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The Wicker Man (1973)



I don’t like this film. It’s a film you’re meant to like—it’s a film The Guardian tells you to like, so it’s probably bad. In fact, it’s definitely bad, because I don’t like it.


It has a great shot at the end where the policeman is burned alive in the wicker man—but a great shot at the end doesn’t make a great film. It doesn’t make up for the boredom beforehand.


What’s wrong with it? The film is nihilistic. You might think, in a naïve way, that it’s about a struggle between paganism and Christianity. But it’s not.


In the plot, you have the Puritan Scottish policeman sent to investigate the disappearance of a child on Summerisle—and then you have the islanders, led by Lord Summerisle, by Christopher Lee himself, who have reverted to paganism.


So you have this contrast between the sexually restrained Christian policeman and these sexually liberated neo-pagan islanders (the subtext being about 1968 and so on).


In the end, it turns out the disappearance of the child was bait to get the policeman there—so the islanders could sacrifice a real pious Christian to their gods, their fruits and vegetables having shrivelled up year on year (for want of a good sacrifice).


However, it’s not about religion at all—and pagans and Christians who argue over it, either taking the policeman’s side or the island’s side, are mistaken.


The reason it’s not about religion is that it is made quite clear in a scene of exposition by Lord Summerisle that his grandfather founded the pagan cult in the 1860s as a means to involve the islanders in his scientific experiments on rare fruit cultivars that thrived in the island’s unusual “warm pocket” created by the Gulf Stream.


The credulous natives took the flowering of the fruits and palm trees as a sign that the old gods had returned and then went fully “native”—i.e. returned to their old gods, chased the Christian priests away. However, Lord Summerisle, though he practices the cult with enthusiasm, is aware that it is not real—hence the human sacrifice he orchestrates at the end signals his derangement, in that he has taken what he knows to be fabrication to be real.


It’s the standard Victorian sceptical scientific account, rather like The Hound of the Baskervilles. There is no “hound from hell” on the moors, it’s just a large vicious dog (XL Bully, today) painted in phosphorus and given the scent of the latest victim—it glows from the phosphorous, which also burns and inflames it and makes it absolutely vicious.


Folk tale status: debunked.


So there’s always a rational explanation for everything—there’s no “ghost that makes men disappear down the old tin mine”, it’s just sulphurous emissions from the rocks (the credulous yokels believed such things until “men of science” arrived on the scene with a Davy lamp and a canary to test the air). It’s like Scooby-Doo at the end—when the mask is pulled off “it’s just a man”.


So when the policeman, Sgt Howie, says, repeatedly, especially in his death agonies, “You’re all mad! You’re all stark raving mad!” he’s more correct than not. The islanders have become deranged on their own scientific mythology—they’re deluded, the human sacrifice will do nothing, it was always about the novel cultivars and the Gulf Stream discovered by Victorian science.


As for the Christianity professed by the policeman, it fairs no better than the island’s “neo-paganism”. Sgt Howie’s fervent belief in Christ does not protect him, nor does it seem to offer much comfort to him at the end, where he seems in total despair—hence the film’s end is genuinely bleak and beautiful, with the policeman burned alive in the wicker man as the blood orange sun sinks into the sea.


This is why The Wicker Man is so bleak: there is no religion in it. Neo-paganism is just some cult cooked up by a clever aristocrat to manipulate the credulous locals—Christianity doesn’t save the policeman, who is, in his own way, just as deluded as the islanders who burn him.


So human sacrifice isn’t real—in any dimension.


This is what makes The Wicker Man a thoroughly modern film—and nihilistic. There is no magic in it—neither religion, neither paganism nor Christianity, is real. It’s like the situation described by John Gray where we live in this disenchanted world, where people know religion isn’t real, but still can’t help making up cults anyway (he would say like Communism, Nazism, and our current progressive beliefs).


The reason the film is filled with despair and is anti-religious is that it was written by a Jew, Anthony Shaffer, whose family’s other famous work, Equus, written by his brother, is equally perverted and filled with despair. The Jews are really atheistic, and they make nihilistic entertainment like this film—and that’s why The Wicker Man is no good.


* is real.








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