing.) The Long Road is more of a character piece about the ethics of terrorism (with a typically great guest spot by Edward Woodward, who effortlessly acts everyone but his own son off the screen) and the kernel of an interesting idea about the unintended cultural effects a superhuman guardian has on those under his protection.

The main problem Crusade has – hang on, one of the main problems Crusade has is that most of its characters are uninteresting cyphers. Most square-jawed heroic starship captains in the American mass-media tend to be cut from very much the same template (lest I start to sound too harsh, the same is probably true of the British ones, it’s just we have far fewer of them – I suspect Dan Dare still qualifies), and it’s really down to the actor to give them a little personality and humour. Captain Gideon of Crusade, portrayed by Gary Cole, comes across as a cynical, intolerant jerk, and is very, very hard to warm to in the slightest. Remarkably, he is still marginally more engaging than most of the other characters – his first officer has no discernible personality beyond occasionally retreating to his cabin to search his soul about the right way to use his telepathic powers (which he never actually seems to do, by the way). The mission’s chief archaeologist is essentially a colossal prick – it may be that over the planned five years JMS intended to do something with him rather in the vein of his development of G’Kar or Londo, but they were both interesting and charismatic individuals from their initial appearances. The archaeologist is neither. Everyone else is just a bit dull – with one exception.

The star of the show, for me, is Galen the Technomage, who qualifies on both the counts mentioned above. Peter Woodward really is a find for this sort of JMS-led space opera, as he has a presence and a style of vocal delivery that actually allows him to put across JMS-bibble in a way that makes it sound thoughtful and occasionally witty. Woodward is probably the best actor on the show full stop – he might even have managed to make Marcus Cole a plausible character, but we’ll never know. Unfortunately, he’s only in six of the thirteen episodes, and I’ve watched three of those already. Grim times ahead, perhaps.

‘I am a mystic, and this is my -‘ Hang on, I did that gag talking about Grail. Bother.

Crusade tends toward small casts, mainly I suspect because this is a show palpably being made on a very small budget: some of the CGI is excruciatingly poor, and this really hurts a show which visits other planets on a daily basis (something early B5 never did). Still, I’m a British viewer of a certain age, so poor special effects don’t bother me that much. What is a persistent irritation is the music for these episodes (also the TV movie), which has no sweep or drama, seems remarkably low on melodic content, and generally sounds like a strange amalgam of ring-tone, muzak, and you-are-on-hold tune.

One can’t imagine Crusade‘s backers at TNT being delighted with much of this, and one of the pleasures of the show is trying to spot where the dead hand of the network is exerting its influence over JMS’s scripts. Well, there’s a crowbarred-in fistfight in one episode, a flying-motorbike chase in another (this really does break the bank CGI-wise), and The Needs of Earth has…

Well, there’s no way to be delicate about this: The Needs of Earth has a subplot about alien porn. It actually opens with the captain watching alien porn in his office (this does not appear to have been quite as rigorously edited for content as JMS claims), and when a visiting crewmember justifiably expresses surprise, he says he found it on a data chip given to him by the prick-of-an-archaeologist. This is apparently true, rather than a half-assed excuse made up on the spot, and the captain proceeds to make various judgmental insinuations about it to the prick-of-an-archaeologist throughout the episode (what a guy: I can imagine Sinclair or Picard doing exactly the same). There’s also a bit where he distracts some bad guys by playing the alien porn through their equipment. Given that the episode revolves around the entire cultural treasurehouse of an alien civilisation being stored on a set of data chips and under threat from a variety of Space Taliban, I was bracing myself for the denouement where there was a mix-up with the chips and the Space Taliban had their brains melted by the alien porn, thus resolving the story, but no: this episode was not nearly brave, or funny, or clever enough for that, it was just a little bit weird instead. Which I suppose sums up everything which is ultimately wrong about Crusade as a whole. Four down, nine to go…

Your reward for reading to the end: some hot Pak'Ma'Ra action! I'm sorry, this is the lowest quality picture I could find.

Your reward for reading to the end: some hot Pak’Ma’Ra action! Be grateful you can’t see what’s going on here in more detail…

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 20th December 2001.

The researcher would like to thank the Lord Summerisle and the people of his island off the west coast of Scotland for this privileged insight into their religious practices and for their generous co-operation in the writing of this review.

Well, even as I type this, Christmas is just around the corner and so I thought I should do an appropriately seasonal review. There don’t seem to be any particularly Christmassy films out this year – unless your idea of a joyeux noel is a visit from the Nazgul – and so after some shallow thought I’ve settled on Robin Hardy’s 1973 film The Wicker Man as this week’s offering. Partly because it’s one of my favourite films, but also because it’s deeply and fundamentally festive (although I feel I should point out that the festival in question isn’t Christmas, nor anything like it). It also contains some lovely pantomime elements such as a transvestite dame (of sorts) and a cheerful singalong at the climax. Although having said all that it works equally well as a summery film – I find it a particularly excellent accompaniment to a barbeque.

The Wicker Man has had a famously tortuous and occluded history. Very, very, very loosely based on an obscure 1960s pulp thriller, it was scripted by the late Anthony Shaffer as an intelligent suspense thriller with fantasy elements. The production company, British Lion, virtually disowned it (mainly a result of corporate politics), hacked nearly a fifth of the running time from the original cut, and barely released it in the cinema. Legend has it much of the missing material now lies beneath a motorway in southern England. It seems that everyone involved in the project has their own contradictory account of the production. (For one such account, see BluesShark‘s article on The Wicker Man).

The film occurs at the end of April, 1973. Devoutly religious policeman Neil Howie (a remarkable performance by Edward Woodward) visits the remote community of Summerisle, off the Scottish coast. He’s received an anonymous letter alluding to the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison – but the islanders claim no such girl exists. Howie is revolted by what he sees as the loose morals and licentiousness of the community, and his suspicions are further aroused when he finds evidence of a conspiracy to hide Rowan’s disappearance. Something completely different is aroused by the landlord’s seductive daughter, Willow (Britt Ekland, though it would be invidious not to mention the major contributions made by her body double and the woman dubbing her voice), but Howie resolutely ignores her.

From the community’s schoolteacher (Diane Cilento) and its lord (Christopher Lee, who may yet hit the big time in the movies if he can only get a part in a film people actually want to go and see) Howie learns the truth – Summerisle has renounced Christianity and returned to the worship of ancient Celtic nature-gods. The May Day festival is only hours away, and Howie has a horrible suspicion as to Rowan’s role in the proceedings…

It’s normal to class The Wicker Man as a horror movie but it’s a highly unusual one in both style and themes. It’s straightforwardly (some might even say plainly) photographed and directed, probably due to the tiny budget. But there is a genuinely unsettling atmosphere – the viewer empathises with Howie throughout, and shares his sense of being a stranger in a very strange community. There are some truly eerie moments emphasising how, beneath the surface, this is a society totally unlike our own. Adding to this is Paul Giovanni’s soundtrack of – brace yourselves – folk music. At several points the islanders burst into song, a startling occurence to say the least (the most memorable of these occasions is Ekland’s all-singing, all-dancing, all-nude solo number, one of the movie’s most weirdly powerful sequences). The result is a strong sense of a community returning to traditional ways, and also a stark reminder that this is not a by-the-book gothic melodrama like many other British fantasy films of the period.

The other differences are more subtle and thematic. Most horror films are about sex, one way or another, and usually the message is that sex means death – consider Dracula’s mock-seduction of his victims, or the rules of slasher-movies as satirised by Scream. The Wicker Man is different. Here, sex means life, fertility, and ‘the regenerative influences’. Howie’s rebuttal of Willow’s advances is crucial to his role in the story. Furthermore, most horror films take place in a universe of strict moral absolutes – there is Good and there is Evil, and the two are unmistakable. Again, The Wicker Man is different – the script is scrupulously fair in comparing Howie’s beliefs with those of the island (although Robin Hardy’s complaint that Christopher Lee’s long on-screen association with the powers of darkness was likely to prejudice the audience against him and the islanders seems justified). It does not play ethical favourites, operating in the grey area where society, morality and religion overlap. It suggests an absolute moral relativism, where Good and Evil have no objective existence. It is from this concept that the film draws so much of its ability to disturb.

Of course none of this would matter if the film was badly written or acted and it has nothing to worry about on either count. Woodward gives the performance of his life as the stubborn Christian copper – it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part (Peter Cushing was considered for it but rapidly discounted as Shaffer and Hardy already had two Hammer veterans – Lee and Ingrid Pitt – in the cast). Lee, in a role written for him, uses his stock-in-trade patrician authority to devastating effect, while Diane Cilento is impressively matter-of-fact in another key role. The script builds subtly and cleverly – even in the standard, butchered version – towards one of the great plot reversals in cinema history, where the significance of the title becomes horribly apparent.

And, you lucky, lucky people, the British TV premiere of the director’s cut of The Wicker Man is on one of the, ahem, non-BBC channels at 11.40pm on New Year’s Eve. If you live in the UK I hope you’ll consider watching it (what do you mean, you’ve got plans that night?!?); don’t be put off by the dated opening credits or clearly-miniscule budget. Open yourself to the film’s power and I guarantee you’ll have trouble sleeping afterwards. Merry Christmas everyone!

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