Weekly Feature

Fire dancers torch a Wicker Man in the
Wickerman Festival

The Wicker Man: May Day Mayhem Onscreen

May 01, 2009
by Amy Goldschlager
Celtic pagans traditionally celebrated the fertility festival of Beltane, or May Day, on May 1. What better time, then, to take a close look at the 1973 May Day cult horror film “The Wicker Man”?

The World of "The Wicker Man"

The 1973 film “The Wicker Man” stars Edward Woodward, perhaps best known to Americans as the star of the 1980s TV series “The Equalizer,” and Christopher Lee, the villain of many a Hammer movie. Woodward plays Sgt. Neil Howie, a zealously Christian policeman who travels to the remote Scottish island of Summerisle in search of a missing girl, Rowan Morrison. Once there, he is shocked to discover that the islanders are devout pagans. All of them claim that Rowan doesn’t exist, and in any case, they are far too busy preparing for their May Day celebrations to be of any assistance in Howie’s investigation. The more Howie learns about Rowan’s disappearance, the more he becomes convinced she suffered some sinister fate, a fate that may be reaching out for him as well.
The production did not go entirely smoothly. Although the movie is set in spring, it was actually filmed in early fall, and the actors worked under extremely chilly conditions. Swedish actress Britt Ekland, who took the pivotal role of the landlord's daughter, couldn't quite manage a Scottish accent; both her speaking and her singing voice were dubbed. In addition, two body doubles were used during her famous seductive dance scene. But both Woodward and Lee (as Howie's nemesis, Lord Summerisle) turned in exceptionally compelling performances.
The fan site Wicker-man.com provides exhaustive coverage of the 1973 movie, including information on filming locations, cast interviews and a PDF transcription of a very detailed 1977 Cinefantastique article.
The soundtrack of “The Wicker Man” is vital to establishing the film’s atmosphere and highlighting the action. American singer/songwriter Paul Giovanni melded traditional folk music and lyrics with original words and compositions; he can be seen performing the songs in the film. Listen to soundtrack samples on Last.fm.

The Fate of "The Wicker Man"

During the making of the film, the production company, British Lion, underwent a change of management, and the new bosses were not enthusiastic about the project. Marketing efforts were lackluster, and a series of edits were made to the film.

“The Wicker Man” was not a commercial success during its initial release in 1974, but as the years passed, the film began to gather fans, who clamored to see a longer version of the film. Unfortunately, by that time, several of the cut scenes had disappeared. In addition, many of the remaining scenes integrated into the so-called "director's cut" were not of the best quality. Nevertheless, the additional scenes do add considerable clarity to the plot and add a richer texture to the film.
In 2006, Neil LaBute, a respected stage and screen director ("In the Company of Men"; "Your Friends & Neighbors") remade "The Wicker Man" with Nicolas Cage in the lead role. Substantial changes were made to the plot, and the film opened to less-than-stellar reviews. As a reviewer for the CBC put it, “The Wicker Man’s long journey through the decades and across the ocean has led somewhere no one could have predicted, or wanted.”

May Day and Celtic Pagan Traditions

The 1973 film takes place during the celebration of May Day, or Beltane, a Celtic pagan fertility festival. The rites of the festival reach their climax in the film with a human sacrifice trapped inside a large figure constructed of wicker and set on fire. According to Julius Caesar, Celtic priests, known as druids, commonly performed such sacrifices. There is no archeological evidence to support his claim, although the druids apparently did practice other forms of human sacrifice. The image of the wicker man has certainly had a powerful effect on the imagination over the centuries, and some modern pagans do celebrate May Day by burning a wicker man (minus the human sacrifice).

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