Suddenly the obituary count is once again ratchetting up with the same rapidity as it was doing at the beginning of this benighted year. In the past weekend, we have lost Caroline Aherne, Michael Cimino and Elie Weisel, and now it’s the turn of Robin Hardy.
Robin Hardy was a British Film Director. He made only one film of distinction, but given the film it was, he did not need others, except for his own satisfaction. Hardy’s film was The Wicker Man, the 1973 film starring Edward Woodward as a puritanical Christian policeman investigating the apparent disappearance of a twelve year old girl on the island of Summerisle, and Christopher Lee, as Lord Summerisle.
The film is a classic, though it was not always seen as such. It was the result of a collaboration of ideas between Hardy, Lee and writer Anthony Shaffer (who also produced a novel of the filmscript). Lee was, of course, a veteran of the Hammer Horror films, which were at the time only just beginning to glide into their decline, and the trio wanted to go against the grain of satanism and Christian symbology and go further back to draw its fantastic and horrific elements from older religious impulses, in paganism and nature worship.
Though Lee, from the outset, was convinced the film was a masterpiece, the production company took the diametrically opposite attitude, with one executive describing it as the worst film he’d ever seen. Originally 99 minutes in length, it was pruned to 87 minutes, and was put out as the lower half of a double bill with Nichols Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, which was where I first saw it, early in 1974.
I was fascinated by it from the outset and paid to see it again at least twice during the Seventies, a distinction it shares with the immortal Gregory’s Girl. I was quick to tape it once VHS entered our life.
The film’s been reissued on video and DVD. An extended version, including footage of dubious quality, appeared in the 2000s, on a double DVD with the official theatrical release, restored to 93 minutes. That’s the edition I have. Unless a copy of the original cut exists, in unmarked reels, this is as close as we’re ever going to get the the never-seen original. The film’s physical history, given in detail on Wikipedia, is astonishing.
The Wicker Man is astonishingly good from start to end. Edward Woodward is superb as Sergeant Howie: self-righteous, arrogant in his religious beliefs, appalled at what he sees around him on Summerisle, yet doggedly determined to find out what has been done to this young girl. Lee, aided and abetted by magnificently attractive women such as Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento and Ingrid Pitt, displays a sweeping openness unusual against his traditional Hammer roles, which helps to build an atmosphere of tension and trepidation.
When we find out what is wrong, and how the islanders propose to set right their ills, it is one of cinema’s most disturbing moments, and it is to the film’s credit that, in its horrific ending, it provides no resolution. The Wicker Man does not allow us to know if its sacrifice has any effect: we have the queasy sensation that it won’t,and Howie’s prophecy will come true.
There have been stories and rumours about the film. It has been claimed that the original print was buried in a motorway foundation. It features a memorable sequence where Britt Ekland dances nude: being three months pregnant at the time, the camera avoids her stomach, whilst her refusal to do full nudity meant that, every time she left the set, a body-double was sneaked on to shoot the shots featuring a creditable bare bum.
Later, Rod Stewart was said to have tried to buy up all prints to destroy them, because of Britt’s nude scene.
Slowly, the film gained the reputation it now enjoys, that it should have had all along. It’s reputation is secure now, and so is that of Hardy as its Director. That he never again directed anything of comparable distinction does not mean that he should be overlooked, nor his passing be any less of a loss to us, like so many already this year.
One film’s enough if it’s good enough