A burning passion that's close to worship

July 11, 2003

Edward Woodward was not the only one to get fired up by The Wicker Man. Olga Wojtas joins the academic debate about the cult horror movie.

Britt Ekland writhing naked in the cult horror movie The Wicker Man was for many men a memorable highlight of the early 1970s. But Gail Ashurst, an expert in film and gender studies at Staffordshire University, sees something rather different in that notorious scene. She observes that, far from being the victim of voyeurism, Ekland's character, Willow, challenges the spectator by frequently looking directly at the camera.

"The women are in control of their sexuality and flaunt it," she notes. The film, she concludes, was ahead of its time in its reversal of traditional gender roles.

Ashurst's observations will join a host of scholarly insights into the film as academics from a broad range of disciplines gather for the first international Wicker Man conference, to be held next week at Glasgow University's Crichton campus. When Edward Woodward, the star of the movie, travelled to a similar part of the world, his character Howie wound up being burnt alive in a climactic pagan sacrifice.

Robin Hardy, who directed the film 30 years ago, admits that he is surprised at the interest. "I'm slightly amazed, to tell you the truth," he says. "It being the subject of academia seems rather improbable."

There are no such misgivings among the academics. In fact, the conference organisers say The Wicker Man perfectly reflects the ethos of the Crichton campus, founded four years ago with a commitment to interdisciplinarity.

Accordingly, their invitation has attracted not only experts in film and media studies but historians, archaeologists, political philosophers, tourism researchers, theologians, anthropologists and ethnologists.

Much of the action, including the demise of the devoutly Christian police sergeant Howie, was filmed in rural Dumfries and Galloway, in which Crichton sits. The character pays a visit to a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl and comes to believe that she had been ritually murdered by the locals, led by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee in a kilt). But Howie's refusal to succumb to the blandishments of the luscious Willow condemns him to entrapment as the virgin sacrifice necessary for a successful harvest.

"It's not a received classic," admits one of the conference organisers, film historian Jonny Murray. "It's not Citizen Kane or La Règle du Jeu. People don't get overawed by its reputation and approach it like the villagers in the film, as an object of worship. They enjoy it.

It's stood the test of time because it's about ideas. It engages you on an intellectual level - it's about paganism, the clash between superstition and modernity, authority and sexuality."

Horror films are not generally hailed as intellectually stimulating. But there is disagreement among academics as to whether The Wicker Man belongs to that genre. Brigid Cherry, senior lecturer in media arts at St Mary's College, Surrey University, says it does, not only because of its capacity to disturb but also because of its isolated setting. A key theme of horror cinema and slasher films - seen, for example, in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - is that of a city person lost in the country.

"Rural culture represents a threat to the civilised order represented by the city. The character is stepping away from everything that is safe and secure about postmodern urban living," she says. "The film is told from the narrative point of view of Howie, a Christian officer of the law, entering a rural landscape. He's unable to read the map. The church is decayed, and he cannot read what he finds in the graveyard."

But Cherry confesses that many of her third-year students think it is "a strange musical", a view Durham University theologian Colin Crowder can understand. "It has some very cheesy early 1970s elements, including some terribly camp songs," he says. "Yet it attempts some quite serious questions of individual and group identity and ritual practice."

Crowder is particularly interested in the film's use of source material, notably Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough. The volume suggests that fire festivals retain a sinister edge because of their original links with ritual human sacrifice. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, a critic of Frazer, disagreed, suggesting that fire rituals were sinister because of an intrinsic element reflecting back on our own nature.

"What Wittgenstein is chewing over is how thin the veneer of civilisation is," Crowder says. " The Wicker Man imagines what it would be like to revive the presumed sacrificial origins of the Beltane fire and bring out the horror of the selection of the victim. Where the film resonates against the background of Wittgenstein's critique of Frazer is its sense of the ability to victimise. I get the impression that a lot of fans of the film often think Howie is the representative of an order that should be done away with and very much deserves what he gets." In fact, Crowder sees Howie as a tragic victim.

But he rejects a widespread view that The Wicker Man 's focus is the conflict between the Christian and pre-Christian. The two sides are not well enough balanced, he says: Howie's "priggish Christian copper" is an unsympathetic character, and there are no high-level debates on theological issues.

Director Hardy says he and scriptwriter Anthony Shaffer indulged in theological "badinage", such as Howie demanding to know how anyone could seriously believe that girls could make themselves fruitful by jumping over fires while Summerisle questions the concept of the Virgin Mary being impregnated by a ghost. "It was a sort of amusing, mildly intellectual game that, slightly to our surprise, was taken seriously by all sorts of people," he says.

"I must confess that my own thoughts when I was making the film were much more of a cautionary tale for people who were prepared to follow leaders into mass cults. The sort of Jonestown and Nuremberg Rally aspect when everyone sings joyfully as the poor man burns," he says.

The Golden Bough 's influence that so intrigues Crowder also interests Ashurst. In one scene, Howie visits a school to try to get information about the missing girl and finds a beetle tied to a nail inside her desk.

"It's not just for effect," Ashurst says. "It's sympathetic magic, meaning that Howie will not get off the island."

And then there are the foreskins. "In the chemist's shop, there's a jar with foreskins in it," she says. "Because it's quite a sexy, erotic film, you could be forgiven for thinking they've got sex on the brain. But taking it back to The Golden Bough, they would be used as a weather charm to induce rainfall."

Given the film's status, some of the academics stress that they are not cult followers. Murray says the early 1970s were the "absolute nadir" for British cinema, implying that the film's success is partly due to its not being as bad as everything else. "It's amazing just to have something as interesting and ambitious as The Wicker Man among the film versions of Are You Being Served?, The Sweeney and the Hammer horror 'lesbian brides of Dracula' territory."

But fellow organiser Stephen Harper is more robust in his defence of the film. He says many academics have been looking for an outlet for their interest in it. "It's a very self-consciously researched film," he says.

"Its explicit concern with anthropological themes and folklore seems to elicit high cultural readings. There are a lot of people who are really going to enjoy the experience of giving a valuable academic paper about something they're passionate about."

One such is Ashurst. As well as being an academic, on the verge of a move to Manchester Metropolitan University, she is editor of Nuada: The Wicker Man Journal, which she describes as a fanzine. "I first saw The Wicker Man when I was 16, and I felt straight away that I needed to watch it again," she says. "After a couple of viewings, I began to see a clever, well-made film. I got more and more involved in researching the myths that inform it. The more you watch it, the more angles it reveals."

Is this not straying into Trekkie territory? "There's a huge contrast between what I think the stereotypical Trekkie might be and Wicker Man fans," she says. "Most people I've come across are well-educated professionals. The film has grasped their imagination, and they're willing to write well-informed articles putting it in its cinematic or social and cultural context."

Back on the subject of sex, Ashurst believes the film was visionary in allowing the female, Willow, to gain the upper hand over the male oppressor, Howie. "It's a game they are playing on him. Because he represents a western patriarchal society, every time a woman makes some comment or gesture, it exposes his narrow-mindedness," she says.

Hardy will be able to present the definitive account of his intentions and experience of making the film when he gives the keynote address at the end of the conference. Does he plan to tell the academics their interpretations are nonsense? He seems set to be tolerant. "I think all critics tend to talk about things that you didn't intend, and one gets used to that. One should be pleased that people find something to chew on in any entertainment you provide."

Organiser Murray was always confident that Hardy would not take a confrontational line. "My own experience of interviewing directors is that they inevitably think your opinion is cobblers. But British directors are often absolutely delighted that you've seen their film, and this usually compensates for however tenuous or pretentious they think your interpretation is."

As for the naked dance scene, Hardy is more prosaic in his observations. In fact, he takes the opportunity to scotch persistent rumours that Ekland was furious to find that a bottom double had been used. "She said: 'I don't particularly want to be filmed from the rear because I've got an arse like a ski slope'," he says, adding gallantly that this was "unnecessary anxiety" on Ekland's part.

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