There can be few, if any, film fans in the world who haven't watched, at least once, a low-budget offering from Britain which popped up as a B-movie in 1973 - The Wicker Man. From such lowly beginnings, the film has steadily grown in reputation in the intervening years to become one of the principal cult movies of the last 30 years. Most aficionados are also aware that the film circulates in a number of different versions, but there is much confusion and mis-information about the exact differences between the various cuts. But first, let's find out why more than one version exists in the first place...
The Wicker Man began life in 1972 when actor Christopher Lee; Peter Snell, head of film company British Lion; and writer Anthony Shaffer formed a casual consortium and started to discuss the possibility of working on a movie project of mutual interest. Shaffer had purchased a 1967 book called Ritual by David Pinner with the idea of developing a screenplay. Eventually - even though each member of the consortium had chipped in £5000 for the rights to make the book into a movie - it was realised that the book simply wasn't good enough to be turned into a worthwhile production.1 An old associate of Shaffer, small-time director Robin Hardy, who was convalescing after a heart attack, appeared on the scene and a quiet weekend was spent brainstorming some fresh ideas. During that weekend a framework was developed that was very close to the finished movie. The film would concern a battle of ideals between a devoutly-religious Scottish police sergeant from the mainland and the older pagan beliefs of the locals on a remote Hebridean island. The idea was that the pagan ways of the islanders would be conveyed to the audience as they followed the policeman's attempts to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. The policeman would become ever more deeply embroiled in the increasingly bizarre ways of the locals, culminating in a horrifying twist-in-the-tail conclusion involving Howie's sacrifice by burning in a huge wicker colossus. The pagan details - painstakingly researched by Shaffer - were to be entirely authentic, although drawn from different societies at varying times.2 The whole thing was to be set to an original folk music score.
The finished script was presented to Snell at British Lion and received an enthusiastic reception. Lion was having its troubles at the time and thus it was asked that "the budget be kept low". Christopher Lee, having been involved in the project from the outset and keen to break out of the tired Hammer Dracula cycle which he felt had typecast him, was cast as the island's community leader, Lord Summerisle.
Ingrid Pitt, another veteran of British horror, was signed on for the role of keeper of the island's records office - a "nymphomaniac librarian" as she put it. At this time, Pitt was the girlfriend of the head of exhibition at the Rank Organization, George Pinches, and it seems that her casting was mainly an attempt to "butter-up" Rank into choosing the film for its Odeon cinema chain.
The policeman, Sergeant Neil Howie, was to be played by Edward Woodward, then riding high as TV's Callan. Woodward was, in fact, third choice for the role: both David Hemmings and Michael York had already turned it down. Diane Cilento (ex-Mrs Sean Connery, later Mrs Anthony Shaffer) was persuaded out of semi-retirement for the important part of the island's school teacher, Miss Rose, after Shaffer had seen her previously on the London stage in Big Night. The rest of the casting was more bizarre - mime troupe leader Lindsay Kemp (later to work in films with Derek Jarman) was drafted to play the innkeeper, and Britt Ekland was chosen as the innkeeper's daughter, Willow, to secure American interest. The fact that the latter could not produce a reasonable Scottish accent forced all of Ekland's dialogue to be dubbed in post-production (by actress and singer Annie Ross) - a large flaw in the final film. Another dialogue oddity in The Wicker Man is Ingrid Pitt's unexplained Polish accent!
Filming took 8 weeks in late Autumn 1972 - most of the shooting being done around the film's base of Newton Stewart, Scotland - none of the filming was actually done on an island. "Autumn" was turned into "summer" by employing fake plastic apple trees and by decorating the real bare trees with fake blossom. Fortunately, Shaffer and Hardy had filmed some cutaway shots of trees in bloom earlier in the summer and these shots were inserted where necessary. Locals were recruited to fill out the crowd scenes, and pupils from a ballet school helped with some of the dance routines - everybody being kept warm with industrial fan heaters. Production proceeded smoothly albeit briskly, despite the turmoil of British Lion being taken over by EMI at the same time as shooting. One minor problem was encountered when some of the locals employed as extras became convinced that the crew were planning to burn some animals alive as part of the movie's climax - a reassurance from Shaffer soon calmed things down. Edward Woodward also broke a toe during one scene and due to a combination of cold, tiredness and drink didn't notice until the following morning! A few other problems were encountered with Britt Ekland who was described by the film's composer, Paul Giovanni, as having "a very limited idea of what work is". Lonely and sidelined by most of the other cast, Ekland later gave an interview to The Sunday Express in which she described the film's base, Newton Stewart, as "the most dismal place in creation... one of the bleakest places I've been to in my life. Gloom and misery oozed out of the furniture," and added that she found the town to be full of hardened drinking and illegitimacy.
Lion's new bosses were EMI's Barry Spikings and Michael Deeley. Neither were particularly keen on the project they found they had taken on. The film editor they assigned was Eric Boyd-Perkins who together with Hardy, finally assembled a cut running at some 99 minutes3 (henceforth called The Long Version). Whilst most parties seemed satisfied with this, Christopher Lee was not. Already about 20 minutes of filmed material had been jettisoned. (You can find details of the major scenes that were not included by clicking here). Two large sets of sequences went unused. The first showed Howie on the mainland closing down a pub which has continued serving after hours (note the parallel scene in the finished film where Howie tries to close The Green Man under similar circumstances, and fails) and also handing out summonses to local townspeople. The second set of sequences had Howie making a bicycle journey to interview a mother on the island as part of his enquiries (note the redundant "Mrs Grimmond" credit on the titles at the end of the film). Additionally, much to Christopher Lee's regret, a great deal of the scene in which Lord Summerisle explains the history of the island to Howie was also removed although, to be fair, this was too wordy and over-long in its original form and would have seriously damaged the flow of the film. Quite a few other scenes were shortened, too, yet more damaging cutting was still to come...
Deeley initially refused to release the film, even in Britain, maintaining that it had no market value whatsoever (he famously described it as one of the ten worst films he had ever seen). Snell (who was still working out his contract) tried hard to change Deeley's mind by promoting the film as much as possible - it was even entered in the non-competition section of the Cannes Film Festival that year, complete with a huge wicker man prop erected outside the main hotel! A parade of elderly film buyers filed in to watch it, but none were impressed.
Meanwhile, Deeley contacted Roger Corman in Hollywood, who had seen the wicker man prop at Cannes and subsequently expressed interest in buying the film for American distribution, and sent him a copy of the Long Version of the film, asking him to suggest changes to improve its marketability. Corman's suggestions were to aim the film for the American drive-in market. To facilitate this, Corman suggested that the film needed shortening and proposed about 13 minutes worth of cuts. Following this advice, Deeley had the film cut down to 87 minutes4 (henceforth called The Short Version) without consulting anybody who had worked on the original shooting. Parts of the plot were changed around, moving some of the details of Howie's second night on the island (such as Willow's nude dance scene) forward to the first night5 and deleting all of the remaining footage of Howie on the mainland which, even back as far as the original cut, British Lion thought smacked a bit too much of the British TV police show Z-Cars. (A comprehensive, illustrated, list of these changes can be found by clicking here).
Despite these modifications, the film wasn't secured by Corman for American release. Corman had offered $50,000 for the American rights, but British Lion wanted to recover more of the original production cost. Eventually a sum in excess of $200,000 was offered by a company called National General. Unfortunately, National General went bankrupt four days after the deal was signed. The rights to distribute The Wicker Man in America then passed to Warner Brothers. Warner's tested the film in a few areas of the USA, mainly in drive-ins, towards the end of 1974 - earning a highly favourable review in Variety - before giving up the struggle. "What hope did we have, " reflects director Hardy, "with an audience who were fucking themselves silly in the back of their parents' Fords?"
Back in the UK, the path of the film had been somewhat different. The Nicolas Roeg movie Don't Look Now had been released by British Lion some time previously and it was now entering its smaller second run in London. Deeley now saw the chance to off-load The Wicker Man (in its Short Version form) as a B-picture, a system already well out-of-date by this time. This move would also help to fill a quota system that operated at the time forcing cinemas to show a certain amount of British films. So finally, in December 1973, The Wicker Man stumbled into release. Christopher Lee telephoned all the film critics that he knew, begging them to attend the film and even offering to pay for their seats for them! Some reasonable reviews followed which resulted in the film being given a release on its own at the Odeon in Haymarket. By mid-1974, however, the film had done most of its business.
Throughout the rest of the Seventies and early Eighties, the film's standing grew to large proportions - particularly in America where its unavailability seemed to enhance its reputation.
In late 1976, Hardy was working on a couple of screenplays and decided to find out what had happened to the film with a view to kicking it back into release based on the American fan/student interest in the movie. The American distribution rights in the film had now been sold by Warner's for just $20,000 to a small outfit called Abraxas, run by film buff and local TV presenter Stirling Smith together with newspaper film critic John Simon. Hardy got in touch and explained that the film was now in a form far removed from what he and Anthony Shaffer had originally planned. Hardy contacted Lee and Shaffer in London and all three began an attempt to find the original raw location negatives in order to restore the film to a longer form than the Short Version that had been given to Abraxas.
The first obvious port of call was the vaults at British Lion's Shepperton studio. The reply that came back was dispiriting - all they had was the Short Version negative - the original 368 cans of raw location footage had been destroyed (according to the famous rumour it was used as landfill in the nearby M3 motorway; more likely it was thrown away as a standard review-of-holdings procedure). Attention now turned to trying to find the negative of the original Long Version that had been prepared by Hardy before the Deeley-enforced cuts. Shepperton replied in the negative about this, too. Hardy then remembered the early print that had been sent to Roger Corman. A phone call soon confirmed that Corman still had the print - probably the only copy of this version in the world! A dupe was made and Hardy set about reconstructing his original cut for a special American re-release. Abraxas agreed with the original feelings of British Lion that the introductory mainland scenes were too everyday and mundane, and Hardy, having no strong feelings either way, left them out at their request. This new version did, however, restore the original flow of events and, in particular, moved Willow's dance scene back to Howie's second night on the island where it was much more suitable. Running at around 95 minutes6, this semi-restored version (henceforth called The Middle Version) was released in America in January 1979, when it was a huge success.
In Britain, the rights had passed to Warner's on the collapse of British Lion. Throughout the late Seventies and early Eighties the film appeared on the ITV television channel and in various home-video releases, always in The Short Version cut. In 1988, the BBC planned to spearhead the very first film of the first Moviedrome season with a screening of The Long Version which researchers claimed to have tracked down in America. The copy from America had yet to arrive when the Radio Times for that week was prepared, grandly announcing the discovery. A reel of NTSC format broadcast videotape arrived from America a week or so before the screening containing a somewhat ropey copy of the film. Realisation dawned on the Moviedrome team that what they had been sent was only the compromise Middle Version - not the original Long Version as promised! Fortunately, Alex Cox's (somewhat lukewarm) introduction to the film was recorded near enough the transmission date to explain that some scenes were still missing.
The Long Version remained elusive in the UK but during the late Eighties and early Nineties was widely available in the US on home-video; initially on the Media Home Entertainment label and later on the Magnum label.
Eventually in 2001 the film's new worldwide owners, European satellite company Canal Plus, in conjunction with US video/DVD label Anchor Bay, started a concerted effort to restore the film to its original glory. By now it seems that even Corman's Long Version film print had vanished, but luckily a 1-inch NTSC videotape copy telecined from Corman's print in the Eighties was still available. Despite this copy being less than perfect, the majority of the film's sequences were obviously available in excellent quality from copies of The Short Version, so a hybrid version could be assembled using the best-quality material available for each scene. This version was made available on DVD and VHS home-video7 in both the US and UK, and has also been shown by Channel 4 (and Film On Four, a satellite off-shoot of Channel 4) in the UK. The Short Version was released at the same time8 with a "spatialised" pseudo-stereo soundtrack.9
1 Although Ritual was never intentionally used for the film which became
The Wicker Man, some parts (particularly Willow's dance sequence, as she attempts to seduce
Howie) clearly seem to have been inspired by the book, leading author David Pinner to claim plagiarism. Shaffer denies this but admits the Willow sequence may have been
unintentionally inspired by
The Wicker Man would also seem to draw some elements from a BBC Play For Today called Robin Redbreast. Just like The Wicker Man, the play features a central character who is prevented from leaving a remote community by its inhabitants (modes of transport which could provide a way out of the community are sabotaged, as are methods of communication with the outside world). There is also a specific set of events that must be played out by the central character to ensure a bountiful Harvest crop for the locals. Given the BBC play was broadcast in 1970 (around the time The Wicker Man's plot must have been in development), it is certainly tempting to speculate that Hardy, Shaffer et al were either intentionally or unintentionally inspired by Robin Redbreast as the similarities are striking.
2 The main research source for the film was Sir James George Frazer's 12-volume The Golden Bough which details how early myths, rites and pagan beliefs feed into modern twentieth-century life.
3 (For experts only !) - Although this version of the film actually runs 99 minutes, it is often quoted as running 102 or 103 minutes. The reasons for this are not clear, but all these various timings seem to apply to exactly the same version of the movie. On the UK DVD commentary track, director Hardy suggests that the 102 minute timing figure derives from an "Extra-Long Version" he prepared which included scenes such as Summerisle offering Howie a taste of his apples (see the filmed-but-never-used page). He further states that this was the version that Roger Corman was sent, rather than the 99m Long Version. He later contradicts these assertions in the same commentary, though. [Note that all running times mentioned in this article have been corrected for the 24/25 "speeding-up" factor associated with telecineing film to PAL-standard video and are at the correct cinema (or NTSC video) speed, so the discrepancies mentioned are not due to this factor].
4 This is sometimes quoted as 86 minutes, but both figures refer to the same version of the film.
5 Contrary to what almost everybody else says (including Allan Brown in his otherwise excellent book Inside The Wicker Man, writer Anthony Shaffer, editor Eric Boyd-Perkins, and TV film buff Mark Kermode) none of the versions deflate the events of the film from two nights on the island down to just one - Howie spends two nights on the island in all versions of the picture. If you don't believe me, watch the film!
6 As usual the publicised running times are confusing. Whilst a figure of 96 minutes, which is sometimes quoted for this version, may just be a slight mis-timing, a copy of the film shown by the BBC, and purporting to be this cut, runs to no more than 92 minutes.
7 Under the title "Extended Version". It should be noted that the UK DVD of this version includes a commentary track by Hardy, Lee and Woodward unavailable elsewhere.
8 Under the title "Theatrical Version".
9 These recent releases present the film in a picture aspect ratio of 16:9, much the same as would have been seen at the cinema. Many films of this time were shot "soft matte", meaning that the full 4:3 area of the film was exposed, with extra picture area at the top and bottom of the frame, in order that television showings would not have to be shown "letterboxed".
The "extra areas" would simply be blanked off for cinema showings as they are
for these recent DVD and home-video releases. Most earlier TV showings and
home-video releases kept the extra area intact.
The above article is merely a summary of the many events concerning the making of The Wicker Man. Allan Brown's excellent book is the definitive source for information and contains an extensive account of the making and cutting of the film, and includes interviews with cast and crew:
The Wicker Man: The Morbid Ingenuities by Allan Brown (Sidgwick & Jackson, 2000).
Also of interest are the following two magazine articles:
The Wicker Man by David Bartholomew (published in Cinefantastique, Vol. 6 Num. 3, 1977).
The Wicker Man by Trevor Willsmer (published in Movie Collector, Vol. 1 Issue 8, Nov/Dec 1994).
There have also been four self-contained documentaries made. These all present an overview of the making of the film, and interviews with cast and crew:
Ex-S: The Wicker Man (BBC Scotland, 1998)
The Wicker Man Enigma (Blue Underground Inc, 2001)
Burnt Offering - The Cult of The Wicker Man (Nobles Gate for Channel 4, 2001)
Cast and Crew: The Wicker Man (BBC, 2005) – round-table discussion about the film.
There are some interesting websites on the internet about the film:
Scotland the Movie Location Guide - The Wicker Man (http://www.scotlandthemovie.com/movies/fwickerman.html)
The Wicker Man - Settling the Score (http://www.garycarpenter.net/archive/wicker.htm)
The Official Ian Cutler Website (http://www.iancutler.com/shouse/wicker.html)
There is also an intelligent interview here: http://www.mungbeing.com/issue_13.html?page=67#1095 which covers Robin Hardy's new novel Cowboys for Christ, which is a modern-day "reimagining" of TWM. It also covers his feelings on the dreadful Nicholas Cage remake of the original film.
There is also a nice Wicker Man t-shirt available here: http://www.mrcloud.com/t-shirts/the-wicker-man-tshirt.html/
I can also recommend in general the UK DVD commentary soundtrack,
which features Robin Hardy, Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward talking about
the film. Though host Mark Kermode (who has been behind various "lost
footage" finds from films such as The Exorcist and The Devils)
tries very hard to pin down the issues regarding the various versions of the
film, Hardy's comments are often confused and contradictory.
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