How An Entire Island Conspired To Murder A Policeman In The Wicker Man

This weekend is a big one for burning effigies around my household. Here in the Czech Republic, April 30th is when people all around the country gather to burn witches (dummy ones, of course) and banish the last traces of winter. The celebrations usually include lots of fun and games for the kids, music, dancing, plus klobasa sausages and plenty of beer for the adults. Then, as a big folk horror fan, May Day is time to break out my copy of "The Wicker Man" again for another trip to Summerisle.

Robin Hardy's 1973 cult classic has come a long way from its humble beginnings: brutally cut and playing second fiddle to "Don't Look Now" on a double-bill. While Cinefantastique's hyperbolic claim that it is "The 'Citizen Kane' of horror movies" is a little overstated, it has nevertheless developed an impeccable reputation over the years. Not only is it now regarded as one of the greatest British horror films of all time, it is also the cornerstone of the "Unholy Trinity" of films -- along with "Witchfinder General" and "The Blood on Satan's Claw" -- from which the whole folk horror movement has grown. Modern entries to the sub-genre like "Midsommar" and "Apostle" might not exist without Hardy's original tale, and even Neil LaBute's abhorrent remake with Nicolas Cage has its devotees.

"The Wicker Man" follows Sgt. Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) -- and upstanding, uptight Christian copper -- out to Summerisle, where an anonymous tip has informed him of a young girl's disappearance. The remote island is privately owned by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), who oversees the islander's joyous devotion to old pagan rites and rituals, which at face value involves plenty of drinking, singing, and sex. As a devoutly religious man, Howie is appalled by the behavior of the locals, and they all cheerfully stonewall his investigation, denying all knowledge of the missing child. Howie perseveres, and gradually suspects that they intend to use the girl as a human sacrifice in an attempt to rescue their failing crops.

The plot is now a staple of folk horror: A protagonist from an urban environment visits an isolated rural area and runs afoul of the locals and their sinister traditions. Yet even as familiar as that setup now is, "The Wicker Man" remains a unique experience. Quite simply no other film looks, sounds, and feels like it, and this is especially the case of longer cuts which restore much of the world-building and some lost songs. It has been described as a horror musical, and this is definitely no exaggeration; the remarkable folk tunes, a combination of centuries-old standards and originals written for the film, are integral to the atmosphere and narrative. It is also a horror that takes place mostly in broad daylight, shunning conventional scares for a sense of creeping dread as Howie becomes ensnared in the islanders' plans.

The film's famous ending, which is now spoiled on just about every DVD and Blu-ray cover, is as bleak and horrifying as they come. At its core, "The Wicker Man" is about a clash of ideologies, with Howie and Summerisle as opposing champions of each, and neither willing or able to accommodate the other. Yet for all this, it is also a funny film; I didn't realize how amusing it was until I screened it a few years ago as a double-bill with Jacques Tourneur's wonderful "Night of the Demon."

On a recent viewing, it occurred to me just how many ducks the islanders need to get in a row in order for their conspiracy to play out. Their plan is to make Howie believe that the missing girl, Rowan, will be sacrificed on May Day, while leading him along a string of clues without ever suspecting that he himself will become the burnt offering. He's clearly a proud man, so how would he feel when the final piece of the puzzle clicked into place and he realized that he'd been massively duped? 

To answer that question, I thought I'd take a look at the plot of "The Wicker Man" from Sgt. Howie's perspective...

(Note: This article spoils the entire plot of "The Wicker Man" and is based on the "Final Cut" version of the film, with a few small details from the shooting script.)

The End Is Nigh...

How could I have been so bloody foolish? Howie asked himself again as Oak, that big bear of a man, flung him across his shoulders and carried him towards the terrifying wicker structure. There was no malice in Oak's actions; it was as if the fellow had merely been asked to move a sack of potatoes from one spot to another. At the same time, Howie knew that if he resisted, Oak would subdue him with little effort at all.

Up the wooden steps towards the bowels of the giant effigy, and Howie felt a flush of anger and humiliation. Hauled away upstairs like a naughty child refusing bedtime, rather than a grown man and an officer of the law! Oak placed Howie down inside the cell built inside the wicker man's chest, and his nostrils twitched at the heavy stench from the livestock locked inside the construction with him. The big man went back outside and closed the door, padlocking it.

Howie reached imploringly through the small window in the door. All the islanders were eagerly gathered below. He could scarcely comprehend that people still believed this pagan nonsense in the 20th century, even as he was about to fall victim to it. But then, he had to admit that Lord Summerisle was a very charismatic leader, and generations of brainwashing had instilled these preposterous beliefs in such simple folk -- indeed, to the point where they were willing to commit murder in the ridiculous hope of appeasing their false Gods and save their crops.

Despite his fear and hopelessness, Howie couldn't help but feel a grudging respect for the audacity of it. They had plucked a senior police officer form the mainland, led him to the conclusion they wanted him to arrive at, and were now preparing to burn him in this horrid contraption. Each and every one of them played their part, in lockstep, according to Summerisle's terrible plan, leading him to this most dreadful fate.

Panic reared up in Howie's chest as the torch bearers ignited the pyre at the wicker man's feet. The flames took hold and Howie immediately felt the heat and smoke, while outside the band struck up and the islanders began a singalong. Now they were celebrating as if it were a wedding party rather than a ritual sacrifice. Damn them all and their wretched conspiracies! Even now, it prickled his pride that they had him hooked from the moment he stepped on dry land...

The Harbor Master And His Pals

There was the Harbor Master, singing along lustily with the others. Howie's mind went back to that first day, arriving by seaplane from Ullwater. The islanders were evidently meticulous in their research and timing, with the anonymous letter arriving just in time to lure him into their trap. They chose him well, since boats to the island were infrequent and flying was a necessity for him to make it in time for their May Day festivities. He didn't question traveling alone for one moment as he couldn't very well delay in the case of a missing child, and he had to leave McTaggart behind to man the police station.

It seemed very obvious now that the Harbor Master and his pals, as Howie's first point of contact, had been instructed to frustrate, antagonize, and arouse suspicion. First refusing to send a dinghy without Lord Summerisle's permission, then standing in a circle lying to his face, claiming no knowledge of a girl named Rowan Morrison. They infuriated him just long enough before setting him off in the direction of May Morrison, the child's mother, for the first piece of the puzzle. No doubt Sgt. Howie would have found his way to her after a few more inquiries, but the islanders were on a tight schedule if they wanted their plan to reach full bloom in the way Lord Summerisle intended.

Howie flushed with anger as he remembered the Harbor Master's parting shot: "That's not May's daughter, though." That smirk on the man's face when Howie asked him to clarify, but got nothing further in response. If they were on the mainland, he would have had a good mind to arrest the whole lot of them for obstructing an officer of the law!

May & Myrtle Morrison

It was growing uncomfortably hot and smoky in Howie's wicker cell now. He looked out despairingly along the line of revelers and saw Rowan dancing side by side with her mother, May. That woman was surely the most despicable of them all, Howie thought. Motherhood was a sacred gift, yet she was willing for her daughter to be used as bait, not to mention becoming an accomplice to murder. 

Howie thought about that initial meeting in May's post office and sweet shop. In many ways it was like the tuck shops he knew as a lad, with shelves and counters laden with all manner of colorful and sugary treats just waiting to rot a child's teeth. The main difference was the profusion of chocolate hares everywhere -- not something he could recall ever encountering in similar establishments on the mainland. Now he knew the importance of the islanders presenting him with this imagery early; it was crucial to their plan that he believed that they believed that Rowan Morrison was reincarnated as a hare.

May Morrison's youngest daughter, Myrtle, had a crucial part in planting that idea in his mind. He remembered her quietly painting another hare at the dining table when he was ushered through to meet her. It was a nice touch to have another islander on standby to enter the shop and pull May away so Howie would be left alone to question the girl about her missing sister. She deserved an Oscar for her performance -- telling him without the slightest trace of guile that Rowan was now a hare, running free in the fields and having a lovely time. 

The Green Man Inn

The landlord's daughter, Willow, had such a beaming smile on her face as she sang and danced. Was she not concerned about her father, Alder, whom Howie had left tied up back at the Green Man Inn? She must surely be wondering why he wasn't here with all the others, especially since his role as Punch was such a key figure in their May Day procession.

Howie thought back to their first meeting at the inn on the first night. The islanders had cheerfully obstructed and flummoxed his investigations all day, long enough to keep him on Summerisle overnight. This was a necessity, he saw, because they couldn't risk him returning to the mainland and bringing back reinforcements the next day. It was a fine balancing act, making him concerned enough about Rowan's safety to let his own guard down, but not alert him to the fact that he was the intended victim.

The scene was predictably raucous as he entered the bar, where all the usual faces were present. They were clearly enjoying themselves by this point, showing flagrant disrespect for his authority and having fun flaunting their obscene beliefs in front of a good Christian like himself. Alder MacGregor even had something of a sneer as Howie asked about room and board, no doubt relishing that his pub was the only accommodation on the island. Despite his irritation and tiredness, Howie was rather taken aback with Willow when he first saw her. She was quite the local beauty, and although he hadn't had much experience with women in the past, he sensed that she returned his admiring gaze. 

Naturally, the crowd in the bar needed little encouragement to launch into another bawdy song when MacGregor asked his daughter to show Howie to his room. He let them have their fun for a few moments before silencing the room, then it came as no surprise when he passed the photo around again and no-one present recognized the missing girl.

Now it was time for another clue: Howie had briefly noticed the harvest festival photos on the wall, but MacGregor did his bit, making sure Howie noticed that the most recent one was missing. The next clue was even more subtle, as Willow served him tinned fruit instead of fresh for his dessert after supper -- a little indication of the failed crops which instigated this predicament.

The general hubbub in the bar vexed Howie even further, yet that was nothing compared to the shock he received when he stepped outside for some air, and saw young couples wantonly copulating out in the very open. Howie was appalled and hurried on, only to find a naked woman weeping on a headstone in the churchyard!

He wished he hadn't stormed back into the pub at that point, letting them all see how rattled he was by their show of drunken revelry and indecency. Naturally, MacGregor had made sure that Howie's room was right next door to Willow's so he would witness what came next, and get his first glimpse of the enigmatic Lord Summerisle. Here he now was, calling up to Willow's window and offering her a sacrifice: a young lad who looked nervous but excited.

Would this ritual have taken place that night even if Howie had returned to the mainland? From what he had seen to that point, he had little reason to doubt that it was a regular occurrence. Still, there was an element of it for his benefit, making sure he knew that Willow was not only available and willing, but that deflowering virgins such as himself was also her role in the community.

Lessons From The School Mistress

By the time Howie arrived at the school, it was obvious that the islanders had another full day of festivities for him to enjoy, and a few lessons to learn, too. If their plan was to come off successfully, they needed to impart some of their rites and rituals to him so he could connect the dots. It was a bright morning, and the boys were outside dancing around the maypole, while in the classroom the girls were learning about phallic symbols. Miss Rose led the class, and Howie couldn't help but notice that the information seemed directed at him rather than the children.

The teacher was in charge of the smoking gun, as it were: the school register. Here Howie found proof that Rowan Morrison did indeed exist and, what was more, the islanders were lying about her. He would later find out that Miss Rose was Lord Summerisle's high priestess (or whatever she might call herself), and she was careful with her words as she practically admitted Rowan was dead. 

And so Miss Rose dutifully moved Howie onto the next square around the board. Here was Rowan Morrison's grave, according to the eccentric character tending the lawns in the churchyard, with a rowan tree instead of a proper headstone. And what was that dangling from it? A shrivelled piece of matter that looked like streaky bacon, but the gravedigger insisted was the girl's navel string.

Lord Summerisle

Howie drew two more blanks before paying a visit to the laird of the island. First, he tried to find Rowan's death certificate at the library, but what a surprise! No such document existed. The librarian also rather pointedly presented him with a tin of fruit, reiterating the point that Willow had made with his dessert the previous evening. Next, he visited Mr. Lennox, the island's chemist and photographer, for a copy of the missing harvest festival photograph. The man just looked at him as if he was speaking Double Dutch.

So finally to Lord Summerisle's castle. The laird had cut an impressive figure the night before, in the shadow of a tree beneath Willow's window, and he was no less majestic in broad daylight. The man was intelligent, well-spoken, and completely unflappable. Indeed, the more flustered Howie got with talk of parthenogenesis and old gods, the more at ease his Lordship appeared. Here was the ringleader, and it was Summerisle's role to grandly set out the motive for the crime.

Summerisle explained his family's history on the island. His grandfather bought the island in the 1860s, and, as an agronomist, knew something that its inhabitants didn't: the warm gulf stream and the volcanic soil would be suitable for growing new strains of fruit. With his "mid-Victorian zeal," the man raised his new workforce from their apathy by restoring their "joyous old Gods." To the islanders, the new -- or rather, old -- religion must have appeared to have miraculous effect, suddenly producing bountiful fruit. Yet if the crops failed, the nature of the religion meant that a terrible sacrifice was required. 

Howie's suspicions were finally confirmed when he obtained Lord Summerisle's permission to exhume Rowan's body, only to find another bloody hare in the grave. Transmutation, Miss Rose helpfully said, when he returned with the dead creature to confront Summerisle. The man still wouldn't blink first, despite Howie's threats.

On his way back to the Green Man, Howie broke into the chemist shop and developed the missing harvest festival photo himself. The islanders had some very specific criteria he needed to meet as their sacrifice, and it seemed that the capability to develop photographs was one of them if they wanted him to unearth this final clue. There she was, Rowan Morrison, in the same traditional dress as the other girls in the pictures on the pub wall. The only difference was, the boxes of fruit behind her were virtually empty. The crops had indeed failed, which now meant only one thing in his mind: a sacrifice was in order and, if Rowan was still alive, was in mortal danger. 

Which was exactly what Summerisle wanted him to think.

Willow's Invitation

On the eve of the May Day celebrations, Howie had another troubled night's sleep. Instead of some other virgin offered up from the village, he now huddled, sweated, and prayed in his room as Willow directly invited him to join her next door. He couldn't tell exactly what she was doing on the other side of the wall, but it sounded rather energetic, with plenty of singing and pounding on the walls and slapping of bare flesh.

How he wanted to accept her invite, but how on earth could he? Dear Mary was waiting patiently at home and he could have never forgiven himself if he betrayed her like that. Besides, he didn't believe in intercourse before marriage. Even if he did, Howie had done little more than kiss a girl in the past, so the prospect of laying with an experienced woman who clearly enjoyed sex so much was a daunting prospect.

And here was the thing that puzzled Howie most about the entire affair. If his virginity was such a key aspect of his suitability as an offering to the pagan Gods, why provide him the chance of losing it on the eve of his sacrifice? Perhaps it was a final test of his integrity: If he resisted Willow's considerable charms, perhaps the islanders would regard that as proof that he was indeed worthy. 

May Day

The next day, Howie paid a visit to the library to do a little last-minute research on May Day rituals, which finally confirmed his worst suspicions. A human sacrifice was necessary when a community was in dire straits, and Rowan would be the victim this year in the hope of guaranteeing a successful harvest.

He decided to head back to the mainland for reinforcements, hoping that it wouldn't be too late. However, when he got to the seaplane, it wouldn't start. With his typical deadpan, the harbor master said he hadn't seen anyone interfering with it (a lie cleverly disguised with the truth; the harbor master hadn't seen anyone because he'd sabotaged it himself). At this point there was no doubt in Howie's mind that the islanders were preparing to murder Rowan Morrison, and they had made sure that he wasn't going anywhere. With no phones on Summerisle, he was completely cut off. 

Making his way back to the village, he spotted Oak dressed as a hobby horse for the day's festivities. Howie followed him to a gathering point, where he overheard Summerisle telling the rest of the islanders to meet at 3 o'clock sharp for their holy sacrifice -- once again reinforcing his grave suspicions.

After fruitlessly searching all over for Rowan, Howie was tired enough to need a little lay down. He headed back to the Green Man for forty winks. While he was dozing, he heard Willow and her father stage-whispering just outside his room. They were talking about something called a Hand of Glory to make him sleep. Howie pretended to be asleep until Willow went to join the others and MacGregor went to change into his Punch costume. He remembered the entry in the library book this morning: Punch the man-fool, privileged simpleton, and king for a day.

Howie was startled when he opened his eyes to discover they had placed a flaming severed hand next to his bed. Even with all the surprises of the past few days, this was especially disturbing. He knocked it down and put out the fire, then clubbed MacGregor with the candlestick.

Did the conspirators need Howie in the Punch costume? It was a nice touch, with him wilfully adopting the role of the fool, but how could they have known he would return to the Green Man Inn, much less anticipate that he would need a nap? They had everything else thought through, so perhaps they had some scheme to lead him back there if he didn't go of his own accord. He supposed it didn't matter at this point. He was trapped on the island and sold on his conclusion that Rowan was about to be murdered, so as long as he followed the May Day procession to the beach for the trap to be sprung, it didn't really matter how he was dressed ... Or did it?

An Appointment With The Wicker Man

The heat was growing unbearable now as Howie reached out through the bars of his burning prison. He looked at Rowan again. So innocent-seeming, and yet she was the one who finally doomed him to this fiery death. He had tried to keep in character as MacGregor, playing Punch all the way down to the rocky beach, but abandoned all thoughts of his own safety when he saw the girl tied up in the mouth of the cave. She perhaps overplayed the damsel-in-distress part, but at that point his critical thinking was no longer functioning. All he wanted to do was whisk her away to safety, even if it meant rowing to the mainland in one of the harbor master's dinghies.

Howie was so focused on Rowan's peril that it took him a few moments to comprehend the situation when they emerged from the clifftop cave and saw Summerisle sitting there with Willow and the librarian. When the girl ran over to the laird and dropped her act, it then finally dawned on him. Now there was no escape, with the steep jagged cliffs on one side and sword-bearing islanders taking the high ground on the other. He knew now something very bad was about to happen, and barely heard Miss Rose and Lord Summerisle crowing about their success in leading him, the "right kind of adult," to the island. 

Yes, Howie had come of his own free will, and by serving the police force he had arrived with the power of a king. Yes, he was here as a virgin and now, clearly, as a fool for letting his guard down and falling into their clutches. And yes, he could fly a seaplane to get him there on time, and could develop photos to find the final clue. How many potential candidates could say all that? Summerisle's research was meticulous and his reach must be considerable; perhaps he even had contacts on the mainland? He wouldn't put it past McTaggart, his oaf-like deputy back in Ullwater, to take a bribe in exchange for information.

Now it was done. The islanders' singing grew more joyous as the flames grew higher. Howie looked out despairingly at the setting sun as the skin on his feet and bare legs began to scorch. In that moment he had a vision ... far away across the ocean, he saw another man, trapped inside the head of a similar burning wicker edifice. His fellow victim, with his eye swollen and his ankles broken, simply screamed "No!" over and over as the flames consumed him.

Howie, in a final act of defiance, decided that he wouldn't waste his final words like that. As long as there was breath left in his body, he would show these heathens that he was a righteous Christian and a true believer in the life eternal. He summoned his resolve and bellowed out a rendition of "The Lord is My Shepherd." But the agonizing heat took the song from his lips, and all he could do was pray.

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