“The Wickerman” (1973) is one of the great cult classics of cinema, it’s mesmerising imagery, enchanting soundtrack and representation of a modern heathen community has enraptured numerous devotees (not least nostalgic Gen Xers like your author, who see in the dancing maypole children, vanished versions of themselves) as well as serving as an introduction and Aesthetic model for much Neo- Paganism, with many drawn to it’s ritualistic celebration of nature, sex, death and rebirth. Though rich in horror, “The Wickerman” is not a horror film per se but more of “a mystery wrapped in an enigma”, a film that both celebrates and condemns a moral universe free of Christianity (notably Christianity’s inheritance of Greek philosophy and Roman Law), one that beautifies free love fertility rites, commonality and nature worship but warns against naivety, unreason and collective barbarism.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS TO THE WICKERMAN
Following the receipt of an anonymous note concerning the disappearance of a young girl (Rowan), police Sergeant Neil Howie visits a remote Scottish Island (Summerisle), renowned for its apples but otherwise secluded from the outside World. The islanders, under the jurisdiction of Lord Summerise, practice a form of paganism and enjoy a bawdy lifestyle which horrifies the devoutly Christian Howie. The residents seem evasive and unconcerned with regards to the missing girl and consistently stonewall Howie’s investigation. Visiting the local library, Howie reads of ancient pagan practices and becomes convinced that Rowan has not been murdered but is being held captive for the purpose of ritual sacrifice. With Mayday, and its attendant celebrations fast approaching, Howie races against time to find Rowan, only to learn that it is he who is the intended victim, being both pure (a virgin), and an authority (King For A Day) and that he has been manipulated every step of the way, even so far as to deliver himself to the hillside Wickerman and his own doom.
A HEBRIDEAN EDEN
Summerisle’s tight-knit community share an ageless lifestyle rich with song, ritual and folk remedies, their belief system reflecting an interconnected ecology where the cycles of nature are observed and maintained in seemingly perfect balance. The Island, economically dependant upon it’s famed apples, has just had a disastrous harvest, and it’s organic relationship with nature is called into question when Summerisle discloses to Howie that it’s crops are the result of agrarian innovations by his grandfather and that such produce is not native to the habitat. Whether the Islanders, who Summerisle tells us were starving before his grandfather’s interventions, are aware of the true source of their “natural” bounty remains unclear.
A form of fertility worship prevails on the island and sex is openly celebrated, with children dancing around maypoles, girls leaping naked over fires and couples, in consecration of the death/birth cycle, copulating in a graveyard. The latter scene includes an unsettling detail; One woman, naked and crying, embraces the tombstone of a presumably deceased loved one, suggesting that the concept of love on Summerisle, though rich in Eros, is lacking in Agape. To be reborn as a hare or a tree is a charming abstract idea but offers little consolation to those bereaved, carrying no hope of reunification in an afterlife.
Also, the amatory couple’s indifference to this woman’s plight indicates a lack of compassion and empathy, perhaps fitting to a moral code that encompasses ritualistic killing; Summerisle’s comment (before Howie’s sacrifice) “a small child is even better” indicates that such behaviour is neither alien nor unacceptable to the islanders. The question is, do they believe their harvest to be dependant upon a supernatural or scientific process? Is the sacrifice in propitiation to the God Of The Fields, Lord Summerisle or simply a fearful mob’s desire to scapegoat?
HOWIE & SUMMERISLE; DUAL/DUEL
Sergeant Howie is one of the most unlikely and perhaps unlikable cinematic heroes, a humourless authoritarian with a fixed and strident moral code whose tactless priggishness is played in sharp contrast to the ribald playful islanders and the witty charming Summerisle.
A strict Presbyterian, Howie is as appalled by the open sexuality of the islanders as by their beliefs, not to mention their lack of concern for Rowan. His piety is exemplified by his rejecting the advances of the delectable Willow and his religious zeal has him castigating the creed of the Islanders (i.e. rudely smashing a shrine and fashioning a rudimentary cross in its stead). Unflinchingly certain of his own correctness he makes concessions to neither the islanders nor the audience.
Howie’s manner and morality was perhaps already jarring in the 1970’s, but his intolerance and judgementalism put him very much at odds with the post- sexual revolution ethos and culture of pluralism. However, whether we like him or not, Howie has conviction, defying consensus by speaking his truth, maintaining integrity in the face of temptation and stress, and exhibiting great courage; after discovering his plane has been tampered with, and fearing the absolute worst in regards to the islander’s intentions, his priority remains Rowan’s (and not his own) safety. Perhaps we, the audience, in the face of Howie’s rectitude and aware of our own comparatively lax mores and untested valour feel an affinity to the Islander’s latitude (human sacrifice aside) which, unlike Howie, asks little of us.
Lord Summerisle is initially a more appealing character, debonair, handsome and humorous, who relishes in ruffling Howie’s feathers. Where Howie is censorious, stiff and unsmiling, Summerisle is graceful, agreeable and (aristocratic status notwithstanding) actively engaged with the Islanders, singing suggestive songs with school mistress Miss Rose, playing the teaser in the mayday parade and presenting a youth to Willow for the purpose of sexual initiation. This latter scene introduces Summerisle as a liege deeply involved in, and subtly in control of, the Island’s life. Conversing with Howie, Summerisle discloses that his grandfather “gave” the islanders their old Gods in exchange for their fidelity but “what my grandfather began out of expediency, my father continued out of love. He brought me up the same way – to reverence the music and the drama of the rituals of the old Gods. To love nature and to fear it and to rely on it and to appease it when necessary “.
There is little doubt that Summerilse delights in all facets of the Island’s pagan practices, but his own belief system is ambiguous; during the aforementioned youth’s sexual initiation Summerisle recites a passage from Walt Whitman’s “Song Of Myself”; “ I think I could turn and live with animals…they do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, they do not make me sick discussing their duty to God”,. This indicates an affinity with the “freethinking” scientism of his grandfather, and a persuasion that is arguably less pagan as it is anti- Christian/Abrahamic/Monotheistic.
At the film’s denouement Summerisle promises the doomed Howie “a rare gift…a martyr’s death. You will not only have life eternal, but you will sit with the saints among the elect”. This is a curious passage as it’s tone of reverence and gravity is antithetical to the previously glib and mocking manner taken with Howie. It is unlikely that this is to reassure and/or forestall a (surely futile) escape attempt – Could it be that, like Howie, this is what Summerisle himself believes? Summerisle’s faith in in the efficacy of the sacrifice is itself questionable; when Howie, pleading for reason (“Think! Think Of What You’re Doing”!) and citing the artificial nature of the Island’s crop production, states that further harvests would fail, ensuring additional blood sacrifices, “and next year, no one less than the King of Summerisle himself will do”, the camera cuts briefly to Summerisle’s fearful face, suggesting he knows this to be true, and that he no more believes in the “God Of The Fields” as does Howie.
ET IN ARCADIA….
We can surmise that, as it stands, the island is doomed; whether through authorities searching for the missing Howie, or further bad harvests and blood sacrifices, Summerisle’s is an unsustainable World, artificially constructed and maintained, a beautiful dream with occasional ghastly concessions to the nightmarish.
Summerisle nonetheless exerts a powerful allure, presenting an Arcadia that speaks to our need to bridge the sacred and earthly, a means by which we can weave ourselves into the cycles of nature, cheating death by joining a (relatively) eternal dance that celebrates itself every spring. This is a more reassuring idea than that of our eventual participation as refreshments for industrious worms and inevitably we look for greater depth than that offered by our graves. “The Wickerman” is a subtle intelligent masterpiece that invites us to consider this, as well as the nature of faith, deception, community and true sacrifice.