1973’s The Wicker Man is a film that tends to divide opinion amongst viewers along the lines of love/hate. Some claim that not only is it Britain’s greatest horror movie, but its greatest movie of any genre. Others say it is not a horror movie at all, and some would happily take every copy of the film and bury it in a landfill, which, according to one of the many myths surrounding the film, actually happened to the ‘director’s cut’ now apparently to be found somewhere deep under the M3 motorway. This is just one of the distracting stories that appear in Allan Brown’s recently updated book Inside The Wicker Man which is tellingly subtitled ‘How Not to Make a Cult Classic’.
The book details the life and times of an extraordinary movie, from the film’s genesis as an adaptation of David Pinner’s cult 1967 novel The Ritual by writer Anthony Shaffer (who had seen his last screenplay Sleuth, a 1972 film starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine become a surprise hit), to its current status as one of the most talked about films of the 1970s. What drives both the film and the book is Shaffer’s dysfunctional relationship with the first time director Robin Hardy. The general feeling that comes through from all of those involved (except, unsurprisingly, Hardy) is summarised by Christopher Lee who says that Shaffer’s script was the best that he ever read, so good that even Hardy’s haphazard direction failed to destroy the writer’s vision. Hardy comes across as a man out of his depth and reliant on the talent of others, but he has had, and continues to have, an important role in the tale of The Wicker Man.
Lee is the other central character in this tale. In the early seventies he was determined to shed the constricting cloak of Dracula and for people to regard him as he regarded himself; one of England’s greatest screen actors. He fought not only for the film to be made, but offered to pay critics to see it. He believes that his role as Lord Summerisle (see above) is his greatest screen performance. This is put into perspective as he claims that his second greatest was as Dr Catheter in Gremlins 2: A New Batch. I’m hoping that this is an example of a bone dry sense of humour, but I’m not sure it is. What is obvious is that The Wicker Man would not be what it is without Lee.
The detail that Allan Brown goes into is impressive, and all the main player’s points of view are represented. This, while thorough, means that the reader is often left to come to their own conclusions as to the truth of the matter, such as how Britt Eckland really felt about the use of a body double for her ‘dance’ scenes (she was apparently more annoyed that her voice had been dubbed in the final film), or to what extent the film’s iconic final scene was down to a vigilant cameraman rather than a directorial flourish. It is the making of the film that provides the most involving and instructive anecdotes. The book dips in interest as it nears the end, probably because success is rarely as entertaining as struggle to avoid failure, but like the film it delivers a powerful ending in the form of the various appendices. Here Brown details the staging of the film, various reviews of the film, the cast and crew and, most interestingly, Anthony Shaffer’s treatment for a sequel which is set immediately after the first film. It could have been the most bonker’s film ever made, (although that title was grabbed for good in 2006; see below), but it is fascinating to see how Shaffer saw the story progressing.
This is a book that is not only for fans of the film, but for fans of all film, especially if you have thoughts of making one. It is a great guide as to what can go wrong in the making, publicising and distributing of a film. It also shows that a film which has not been initially well received can still be a success when it is reassessed and discovered by future cineastes. The Wicker Man has, in popular parlance, been on a journey from second billing on a double bill with Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, to being voted the sixth greatest British film in Total Film Magazine, and had respected periodical Cinefantastique calling it ‘the Citizen Kane of horror movies’. Even then it is a film that cannot be simply labelled a ‘horror’ movie. As this book so expertly explains, it is so much more than that.
And what of the film itself? It may be a case of putting the cart before the horse but I’m going to be looking at The Wicker Man as the next ‘You Have Been Watching…’, and it will appear on these pages over the next couple of days. Just so we are clear, it will be the 1973 original, but in 2006 Neil LaBute, director of critically appreciated films such as In The Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbours, teamed up with Nicholas Cage (Oscar winner, lest we forget) to remake The Wicker Man and set it in the Pacific North West of America. Brown deals with this in a chapter in his book, but suffice to say here it is one of the most risible pieces of movie making in the early part of this century, against quite a lot of competition. Losing a lot of the clash of religious ideology that is central to the success of the original, it appears to be a comment on the emasculation of modern man, and,of course, it blames the women for this state of affairs. LaBute had successfully dealt with questions of misogyny and gender roles in the black comedies mentioned above, but this is only funny if viewed as the broadest of slapstick and farce. Here are some of the film’s ‘best bits’ which back up this point of view:
Allan Brown’s next book is a biography of The Blue Nile called Nileism: The Strange Course of The Blue Nile. As those of you who’ve been reading Scots Whay Hae! for a long time will know, this makes me very excited. It is due to be published in September so expect a review on these pages soon.