My wife and I were watching classic film The Wicker Man1 together when I realised that something had always nagged me about the film. There's no doubt in my mind that it is a classic cinematic work with a stellar cast including Sir Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, Ingrid Pitt and everyone's favourite 4D actor Edward Woodward2. Made by a collapsing film studio entirely on location with a budget of tuppence ha'penny, the film exudes confidence, a creepy atmosphere and suspense.
No, what I realised annoys me is that in the film, Edward Woodward's character, a policeman from the mainland, is considered the hero while all the islanders are considered baddies. But what if you tried to watch the film with the perspective that in fact the islanders are normal, everyday folk and the mainlander is the villain?
|Sergeant Howie||Edward Woodward|
|Lord Summerisle||Christopher Lee|
|Miss Rose||Diane Cilento|
The Wicker Man is a film in which policeman Sergeant Howie, played by Edward Woodward, arrives on a remote Scottish island called Summerisle, famed for its apples, in order to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. None of the islanders recognise the girl in the photograph he is carrying and say he is mistaken. During his investigation he encounters numerous locals including the landlord's daughter, played by Britt Ekland, the librarian played by Ingrid Pitt and the local lord, played by Christopher Lee. He realises that they practice pagan worship which he utterly condemns, and suspects that they will resort to human sacrifice. Believing the missing girl is going to be sacrificed he endeavours to rescue her, only to learn too late that the islanders had planned a different sacrifice all along.
The apple crop has failed! The islanders believe that for the island's fortunes to be restored, the gods need a human sacrifice – but who? Of course the lord of the island springs to mind, but Lord Summerisle is reluctant for some reason4. Alternatively you could sacrifice a child such as Rowan, who had been chosen as last year's Queen of the May, but that's a bit unpleasant.
No, what you need is an outsider who fits all the criteria for the ideal sacrifice. Namely a virgin who comes to the place of sacrifice willingly, has the power of a king (having been king for the day) and is a fool. The film is therefore about how Howie fulfils that category. Like the beetle seen in a classroom winding itself around and around the nail before trapping itself, the policeman is led round and round in circles, tested and manipulated into being the supreme sacrifice. He protects his virginity by not sleeping with Britt Ekland. As a policeman he represents the crown, and by searching every house on the island for Rowan he acts as king for the day. He disguises himself in the procession as a fool in order to get to the place of sacrifice undetected, believing he is rescuing Rowan when in fact he is the one being sacrificed. When he thinks he is rescuing her, she in fact is fooling, and dooming, him. So burn, Eddy-baby, burn!
Cue everyone holding hands and singing your favourite 13th Century pop song, 'Svmer is icumen in, Lhude sing cuccu' (Summer is a-coming in, loudly sing cuckoo).
Sadly this interpretation posits everyone on the island as being evil, which can only be seen as highly offensive prejudice. Coming from an island I know that mainlanders often do look down on islanders, and you hear constant comments like 'do you have electricity yet?5' and the same jokes about needing passports, being stuck in the past etc. Yet while a degree of mocking is irritating, mainlanders have in the past taken this outlook to extremes.
Bede wrote that in 686 AD
Cædwalla, a young and vigorous prince... captured the Isle of Wight, which until then had been entirely given up to idolatry, and endeavoured to wipe out all the natives by merciless slaughter and to replace them by inhabitants from his own Kingdom, binding himself... by a vow, though he was not yet Christian, that if he captured the Island he would give a fourth part of it and of the booty to the Lord...In this way after all the kingdoms of Britain had received the faith, the Isle of Wight received it too.
Translation: Colgrave, B. (1999) Bede: The Ecclesiastical History Of The English People Oxford, Oxford University Press.
For this act of genocide – killing everyone on the Island6 –Cædwalla travelled to Rome, where he was baptised by Pope Sergius and buried in St. Peter's and is now considered the Patron Saint of Serial Killers. Like Howie's view of the inhabitants of Summerisle, Cædwalla considered everyone on the Isle of Wight to be heathen pagans and killed them all.
You'd think that by the 21st Century this sort of thing would be a thing of the past, but no, the patronising prejudice prevails in government today. For example, in 2016 the Chair of Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education, felt it was acceptable to describe the Isle of Wight as 'a poor white ghetto suffering inbreeding'.
If you take a second look at the film The Wicker Man you will soon see that all the islanders are warm, welcoming people with a strong sense of community and local identity, while Howie is abrasive, dismissive and disinterested.
The Wicker Man: My New Perspective
The apple crop has failed! Despite the financial hardship, all the locals on Summerisle successfully keep their spirits up (despite having to resort to eat non-stop tinned food) by planning the highly anticipated May Day celebrations. Many also enjoying going down the pub for a pint at the end of each day, and maybe even a spot of outdoor copulation.
Then Howie arrives, the grumpy mainlander who looks down on the islanders and makes no effort to disguise that he considers them all to be inferior. From the very second he turns up he starts being a real bossy boots. Despite his amphibious aircraft having wheels, he lands instead in the sea a small distance from the shore. Rather than taxi close to the dock, he starts shouting through his megaphone, demanding that the elderly men at the quayside row a boat out to fetch him. He doesn't even make any effort to swim the short distance himself.
Claiming to be a policeman, and constantly carrying a photograph of a young girl in his pocket, he imposes himself by demanding a room and dinner at the local pub without having booked ahead, and then complains he's only been given tinned food. After a shot of whiskey – and he hasn't actually paid for his food, board or beverage – he starts ogling all the photos of young girls dressed as Queen of the May over the years. He then makes no effort to hide his disapproval of the friendly locals' singalong and completely ignores Willow's efforts at a warm welcome. But is there more to his rejection of a willing, fully-grown woman than first appears?
Obsessed with the young schoolgirl whose photo he carries in his pocket, he barges his way into a girls' schoolroom and demands to see the register, looking up her personal details (clearly a Data Protection violation). He criticises the curriculum despite not being a teacher, even though he has no idea how difficult it is to keep up local traditions in the face of competition from television and radio. He constantly mocks and insults everyone's personal beliefs. He demands another elderly gentleman digs up a coffin for him, throws apple trays on the floor and then ogles at a group of young girls' exercising outdoors in the nude. At the end of the day he tries to go back to his plane, which is still anchored offshore, blocking the harbour. Howie has had all day in which to buy his own basic inflatable dinghy from one of the local shops, one that can simply be used to transport him back to his plane which can then be deflated and stored on board for use again. But no – once again he demands that the local, elderly retired men nearby row him to his plane and back.
He spends the following day demanding to search every inch of every single house on the island, refusing to listen to anyone or be reasoned with. By now the islanders are getting suspicious of his true motives and at least one girl, though not the one he is looking for, hides from him in a wardrobe.
After talking in a library with malice aforethought he decides to start developing other people's photographs of young girls without asking first. This is when he starts getting delusions that there is an evil conspiracy. He then assaults his kindly host, the pub landlord who with no notice fed him and gave him a roof over his head. Knocking the landlord unconscious, he steals the May Day costume the landlord was putting on and then ties and gags the landlord so he can't even attract attention, leaving the landlord locked up at a time when he knows no-one will be in the pub for some time.
Now disguised as the May Day Fool7, during the May Day celebration he doesn't even get into the spirit of the occasion, failing to convincingly cut some capers. Arriving at the seaside he commits another assault and grabs hold of a young girl and – before she can scream 'Stranger Danger!' – drags her away from her family and friends. He leads her into a dark cave, intending to take her away with him for good.
Now I'm not suggesting that he's a paedophile, but he's obviously a menace to himself and others and though it could be considered a rather drastic measure, being burned to death can only be for the good of the community. After all, they have all lived in fear of his preying on the young and vulnerable children as part of the strange delusions that has been afflicting him, so it is certainly preferable to letting him slaughter everyone, women and children included.
No Man is an Island
So what have we learned? From the dawn of literature, there has been something undeniably exciting about islands. Islands are mysterious and magical, unlike the relatively mundane mainland. In fiction, islands are always full of secrecy and treasure. Jules Verne did not write Mysterious Mainland, nor did Robert Louis Stevenson write Treasure Continent. On an island, anything can happen, and frequently does. We remember the names of mythical islands with hushed reverence: Atlantis, Avalon, Utopia, Laputa, Lemuria.
An island is a piece of land, yet its defining feature is that it is surrounded by the sea. Land can be cultivated, controlled and conquered, but the ocean is untameable and wild. An island is therefore a cross between the civilised and the feral. If there is something exceptional about islands, then those who dwell on an island must also therefore be extraordinary. To live on an island, you must surely be more in tune with nature and its wonders than other folk, a notion which perhaps is reflected in legends and myths. No wonder the inhabitants of Summerisle believe you are reincarnated as animals, especially hares, after you die.