The Wicked Wicker Man

Robin Hardy’s THE WICKER MAN (1973). Courtesy: Rialto Pictures/ Studiocanal.

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the 1973 film The Wicker Man. When I think of it, the words come to mind from Frank Zappa’s song “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” (on the 1967 album Absolutely Free): “Do you love it? Do you hate it? There it is, the way you made it.” The Wicker Man is described as a cult film, which means some people will love it and some people will hate it. A cult is not a balanced, but a lop-sided, view of reality. (By the way do not confuse the original film with the flabby 2006 remake of the same name, starring Nicholas Cage.)

Christopher Booker made an extensive analysis of such cultural imbalance in his 1970 book The Neophiliacs, where he cites Shakespeare as the ideal model of creativity. Macbeth, for example, starts with the natural order of balance and is violated by a crisis, which is resolved to restore the natural order again. Works are inferior which leave the audience in an unresolved state. Waiting for Godot is a classic example, as are many modern works. The unresolved and thus psychologically unhealthy work is a modern genre, virtually mandatory to count as a modern classic.

A series of Indian musical rāgas which progress nine distilled emotional essences (rasas) to a final integration and catharsis would meet Booker’s approval. John Cage’s 4′33″ (“composed” 1952) does not, as the musicians sit still, not playing their instruments, the “music” of the piece being provided by whatever noises occur in the environment. Randomness cannot provide resolution.

The Wicker Man is set on a remote Hebridean (Scottish) Island, where a missing girl has been reported. A police sergeant, Neil Howie, travels by seaplane to investigate. He is played by Edward Woodward, whose surname perfectly encapsulates his acting ability. Fortunately this is the quality his best-known roles require, so he does rather well. Another successful part played by him is the stiff Australian, Lieutenant Harry Morant, court-martialled and shot during the Second Boer War in Africa (1899-1902), as depicted in the 1980 film Breaker Morant.

Somewhat more appealing, one might think, is the incongruous Britt Ekland, established a couple of years previously as a sex symbol via the crime film Get Carter and who didn’t mind showing her breasts in The Wicker Man, but insisted on a body double when her bottom was visible as she danced naked. The purpose of this cavorting was to arouse the luckless police sergeant, whose brow drips with erotic excitation.

However, he is in the next room to Ekland, clasping onto the wall that divides them, so I fail to see how he can become excited unless either he is psychic (in which case he would never have travelled alone to the island in the first place) or he is stimulated sexually by white plasterboard, which I find highly unlikely. But then I find most of the film highly unlikely, so it doesn’t really matter.

The only reason I am writing about it at all is because an anniversary event took place in Leicester Square, London, at the Picturehouse cinema, where my colleague and close friend, Stuckist artist Joe Machine had been invited to stage an exhibition of his paintings, loosely inspired by the film. Esteemed London Magazine editor and writer, Steve O’Brien (with whom Joe has collaborated on books), gave a reading of his poetry.

Beltane Wedding by Joe Machine.

Joe has had an interesting trajectory through life, starting age six, when he stabbed his teacher in the hand with a compass because she stopped him drawing a picture of the Incredible Hulk. He continued through adolescent crime, burgling the local greengrocer’s, which led to a spell locked up in Youth Custody, before getting gainful employment as a night club bouncer and a driver ferrying prostitutes round London hotels.

In 1999, he was one of the thirteen founder artists of the Stuckist art group (now a recognised international movement with sister groups in 50 countries). As a youth, he had witnessed extreme violence between razor-wielding sailors on the Isle of Sheppey in Southern England, as well as being exposed in boyhood to hardcore porn films (an alternative to BBC children’s television). His early expressionist-influenced paintings reflected these experiences.

Since then, in years of therapy, meditation and prayer, he has evolved personally (he is now married with four children), as well as artistically into a neo-medieval depiction of Britannic myths and Biblical stories, though both of these are not entirely lacking from sex and violence.

The Picturehouse event was attended by Britt Ekland, who looks remarkably good for an 80-year old. Is one allowed nowadays to say someone is looking good? Fuck knows, but I don’t care and I’ve said it anyway. She does regret having some experimental lip plumping about 25 years ago, but has fortunately resisted the desecrating surgical excesses of various stars, whom I will leave the internet to humiliate.

Britt Ekland (centre), Joe Machine (right), his wife Charlotte (left) at the Picturehouse Cinema.

My main objection to the film is not the horror, but the gratuitous, fantasy horror, when the luckless sergeant meets his doom, burned alive, locked in a compartment halfway up a giant wicker man construction, which crumbles in roaring flames along with its human sacrifice in the belief of the villagers that this will bring a better harvest next year. The inhabitants of this cut-off, cut-throat lump of land are meant to be pagans under the sway of Lord Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee, who died in 2015 (though from respiratory problems and heart failure, rather than ritual sacrifice)  and who considered this to be his best film.

It could be seen as a modernised depiction of the practice of Celtic Druid priests to burn animal and human sacrifices in a wicker man, though I’m not aware of this interpretation. The main evidence for such ever occurring is in Julius Caesar’s Commentary on the Gallic War, which historian David Henige has seen as the work of “one of history’s earliest—and most durably successful— ‘spin doctors'”. This hardly makes Caesar the most reliable witness, more like a first century BCE equivalent of an internet rumour monger. There are modern Druids, or at least individuals who like to pose as such and even burn wicker figures, but no evidence that the latter contain human sacrifices.

I have an increasing aversion to falsehoods in artistic creations, particularly films, which provide the basis of many people’s sole knowledge of an event. History is difficult and often controversial enough anyway without a deliberate distortion of it for commercial gain. One of the worst examples is The Patriot, set in the American War of Independence, for which the film’s star Mel Gibson, was rewarded $25 million to act out a series of gross falsehoods. Harrison Ford, to his credit, turned down the role.

Doubtless many film goers now believe that the British soldiers had a habit of herding colonists into churches and burning them alive. Apart from showing the wrong oppressors, the wrong victims, the wrong century and the wrong war in the wrong country, it is remarkably accurate. The producer, Mark Gordon, said the team “tried their best to be as authentic as possible”, which only makes one wonder what they would be capable of coming up otherwise—perhaps King George III launching a Trident missile towards Lexington.

The Battle of Lexington, Hollywood style, collage by Charles Thomson.

The film Zulu is recognised not only as a classic but also as sticking fairly closely to the truth. I can forgive the gleaming white pith helmets (which would actually have been stained with tea or coffee) for the visual effect on top of red tunics, and even the fictitious singsong at the end between mutually respecting opponents, but what sticks in my craw is the depiction of private Henry Hook as a drunken rogue made good, whereas in real life he was a disciplined military man and hero of the utmost probity.

The film makers claimed the depiction was necessary for dramatic purposes. Hook’s elderly daughters had their own dramatic purpose, when they walked out of the film’s premiere in disgust. The truth of Hook’s character would have been different, but just as dramatic and far more moving. The dire predicament of about 150 soldiers attacked by 3,000-4,000 Zulus provides quite enough drama by itself.

Superficial and unrealistic violence as cheap entertainment is the worst of all, when fighters slug it out with minimal facial damage or someone is machine gunned with a token splash of blood (or often none at all). In contrast, the acclaimed opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan goes some way to depicts the real horror of war with the wet, red stump of a blown-off limb. That is justified and informative of reality.

When fictional Mafia boss Tony Soprano opens New York mobster Salvatore “Coco” Cogliano’s jaw on a ledge and stomps on the back of his head, it brings home the visceral and repulsive violence of that world, as bloody teeth skid across the floor. In contrast, Quentin Tarantino’s operas of violence come across as repulsive fantasy indulgences. It would benefit society to ban such things, but this contradicts my aversion to censorship.

Perhaps a solution is that reached by the British government over cigarettes, which cannot be advertised, may only be stocked in shops behind a screen, and whose packets carry a mandatory health warning. I can see something comparable working for films, along with a requirement for major inaccuracies to be pointed out, perhaps at the end of the film, as determined by a panel of historians.

There are excellent YouTube videos providing accurate historical analyses of feature films. These could be tacked onto the end of their targets. Film goers would be free to leave before seeing them, in case the reality spoiled the Hollywood experience for them. Conversely, those who stayed would gain a proper understanding, and proper understandings are always good.

Flimsy depictions of the effects of violence could end with a documentary section showing what the real effects would have been on the protagonists.  An interview with a front line medic or a hospital casualty doctor or nurse would be salutary, backed up with footage of their patients at various stages of treatment.

What is the point of The Wicker Man? An allegory of paranoid schizophrenia perhaps. It’s certainly a grimly effective portrayal of engrossing and mounting suspicion and fear, if you like that kind of thing, which it’s probably apparent by now that I don’t, certainly not as entertainment in my leisure time.

I like things that explore, reveal and communicate the reality of what used to be called the human condition. I like to feel that in some way I have a deeper perception of reality and understanding of myself and others. The Wicker Man fails lamentably, especially as I simply don’t believe it. I am simultaneously tense with alarm and scoffing at the preposterousness of it.

It fails the Booker test of a complete process, as it finishes in mid-crisis with the burning effigy. It fails to reach resolution, which would certainly be an imminent heavy police presence searching for their now-charred colleague and very soon making mass arrests with consequent life imprisonment for the wicked lord, amongst others. Somehow that would take most of the fun out of it.

It would also take the fun out of it to show the long term psychological damage which would afflict at least some of the participants in, and witnesses of, the horror. Here I defer to Joe Machine, who, from the age of five or six, helped in his father’s amusement arcade on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent and, as previously mentioned, witnessed gruesome fights outside the pub opposite.

Bar Fight in the Seahorse Saloon 1981 by Joe Machine.

A typical example was between two men, one of whom emitted a “terrible, involuntary scream”, as a glass was broken under his eye, slashing his cheek open to expose the bone underneath, as blood flooded his face.

As a result of such sights, Joe suffered PTSD, feeling vulnerable and afraid, as well as suffering nightmares that he was going to die, for years afterwards. Over four decades later, he still sees the scenes in nightmares once or twice a year. Sometimes they arise spontaneously, when he is awake.

This has given him an interesting take on The Wicker Man: “I love the film because of its strangeness from the 1970s. I  watch it every May Day. It’s lightweight compared to what I’d seen in reality. It’s just a film. It’s fraudulent. It’s fake. TV can’t replicate the noise, the fear, the violence. My life was at risk and my parents’ lives were at risk.”

I will end with a comment from another artist and friend, Abby Jackson, about the hapless incinerated sergeant: “The last scene made me cry. He really believed that God would save him.”

Charles Thomson is co-founder of The Stuckists.