Year: 1973
Director: Robin Hardy
Writer: Anthony Shaffer
Starring: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland


“Flesh to touch… Flesh to burn!” shrieks the film’s original poster. “A totally corrupt shocker.” Generally categorised as a horror film, aside from the fiery finale of the titular figure it’s actually a rather genteel pastoral mystery. But the copywriters knew the film’s selling point: its deeply appealing, transgressive sexuality. The poster’s foreground features pin-up pussycat Britt Ekland, her naked back promising tits and titillation for those who shell out the admission. In this respect The Wicker Man fails to disappoint; like Stealing Beauty, the film is imbued with a wonderful sense of shamelessly sexuality.

The Wicker Man’s director was Robin Hardy, then and now a relative unknown who somehow failed to reap the success of his own film. Aside from Ekland, it features Edward Woodward—famous at the time for the downbeat BBC spy series Callan—in the lead role of Sergeant Howie, a Scottish policeman who visits a remote isle in search of a missing girl, and Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle, the island’s benevolent dictator. Woodward steals the film as the devout and sexless Howie; crammed into the tightest possible police uniform, his pent-up frustration—professional and sexual—is wonderfully palpable as the locals give him the run-around. But the backbone of the film’s success is the screenplay by Anthony Shaffer that takes aim at the conflict between Howie’s prudish Christianity and Summerisle’s sex-embracing paganism, hitting its mark to terrific effect. In this regard Summerisle can be seen as the prototype of a society that genuinely accepts human sexuality; modern society may consider itself sexually liberated but the films in Parts I and II of Sexcatraz provide ample evidence of the opposite.

The film begins with Sergeant Howie returning to the Scottish mainland in his seaplane after visiting some outlying islands. Howie’s puritanical streak is the source of great mirth among his underlings. The long-haired PC McTaggart teasingly advises that nothing serious has occurred during the sergeant’s absence: “Just the usual: rape, sodomy, sacrilege… you know.” But something more serious is in the offing: an anonymous letter reveals that a twelve-year-old girl has gone missing on Summerisle, a remote island noted (in McTaggart’s eyes) for its apples and (in Howie’s) for a lack of licensing laws. “However, this is still clearly a law-abiding Christian country,” Howie asserts with a hope that will prove false. And with that he wings his way into enemy territory to evocative shots of the Scottish isles and the equally affecting folk music of Paul Giovanni.

The Wicker Man

Arriving on Summerisle, Sergeant Howie soon finds himself chasing a ghost as no one has seen “hide nor hair” of the missing girl. He finds no apples either: all exported. He is served canned vegetables on an island famous for its produce. Another thing missing is the pub’s photograph of the previous year’s harvest festival. What Howie does find is a sex-soaked atmosphere, beginning with a ribald song about the generosity of the landlord’s daughter (Willow MacGregor, played by Ekland)—and it’s not her purse that’s easily opened. Finding the pub a mite sweaty, Howie goes for a breath of air. He glimpses half-dressed women fondling each other and a naked woman crying on a grave, evoking the ancient association of sex with death, in both its big and little varieties.

Wincing under the assault of all this moral degeneracy, Howie flees to his room at the pub—only to be kept awake by Willow’s orgiastic moans as she beds a young man sent to her for sexual initiation by the benevolent Lord Summerisle. In contrast to Sergeant Howie, who has a lifelong fear of sex, the young man initiated with noisy abandon by Willow—fulfilling the once-honoured role of the Sacred Prostitute—is joyfully guided through this critical rite of passage into adult sexuality, thanks to a sex-positive society that not only recognises but celebrates the contribution to the community’s wellbeing of those who perform Willow’s task. It’s a far cry from the Pingot sisters in À Ma Soeur!, abandoned to grope their way into sexually active adulthood by various emotionally damaging means, or even from Lucy in Stealing Beauty who must work her way through a laundry-list of suitors before finding one worthy of her opening her legs.

Beneath the window where Willow performs her initiation, Lord Summerisle waxes lyrical about the sexual egalitarianism of the animal kingdom to a pair of copulating snails. In direct contrast, our sex-negative society floods its teenagers with images of sexual permissiveness while simultaneously washing its hands of any genuine sex education—particularly the mechanics of sexual shame revealed in Sexcatraz. Our young men blunder into adult sexuality, feeling an implicit nervousness around sex from that lack of education, where they are expected to be instantly qualified at satisfying women. The pressure and fear of sexual inadequacy this creates can be devastating. And we wonder why so many men exhibit the symptoms of sexual shame, from porn addiction and voyeurism to erectile dysfunction to premature ejaculation. If only they were educated on Summerisle…

The next day brings the beleaguered Sergeant Howie no respite. Children dance around a maypole, singing a cyclical fertility song. In class, with the flat delivery of a maths teacher intoning nothing more salacious than “two plus two equals four,” Diane Cilento’s schoolmarm instructs her young charges that the maypole is “the image of the penis.” An appalled Howie threatens to charge the teacher with the corruption of innocents, a term as medieval as his attitude. But, at last, a clue: the missing girl’s name in the school register. En masse, the islanders’ story changes: oh yes, that’s right, she died.

The Wicker Man

Incensed, Howie descends on Lord Summerisle. On the way he sees nubile girls dancing naked around standing stones, another collision between sex and divinity that the poor sergeant finds most disturbing. Howie’s pent-up feelings explode when Summerisle has the temerity to suggest that his people are “deeply religious.” “Religious?” Howie froths as he hounds Summerisle across the room. “With ruined churches… no ministers, no priests—and children dancing naked?” Summerisle smiles and tinkles a piano as the girls frolic outside (in the same skin-coloured shifts as Reese Witherspoon in The Man in the Moon, just in case you’re worried): “They do love their divinity lesson.” Howie rails uselessly against the serene disposition of Lord Summerisle: “Do sit down, Sergeant. Shocks are much easier absorbed with the knees bent.”

But it takes more than a March hare to put off the redoubtable Sergeant Howie. His quest slowly becomes about exorcising Summerisle’s bacchanalian paganism as much as finding the girl. He breaks into the photographer’s store and locates the absent harvest picture: tables barren of offerings surround the missing girl. Heavy-handed flashbacks ram home Howie’s realisation that Summerisle’s crops have failed and the girl is still alive—to be sacrificed at the morrow’s May Day feast. Howie will need a clear head to rescue her.

Once again, Willow will deny him. As lilting folk music wafts up the pub’s stairs, Willow lies naked on the bed, tapping on Howie’s wall to the rhythm of the song: fuck me if you dare. Willow and Howie both rise from their beds and amble, zombie-like, towards their respective doors. The missing girl’s fate—and with it Howie’s eternal soul—hangs in the balance. Willow caresses her own breasts as she increases the hypnotic pull of her spell. But, even in this unusually sex-positive film, shame lurks in the background.

The Wicker Man

As Howie wrestles with the doorknob to keep his door closed (the knob metaphor is obvious), there’s a full-length shot of Willow writhing naked against her own door—except that the actress isn’t Britt Ekland; it’s a body double. The cuts between the mid-shot of Ekland and the full-length view of the double are rough, the latter seemingly pickups filmed on another day; Ekland’s dance is more inhibited than that of her doppelganger. Why did Ekland find it acceptable to reveal her breasts but not her backside, with the tantalising glimpse between the legs her nameless double offers? Someone—be it Ekland, her agent, or some producer—stipulated that here was a boundary that couldn’t be crossed[1]. It is the threshold of shame. Even in our attempts to portray societies free of sexual repression the weight of our prevailing covenants exerts a profoundly censoring effect.

None of this helps Sergeant Howie. Pinned to the wall, he sweats profusely as he listens to Willow slapping her peachy buttocks, a few bare inches of masonry all that separates him from her willing flesh. But the servants of the cross are stubborn. Howie reels from the wall, breaking out of the force field of Willow’s sex magick. He stumbles to his bed where, like Dani Trant in The Man in the Moon, he can barely contain the nausea stemming from his transgressive lust for Willow.

The next day, Howie makes for his seaplane to summon reinforcements only for the trap to spring shut on the unfortunate sergeant: the seaplane’s engine won’t start and its radio has been sabotaged. Isolated in every conceivable sense, he embarks on a wild goose-chase as the islanders assemble their pagan regalia for the May Day procession. Howie undertakes a house-to-house search that leads through a boudoir where Ingrid Pitt’s librarian wallows naked in a tub. The librarian feels no shame about being intruded upon. To the contrary: her face showing only mild curiosity, she moves her arm to fully reveal her breasts to Howie, who mumbles an apology and stumbles out, a strong man rendered impotent by the mere sight of a woman’s body.

His search as fruitless as the orchards of Summerisle, Howie infiltrates the harvest procession by knocking out the landlord and donning his Punch outfit. Writer Anthony Shaffer’s choice of Punch is beautifully ironic: all along Howie has been the fool who is king for a day—“And who but a fool would do that,” Cilento’s schoolteacher sagely observes. Now he is dressed accordingly.

The Wicker Man

Led by Lord Summerisle, with Lee having a whale of a time, the procession leads the disguised Sergeant Howie—along with the audience—on a merry caper. First it’s to the standing stones, where six swordsmen symbolically decapitate a virgin. Then it’s to the beach, where kegs of ale are offered to the sea-gods. And then there she is: the missing girl, dressed as a sacrificial virgin, tied to a stake. Howie rushes to free the girl and flees with her into a network of caves. The islanders mount a lackadaisical chase.

The girl leads Howie out of the caves onto a headland only to find Lord Summerisle and the swordsmen waiting. The girl—who was never missing—returns to her mother’s embrace, her part played to the hilt. Howie is speechless. “Welcome, Fool,” intones Lord Summerisle. “You have come of your own free will to the appointed place.” Howie is stripped, cleansed and dressed in white by the divine feminine trinity of Ekland, Cilento and Pitt. Though ostensibly May Day, the scene was shot in frigid mid-winter: Woodward’s skin is almost translucent with the cold.

Howie becomes a Christ-like figure, a king without a kingdom. The islanders are his Romans, Lord Summerisle his Pontius Pilate. “Come,” purrs Summerisle-as-Pilate, “it is time to keep your appointment with the wicker man.” Howie is led to the top of the headland. Horror fills his face as he glimpses something as yet unseen by the audience. And then we see it: the wicker man, a humanoid figure some thirty feet high, all wood and straw, ready to burn, just as the poster promised. A ladder leads to a cell-like compartment in the figure’s midriff.

The closing sequence is truly chilling, shattering the pastoral idyll that has enveloped the film so far, as Howie is caged in the wicker man alongside a plethora of bleating livestock. From inside his cage Howie rails with biblical fervour. Torches flare the hungry hay. A silver band strikes a jaunty tune. The cries of the soon-to-be-barbequed livestock rise in alarm. The wicker man—and Howie with it—burns. His lone rendering of ‘The Lord is My Shepherd’ is lost amongst the bleating of frightened sheep and the massed voices of the enraptured islanders. One expects a chorus of ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ at any moment. Howie disappears into the flames as dusk envelops Summerisle. The wicker man’s burning head topples as the bloody orb of the sun falls towards the horizon. Hardy and his crew only got one take but it’s fabulous.

The Wicker Man

Whatever one’s view of the relative merits of Christianity and Shaffer’s pick ‘n’ mix paganism, in The Wicker Man it’s clear that Summerisle’s pagans are a lot more relaxed, have a lot more fun—and, not coincidentally, a lot more sex—than Sergeant Howie, late of the Western Highlands Police. One leaves the cinema hoping that his sacrifice will indeed renew the crops on Summerisle.

The Wicker Man rapidly became a cult favourite[2]. It is revered with the kind of fervour usually reserved for sci-fi and fantasy epics such as Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Imaginary worlds all of them, worlds their fans wish they could inhabit. Worlds that offer something the contemporary one does not; or where something contemporary is absent. What is it about The Wicker Man that places it in such rarefied company? Shaffer’s screenplay is excellent. Hardy’s direction is understated. The editing of the director’s cut, salvaged from prints of varying quality, is uneven. Woodward and Lee are fine throughout. Ekland contributes a pretty face, pert breasts and little else.

Yet, somehow, The Wicker Man’s many small failings only increase the sum of its parts. In the final analysis, is it not the nurturing, sex-positive culture of Summerisle that fires the imagination? What young man would not like to be taken to a Willow for practical sex instruction, knowing he will be guided every step of the way until he is proficient? (“I don’t think I’ve got the hang of position 33, Willow. Can we do it again?”) What young woman wouldn’t like to frolic naked in a sunlit garden with her friends and—most importantly—with a complete absence of shame about her body? You can be sure there’s no Page 3 in the Summerisle Gazette as all the men enjoy satisfying sex lives and have no interest in topless pictures of Nikki from Bournemouth. The Wicker Man highlights the gulf between the sexually impoverished, uptight, perverted, voyeuristic, emotionally destructive, patriarchal social structure we are currently imprisoned in and the sexually abundant, relaxed, shame-free society that lies beyond Sexcatraz—and leaves many of us craving the latter.

The Wicker Man is unusual—and perhaps unrealistic—in portraying a community that is sexually open yet still overseen by a patriarch. Very few films have explored what sexual mores might be like in a truly matriarchal community[3]. One such film is Marleen Gorris’ offbeat multi-generational comedy Antonia’s Line, winner of the 1995 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.


Start: Sexcatraz Pt. 1 – Welcome to Sexcatraz
Previous: Sexcatraz Pt. 46 – Stealing Beauty
Next: Sexcatraz Pt. 48 – Antonia’s Line


Footnotes

[1] Ekland was reputedly pregnant at the time. That a film which embraces nudity, open sexuality and pagan fertility rites cannot show a pregnant woman naked is both highly ironic and an indicator of our shame.

[2] The burnt stumps of the wicker man at Burrow Head in Scotland were a place of pilgrimage for fans until they were stolen in 2006.

[3] According to anthropologist Joan Bamberger, there is little evidence that any truly matriarchal societies have ever existed. In societies where women have access to power they typically share it with men. An example comes from the Cayuga tribe, part of the Iroquois nation. Only men represented the tribe at the Iroquois Great Council, but only the women were permitted to choose those men.

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