THE VARIOUS VERSIONS OF
THE WICKER MAN
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 these lowly beginnings, the film has steadily grown in reputation in the intervening years to become one of the principal cult movies of the last 40 years. Most aficionados are also aware that the film circulates in a number of different versions, but there is much confusion and misinformation 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 1971 when three vague acquaintances: actor Christopher Lee, independent film producer Peter Snell, and writer Anthony "Sleuth" Shaffer, got together and started to discuss the possibility of working on a movie project of mutual interest. Shaffer discovered a 1967 novel called Ritual by David Pinner, and each of the three members of the group stumped up £5000 to acquire the film rights to the book. Shaffer set to work adapting the book but soon came across problems with its structure but, moreover, realised that the book simply wasn't exciting enough to be turned into a worthwhile production. (It might be suggested that somebody should have recognised these problems before the money was spent, but still...)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 at Hardy's house near Maidenhead. During that weekend a framework was developed that ended up being very close to the finished movie. The film would concern a battle of ideals between a devoutly Christian police sergeant from the Scottish mainland, and the older pagan beliefs of the locals on a isolated Hebridean island called Summerisle. The pagan ways of the islanders would be conveyed to the audience as they followed Howie's attempts to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. Howie would become ever more deeply embroiled in the bizarre ways of the locals, and eventually realise that the whole thing is a set-up: a trap to get him to the island. The community's crops have failed and the islanders want Howie as a human sacrifice to appease their gods and ensure bountiful harvests in the future. The ultimate point the film was to make is this – what does Howie's religion (albeit a more mainstream one than the islanders') actually count for if he is alone in a sea of different beliefs? Unless deities actually exist, the winner in a conflict of religions is simply the one that has the muscle to enforce his doctrine.
The pagan details were to be entirely authentic; Shaffer's main research source being Sir James George Frazer's 12-volume The Golden Bough which details how early myths, rites and pagan beliefs have fed into modern twentieth-century life. Hardy: "Everything you see in the film is absolutely authentic. The whole series of ceremonies and details that we show have happened at different times and places in Britain and western Europe. What we did was to bring them all together in one particular time and place. The wicker man itself is quite real. The Druids used the structure to burn their sacrificial victims. What we hoped would fascinate people is not that they would think these things are still going on in Europe, but that they would recognise an awful lot of these things as sort of little echoes from either out of childhood stories and nursery rhymes or things they do at various times of the year. There are so many Christian holidays that are celebrated where there was previously a pagan feast. Easter is one of them, originally it was a hare feast. At Christmas, you set up a Christmas tree because that was what the goddess Hera worshipped. Mistletoe is purely Druidic – it relates to the Golden Bough. My God, when you decorate your home for Christmas you are using nearly every pagan symbol there is!"
To complement the authentic on-screen rituals, the film was to be set to an original folk-music score, composed and arranged by Paul Giovanni, an American musician who had earlier impressed Shaffer with his score for a "folk rock" version of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night on stage in Washington DC.
The finished script was presented to Snell, by this time head of 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 laird, Lord Summerisle.
The policeman, Sergeant Neil Howie, was to be played by Edward Woodward, then fresh from TV's Callan. Woodward was, in fact, third choice for the role: both David Hemmings and Michael York had already turned it down.
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 possible that her casting was an attempt to "butter up" Rank into choosing the film for its Odeon cinema chain. That relationship aside, Anthony Shaffer would also later report that he entered Pitt's room one day during filming and found her in bed with Peter Snell, the film's producer.
Diane Cilento (at the time, Mrs Sean Connery; much later to be Mrs Anthony Shaffer) was persuaded out of semi-retirement for the part of the island's schoolteacher, Miss Rose, after Shaffer had seen her some time 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 to play his voluptuous daughter, Willow. Ekland seemingly could not produce a reasonable Scottish accent and so all of Ekland's dialogue had to to be dubbed in post-production (by Glaswegian actress and singer Annie Ross); with Ingrid Pitt – a Pole – already on board, there simply wasn't room for another unexplained foreign accent. Unfortunately, the crude dubbing of Willow's voice remains a large flaw in the final film.
Filming took seven weeks during late autumn 1972. The shooting was done in some 25 locations, mostly around the film's base of Newton Stewart, Scotland; none of the filming was actually done on a real island. Hardy: "In all the towns and villages where we shot, while all the buildings you see are real, frequently, if you turned the camera around, down the road might be some dreadfully modern little house which would spoil the whole effort. Matching up locations, tacking together a homogeneous town out of disparate buildings and even pieces of buildings, all sympathetic architecturally, is tricky but something I find quite fun to do."
"Autumn" was turned into "summer" by employing fake plastic apple trees and by decorating the real bare trees with imitation blossom. 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.
Generally, shooting proceeded smoothly but one minor problem was encountered when some of the locals became convinced that the crew were planning to burn some animals alive as part of the movie's climax, including a goat used as a local mascot. Fortunately, a reassurance from Shaffer soon calmed things down. Edward Woodward also broke a toe during one scene but due to a combination of cold, tiredness and drink didn't notice until the following morning!
The dank and depressing Scottish autumn together with the monotony of the filming began to get to Britt Ekland. Feeling lonely and believing she was being sidelined by most of the other cast, she 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.
The Long Version
The film's editor was Eric Boyd-Perkins who, together with Hardy, finally assembled a cut running at some 99 minutes2 (henceforth called the Long Version or, on the DVDs, "The Director's Cut" or "The Extended Version"). Whilst most parties seemed satisfied with this, Christopher Lee was most certainly not. Already about 15 minutes of filmed material had been jettisoned. Two large sets of sequences went unused. The first showed Howie on the mainland investigating a pub that is making too much noise; the second 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). Christopher Lee's main source of annoyance was that a great deal of the scene in which Lord Summerisle explains the history of the island to Howie had also been removed, although, to be fair to Robin Hardy, this was too wordy and overlong in its original form and would have seriously damaged the flow of the film. Quite a few other scenes – including most of the songs – were shortened, too, yet more damaging cutting was still to come...
The Short Version
By this point the troubled British Lion was on the verge of being taken over by EMI. New bosses were appointed in the form of Barry Spikings and Michael Deeley. Neither was particularly keen on the project they found they had inherited. Deeley initially refused to release The Wicker Man, even in Britain, maintaining that it had no market value whatsoever (he famously described it to Christopher Lee as one of the ten worst films he had ever seen). Shaffer: "If you live, like the poor fellows at British Lion, on a diet of things like There's A Girl In My Soup or On The Buses or Carry On Farting, or whatever those things are called, inevitably you cannot see further than that after a time."
Snell (who was still at British Lion 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! From these screenings, the film was sold to a number of foreign territories.
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. Deeley realised that shortening the film would also allow it to play as a B-picture (a secondary, supporting movie, to be shown as part of a double bill) back in the UK. So, following Corman's advice, Deeley had the film cut down to 87 minutes3 (henceforth called the Short Version or, on the DVDs, "The Theatrical Version"). 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 night.4 All of the remaining footage of Howie on the mainland was deleted, which British Lion had always thought smacked a bit too much of the British TV police show Z-Cars. A long sequence involving the sexual initiation of a teenage boy by Willow was also removed. Hardy: "There was no consultation with any of us. This was the way the film was going to be, and – tough titty! – that was it." Paul Giovanni: "Whatever you think of the long version, the short one is laughable, very nearly silly. It is especially ludicrous, grotesque even, to have Ekland's dance scene come in so soon – it makes no sense."
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 huge insult to the film, even more so given that the the A/B picture system was practically extinct by this time. 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! Some reasonable reviews followed but by mid 1974 the film had done most of its business.
In the US, despite his offer of $50,000, the film wasn't secured by Corman; British Lion wanted to recover more of the original £450,000 production cost. Eventually, a sum of around $300,000 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. In mid 1974, Warner's tested the film in a few areas of the USA, mainly in drive-ins in the San Diego area and a college theatre in Atlanta – earning a highly favourable review in Variety – before giving up the struggle. "What hope did we have," reflected director Hardy, "with an audience who were fucking themselves silly in the back of their parents' Fords?"
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, now based in America, 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 growing American fan/student interest. The American distribution rights in the film had now been sold by Warners 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 Peter Snell, and Lee and Shaffer in London and all four began an attempt to find a copy of the original Long Version in order to restore the film to a more complete 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-worth of raw location footage had been junked (according to the famous rumour it was used as landfill in the nearby M3 motorway).5 Snell then remembered the early copy that had been sent to Roger Corman. A phone call soon confirmed that Corman still had the print – probably the only copy of the Long Version in the world! A dupe was made and Hardy set about reconstructing his original cut for a special American rerelease. 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, reintroduce most of the longer cut scenes and restored the original flow of events, moving 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 autumn 1977, when it was a huge success. Cult-movie magazine Cinefantastique even devoted a whole issue to the film, calling it "The Citizen Kane of horror films". The Middle Version was released on DVD and Blu-ray in 2013 under the tag line "The Final Cut".
In Britain, the rights had passed to Warner Brothers 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 unenthusiastic7) 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 Magnum.
Eventually, in 2001 the film's new worldwide owners, French film production/distribution company StudioCanal, in conjunction with 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 one-inch NTSC videotape copy transferred from Corman's print sometime in the eighties was still available. Despite this copy being less than visually perfect, the majority of the film's running time was obviously available in excellent quality as part 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 video in both the US and UK. The Short Version was re-released at the same time with a "spatialised" pseudo-stereo soundtrack.8
At the time of writing, the above remains the status quo – the Short Version is available in good quality; the Long Version is represented solely in the archives by the above-mentioned one-inch videotape.
Links To The Rest Of The Site
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 always denied this but admitted the Willow sequence may have been unintentionally
inspired by Ritual.
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 Although the Long Version of the film actually runs 99 minutes, historically often
it has been quoted as running 102 or 103 minutes. The reasons for this are not clear as all these
various timings seem to apply to exactly the same version of the movie.
To muddy the waters even further, on the sometimes confusing 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 my Portions 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 transferring film to PAL-standard video and are at the correct cinema (or NTSC video) speed, so the assorted timing discrepancies mentioned are not due to this factor.)
3 This is sometimes quoted as 86 minutes, but both figures refer to the same version of the film.
4 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! (This misunderstanding seems to have started with David Bartholomew's original 1977 Cinefantastique article.)
5 Much rubbish has been spoken, and multiple half-cocked theories have been put forward
regarding the supposed unexplained disapperance of film elements of The Wicker Man, relating
to both the Long Version of the film and out-takes that went unused in any version.
Until the late seventies when directors like George Lucas with Star Wars and Steven Speilberg with Close Encounters of the Third Kind were the first to begin to see the advantages in keeping work materials (both films later appearing in "special editions"), very little thought was given by film studios to the long-term preservation of unused film trims. DVD "extras" sections, which would also later successfully utilise such material, were way in the future. Historically, the "money" was considered to be in the finished cut negative, and unused footage and work materials were generally junked as soon as they were finished with by a studio.
So, in moden times, one wouldn't expect to (and indeed won't) routinely find unused bits and pieces from The Sound of Music or The French Connection or Don't Look Now or Soylent Green or Carry On Camping or, indeed ... The Wicker Man sitting on the shelves of a studio's film vault. No conspiracy needed, Mr Lee.
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 mistiming, a copy of the film shown by the BBC, and purporting to be this cut, runs to no more than 92 minutes.
7 Cox: "Most of the people who rate it very highly as a cult, as far as I am aware, haven't seen it."
8 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" (or "open 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 releases. Most earlier TV showings and home-video releases kept the extra area intact.
Links To General Information About The Film
= Not smartphone-friendly.
The Internet Movie Database
The Wicker Man (1973) Wikia
Wikipedia-like encyclopedia about the film.
The Life & Work Of Anthony Shaffer (archived copy)
Gary was the Associate Music Director on the film.
The Official Ian Cutler Website
Ian was one of the musicians shown in the film.
Nuada, the Wicker Man Journal
Fan Gail Ashurst produced three fanzines to tie in with the film some 13 years ago. She had them reprinted for the 40th anniversary.
An appeal for missing film elements of the movie.
Assorted articles and location guide.
Dalbeattie: Scotland, Creetown
Article, songs, locations etc.
Links About The Locations Used In The Film
Scotland the Movie Location Guide
The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations
South West Scotland Screen Commission (archived copy)
the wicker man pilgrim
Dalbeattie: Scotland, Creetown
filminglocationsdetectives.com (archived copy)
The D+K Wicker Man Trail
Locations in The Wicker Man (1973) Wikia
The Movie District
The Wicker Man by Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer
Quite different from the film in places.
Cowboys for Christ by Robin Hardy
(Luath, 2006; later editions called The Wicker Tree)
Novel along the same sorts of lines as The Wicker Man, but this isn't a sequel. Made into the film The Wicker Tree (q.v.).
The Wicker Man sequel screenplay by Anthony Shaffer
This is Shaffer's direct sequel to the original movie. It was made available as an appendix in Allan Brown's book (q.v. – the 2nd edition only).
The Wicker Man by Allan Brown
(2nd ed., Polygon, 2010)
This excellent book is the definitive source for information. It contains an extensive account of the making and cutting of the film, and includes 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 & Crew: The Wicker Man
(eyedoubleyousee for BBC, 2004)
Round-table discussion about the film.
The Wicker Man written and directed by Neil LaBute
(Warner Bros., 2006)
Hollywood remake of the original, starring Nicholas Cage. It failed to set the film world alight.
The Wicker Tree written and directed by Robin Hardy
(British Lion, 2011)
Film version of Cowboys for Christ (q.v.). It also failed to set the film world alight.
The Wicker Man
(Trunk Records, 1998)
The songs from the film. It was taken from an M&E track (i.e. the complete soundtrack of a film except for the dialogue, and used when dubbing into other languages) so is in mono.
The Wicker Man
(Silva Screen, 2002)
The official soundtrack album, recorded, but not released, in 1973. Most of the tracks are in different takes from those heard in the movie, but the recordings are stereo.
Original text portions © Copyright Steve Phillips 1995-2017. All rights reserved.
Thanks to Fintan Coyle, Brad Stevens and Jamie Angus for their observations and help with this site.
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