Robin Hardy?s The Wicker Man has long been held up as a horror classic, despite the director?s bold choice to eschew gore in favour of, well, extended sequences of folk music. Still, for all its odd stylistic choices, it remains an extraordinarily powerful film ? due largely to a central conflict that sets Edward Woodward?s devoutly Christian policeman against the pagan society of Summerisle, bringing that conflict to an insightful and horrifying conclusion.
What happens in The Wicker Man
At the start of the film, Neil Howie, played by Edward Woodward, is drawn to the private island of Summerisle by an anonymous tip about a missing girl. When he arrives, he discovers a society that has returned to a cheerful paganism, and reacts with predictable horror. He?s not much of a hero, really. He?s stuffy, stuck in his ways, contemptuous of those who are different from him. He calls a class of children ?detestable little liars?, he scowls at the patrons in the bar for singing lewd songs, and he tells off just about everyone he meets for their abandonment of Christianity. And so in response, the villagers first deceive him entirely, then express bemusement and finally outright hostility towards him ? and, really, who could blame them?
Howie simply doesn?t understand the villagers? beliefs at all. He?s appalled by the fact that they teach the children about the Maypole as a phallic symbol and that there?s a bunch of naked women jumping over a fire outside Christopher Lee?s manor; he?s dismayed that the church on the island has been shut down and there hasn?t been a minister in recent memory. In more than one scene he?s seen praying on his bed, desperately trying to stay strong. But although he?s stuck up and pompous, it?s not hard to imagine yourself being similarly dismissive if you were in his place ? although perhaps you might not be so blunt about it.
For all of this, though, it?s the ending where this conflict comes to the fore. Captured by the villagers, standing before a great Wicker Man, a tied and bound Howie desperately pleads for his life. First he appeals to reason, making a desperate attempt to persuade them that their beliefs are ludicrous: ?killing me won?t bring back your apples!? Then he tells them they?ll be murderers, to which they shrug their shoulders. And then, finally, he tells them that if their sacrifice fails, they?ll have to repeat it next year ? and Christopher Lee smiles and tells him ?it won?t fail.?
You can see the logic of his comments, but they can?t. Because they believe otherwise.
That?s one of the things The Wicker Man dramatises most brilliantly: in the face of strong belief, Howie?s arguments just don?t work. They believe that making a sacrifice will save their crops; Howie does not. Nothing he says is going to change their view.
After making his arguments, Howie eventually seems to realise they?re in vain. And so, once his reasoning fails, he argues instead for the supremacy of his religion. ?I am a Christian, and I believe in the resurrection,? he tells Christopher Lee?s Lord Summerisle, trying to stay calm. ?It is I who will live again, and not your damned apples.? Then, after he?s listened to Howie?s speech and given him a patronising smile, Summerisle motions to a villager who hauls the man over his shoulder and dumps him in a cage in the Wicker Man?s chest. The film?s climax shows Howie sitting, in tears, inside the burning Wicker Man, pleading to God for his soul while the villagers watch, before their hearty song of ?Summer is icumen in? drowns out his desperate cries of ?Oh God! Oh Christ!?
The film?s climax
It is utterly chilling.
Of course, we never see whether their crops grow. The film ends on the sun setting below the horizon. Because who can say which of them is right? Howie believes wholly that he will be raised again, that the Christian God is with him, and has lived his life accordingly. The villagers of Summerisle believe likewise; that the world will follow its patterns, that the cycle of death and rebirth is visible everywhere, and that a perfect sacrifice will bring back their crops. Each party has their reasons for those beliefs, and each is unwilling to accept they might be wrong.
Faith, experience, dialogue (and death)
There?s an insight there: faith rests on our experiences. You believe because you?ve seen certain things, because you interpret events in a particular way. That makes the idea of evangelism, of trying to spread your faith, an interesting concept. How should you do it, if at all? Do you try and create chinks in the plausibility of people?s beliefs, to try and open their minds? Do you listen and accept they might be right, thus putting your own faith at risk? Do you stubbornly assert what you think is right, no matter who it offends?
There?s not an easy answer to those questions, as the ending to the Wicker Man shows. Maybe Howie is right, and his death is a martyr?s death, or maybe there?s an alternative ending that shows him being willing to listen and watching some other poor chump being burned alive. Whatever the case, they?re important questions to ask, especially these days. No matter what it is we believe in, are we willing to let those beliefs be challenged? And if not, then when we face people whose views are fundamentally opposed to ours, will somebody always have to be sacrificed to make us happy?