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Posts Tagged ‘The Wicker Man; The Final Cut’

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.

Wicker-Man-Final-Cut-poster

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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