Film 2020: The Wicker Man (Final Cut)


Yes, we have been here before, as far back as the second week of Film 2018, two Januaries ago and in another lifetime. That, then, was the Director’s Cut, the most extended version of The Wicker Man that could be floated, a mix-and-match of textures and film quality. The Final Cut is the 2013 print, approved by Robin Hardy, at a length between the Theatrical Cut and the Director’s Cut, but made from a discovered print of reliable quality, and cut to Hardy’s intended sequence. In his eyes at least, if not those of Anthony Shaeffer, this is the definitive version.

It’s also my most recent DVD, delivered yesterday and selected for viewing this lockdown sunny Sunday morning because it’s a Working Sunday and I’ve not been able to get completely out of it, so a familiar film comes as a bonus.

Except that it wasn’t familiar, not familiar at all, which came as a lot of a shock. It wasn’t so much the extended introduction, of Howie in his Church on Sunday, singing lustily, reading a strident lesson, followed by an extended and very beautiful flight across the Western Isles to Summerisle, as the film itself. There was a brightness to the print, and all the colours more vivid and sharp without ever seeming unnatural or artificial. It was as if every cel had been washed and wiped and was freshly printed.

The result was a film that looked like something I’d never seen before. I was no longer familiar with it, no longer blase. And I’ll swear there were different shots, that scenes looked different, that little bits of extra footage were replacing those with which I have looked since become accustomed to seeing. I was alert and focussed, no longer taking anything of the film for granted, no, not even the most famous and established sequences.

And I’ll swear the soundtrack has been refreshed too. Offscreen dialogue, background chatter, kept coming through clearly.

It was like watching a new film entirely, and after the two previous cuts I have, both of which are on the other DVD set, this version had something they don’t, not in the same quality. The Final Cut feels like an integrated version, something entire and exact. Robin Hardy has described this as the closest there is, or will be, to his original vision, and assembled in accordance with his intentions.

Is there still a complete, original cut to be found? It’s long been claimed that the master was buried in an M4 pylon. Robin Hardy believed it was gone for good. Christopher Lee remained confident that the print still existed, in an unmarked can somewhere. Maybe one day I’ll watch the full film on a Sunday morning and marvel at how things work out.

If that ever happens, it had better be soon. Of the film’s five stars, it’s writer and director, only Britt Ekland is still here to see a thing like that happen, and she hated her time making the film, though it doesn’t show in her performance.

And once again, I must mention just how brilliant Edward Woodward was as Sergeant Neil Howie. It’s an immense performance, and must have come as a revelation to the 1973 audience who knew him best from the title role in the dirty, gritty, espionage series Callan (I, being only eighteen when the film appeared, had never have seen any episodes of Callan, though its reputation has always been high). And Woodward himself thought this to be his best performance, and it is.

It’s nice to see something you know so well through new eyes. One day I’m going to have to watch the Directors Cut and the Final Cut and compare the two (I have both a DVD player and a laptop that I can set up side by side: that’d be fun in itself). If I do, I’ll write about the experience.

Film 2018: The Wicker Man


 

I’m already excited about this new series. I’m loving the chance of a Sunday morning to slip into an oasis of time and go somewhere for the duration. I have so rarely watched entertainments of this duration in recent years.

Indeed, in this dreary and ill week, I several times found myself wanting to dip into the pile, sneak in another film, nestle comfortably into it.

That said, the idea of random selection has already had to be tweaked, since my first two attempts both lit upon French films again, one of them a most frustrating choice. So it had to be a case of Third Time Lucky, and this time I drew Anthony Shaffer and Robin Hardy’s 1973 classic, The Wicker Man.

I first saw it on its original theatrical release, in the glorious old days of double bills, as the B-movie to Nic Roeg’s terrifying Don’t Look Now (which we’ll also be seeing this year), which makes it not only one of the very best double bills I ever saw but places it very firmly as one of the earliest trips to our localĀ Odeon in Burnage once I managed to graduate to ‘adult’ films.

The Wicker Man is both famous and infamous, the latter for its back-story. It began with a conversation between writer Anthony Shaffer and star Christopher Lee over the latter wanting to escape his image as a Hammer horror star. Shaffer was interested in alternate themes for horror, without the overt blood and violence. With Robin Hardy aboard as Director, the film was made as a loose adaptation of a 1967 novel by David Pinner, Ritual.

Originally, the film was shot in a 99 minute print but was not well-received by the new studio boss, who told Christopher Lee that it was the worst film he’d even seen. Lee, who believed passionately in the film, to the extent of having worked on the same for free, remained determinedly behind it. In the end, an 87 minute version, with some story re-ordering that all felt damaged the continuity, was released to cinema. The original 99 minute version has been lost for decades (according to Alex Cox, the negative was buried in a support pylon on the M4, to get rid of it).

It was also rumoured that Rod Stewart was trying to buy up all prints of the film, to prevent anyone ever seeing again the famous nude dance scene by his then girlfriend, Britt Ekland.

However, down the decades, various attempts have been made to restore the original film as closely as possible. My own DVD is ‘The Director’s Cut’, a double DVD with the Theatrical Release on one Disc and a 95 minute Directors cut, taken from one-inch telecine videotape. The picture quality is ropey, and as many scenes are possible are cut in from the Theatrical version. Subsequently, there’s been a four disc Final Cut, a four-disc (three DVD, one soundtrack CD) set with a higher quality restored version 91 minutes in length, which I’ve yet to acquire.

Naturally enough, today’s viewing was of the Director’s Cut, as the longest length version ever released.

Given the film’s age and notoriety, I’m not going to go into any great detail about its story. Edward Woodward, in his first major film role, plays Sergeant Neil Howie, a committed Christian, who is called to the privately owner West Highland isle of Summerisle, famed for its exceptional apple crops, to investigate the apparent disappearance, months earlier, of 12 year old Rowan Morrison. Howie is shocked to find the island a haven of paganism, its Christan Church de-consecrated and, to his mind, defiled. Sexuality is robust and open.

At first, the islanders deny Rowan’s existence. Even after Howie proves her to be an island girl, they consistently act as if he is poking into matters that he cannot understand and which are none of his business.

The island is ruled, with a gentle feudal control, by Lord Summerisle (Lee) who frankly confesses to Howie that the island’s fruitfulness has scientific origins going back a century to his grandfather, who recognised Summerisle’s unique properties for growing new strains of fruit, and who grafted paganism, with its nature roots and its worship of old gods more life-enhancing than the dour Scottish Christian God of Howie’s reverence, onto the populace to inspire them as workers. The current Summerisle’s father, raised a pagan, continued the work with belief. We are (a superb touch) never entirely certain how wholehearted a pagan the current Lord may be.

What Howie finds is that the previous year’s crops failed, disastrously. He comes to the conclusion that on Mayday, Summerile and the islanders plan a human sacrifice to propitiate their pagan gods, and that this is to be Rowan. He is half right.

The film skillfully plays along with Howie. He is in virtually every scene, even if only as observer, and the story unfolds for us exactly as it does for him. Woodward is absolutely brilliant. His stiff, buttoned-up anger, his rejection of everything he sees around him as an offence against his God, and his inability to see beyond his own self-selected perceptions is conveyed with beautiful minimalism. His performance holds the film together.

On the other hand, and I’m assuming this to be deliberate, although his final desperate scene brings tears to the eyes, Howie’s unwavering belief in his almost masochistically restrictive religion does Christianity no favours at all. At the end of the film, when it is revealed that human sacrifice is the intention, it is also revealed that Howie is the intended victim, that he is uniquely place to satisfy the requirements of the victim: he is the Willing King Fool Virgin, and he has been selected by Summerisle for all these things, and every single moment he has been on the island, pursuing his task with the righteousness of bth the Law and a pure-hearted Christian, he has been expertly manipulated to come, of his own accord, to the place of sacrifice.

This is the Wicker Man. It’s first spoken of literally seconds before it is seen, and we see Howie see it before we see it ourselves. It is a giant wicker man-like shape, on a sea cliff, featureless and towering and horrifying to look at. It is a cage, multiple cages, animals in its head, its legs, its arms and a cavity in its torso for its central sacrifice: Sergeant Neil Howie.

This is an intense film, full of detail, full of music, composed and directed by Paul Giovanni, out of folk music, some traditional, some hybrids, some original, but all so utterly intrinsic to the place, the time, the feel. The islanders are deliberate eccentrics throughout, but realistic ones. This is a closed community and Howie is the outsider. It has its fair share of beauties: Ekland is Willow McGregor, the landlord’s daughter (about whom there’s a memorably ribald song that embarrassed me at the age of seventeen), Diane Cilento (Sean Connery’s ex-wife, who went on to marry Shaffer) is Miss Rose, the painfully enthusiastic schoolteacher, and Ingrid Pitt (another Hammer Horror star and, less well-known, concentration camp survivor) as the unnamed Librarian.

Ekland’s famous nude scene, in which she sings to tempt Howie into her room (and bed) has several background elements to it. As Ekland was three months pregnant at the time, the camera had to be kept away from her stomach (with much screaming by Hardy every time it neared a critical line, as I once read). What’s more, Ekland’s contract permitted only topless nudity, and Hardy had promised not to slip in any bum-shots. Which meant that as soon as she left the set for the day, a body-double was sneaked in to film the writhing scenes that required Willow’s backside to gyrate so uninhibitedly. (According to Wikipedia, two body doubles were used, one being Lorraine Peters, who has a tiny role in the film as a naked woman straddling a grave, and the other an extra named Jane Jackson).

(Incidentally, Ekland’s singing in this scene is dubbed by Rachel Verney, as her speaking voice in the film is dubbed by Annie Ross, to provide a Scottish accent. The excellent bosom is definitely Ekland, however.)

What’s more, though Shaffer and Hardy planned this scene to occur on the eve of Mayday, as a final temptation for Howie on the night before the sacrifice, in the theatrical release it is shifted forward to his first night on the island (replacing a scene where Willow ‘initiates’ a teenage boy at the instance of Lord Summerisle, and thus postponing Lee’s first appearance onscreen until the middle of the film). In this place, it becomes just sex for sex’s sake instead of being an ultimate test of Howie’s faith. And in the Theatrical release, we don’t have the cut early scene that establishes that Howie, despite two year’s engagement, has yet to take his pleasure of the fair Mary Bannoch.

It is, I say again, a great film. Watching The Director’s Cut is an uneasy experience, due to the frequent and jarring changes in filmstock quality, each of which recalls you to the fact you’re watching a film, which is the one thing all good films should avoid doing. The best effect is to be absorbed into the film, not constantly kept out of it. If The Final Cut is of a consistent quality, and the running order Shaffer and Hardy always intended, it could well be the best version of them all.

To be honest, I did wonder at times, this morning, whether the Theatrical Release isn’t better anyway. Long before I ever saw the extended version, I enjoyed the film immensely, and never thought for a moment that I was missing anything, or failed to understand the film. What’s re-added in The Director’s Cut is detail: convincing, consistent and well-planned detail, but little if anything that transforms the film or provides unexpected revelations. It’s some time since I’ve watched the Theatrical Release: I shall have to do so.

Once again, thank you for watching.

Robin Hardy: One film’s enough if it’s good enough


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