The Wicker Man (2006)

The Wicker Man

Wicker Men

A look at the cult classic and its contemporary remake reveals two films with one message.

::: Adam E. Dobson

Neil LaBute’s remake of this cherished cult classic has triggered a great deal of debate; a glimpse at the IMDB forum will reveal desultory outbursts of feeling both for and against, as well as the various shades of indifference, incredulity, and boredom that lie somewhere in-between. For some, its advent marks the limit of Hollywood’s imagination; for others, it undermines what little remains of a British cinematic tradition. Either way, it may be interesting to lay the films side-by-side, stripping away pretension and prejudice—after all, challenging prejudice was itself the originals film’s intention.

The Wicker Man (1973) PosterThere are, as one would expect, a number of references to Robin Hardy’s 1973 production in the remake. The original film starred Edward Woodward as Sergeant Howie; Cage’s daughter here is called Rowan Woodward, and Cage’s character Edward Malus. And there are, of course, those little differences which will doubtless infuriate the traditionalists: the allegorical bug-in-a-desk has been superseded by a crow; Rowan’s coffin now contains a burnt doll; Summersisle has been overrun with women; the principal produce is not apples, but honey. These are, to some extent, mere decorative changes; there are far more interesting things at work once one delves a little deeper.

Faith in faith

Thematic emphasis is somewhat different in LaBute’s version; elements that were arguably present in the original—albeit subtle or obscured—are here brought forward, and likewise, some of the more striking things that were there before fade away all together. The most obvious change is found in the remake’s treatment of religion. The Islanders’ paganism is a central element of both narratives; its meaning, however, is significantly different when examined in comparison.

In Hardy’s film, Sergeant Howie is a devout and practicing Catholic—and, by contemporaneous British standards, zealous, even self-righteous. The parallelism is clear and plain: Howie’s blind faith is mirroring that of the Pagans. The audience is invited to exercise their prejudice, but soon come to realise that there is something hypocritical about doing so—it’s a sleight of hand, a trick. Hence, whenever the moribund policeman attempts to reassert Christian moral values—whenever he preaches or uses faith as a rationalizing principal, whenever he cries for divine mercy as he is escorted to his death—he begins to sound superstitious, his words hollow and futile. His behavior, like the Islanders, is motivated by faith, and operates therefore on the same moral plateau. One hardly need allude to the many millions of people who have died in conflicts of faith, as martyrs and foot-soldiers, across all denominations.

The derelict church is an important symbol in the original film. It is pure Romanticism—scattered about the ground, forgotten, overrun by triumphant weeds, it is as relevant to the world around it as Aztec ruins and totem-poles. Howie is mortified at the Pagans’ irreverence, and places a makeshift crucifix on the altar; Malus takes it in his stride, and is even told by Willow that it was once a place of beauty and calm.

LaBute’s church stands for how far the Islanders have deviated from “good,” whereas Hardy’s represents the primacy of time. This is important because, in effect, the loss of Christianity is lamented in the remake—revealing the religion of the Islanders to be unnatural, an affront to the “true” order of things. The primacy of Christian morality is affirmed by its absence in the debate—its position is unchallenged because there is no opportunity for argument. Hardy’s film is notable because it acknowledges that each system has a right to exist.

Personally, I think that the actors’ performances in each film bear witness to this fact. The scripts essentially converge in the grand finale—the sacrifice scene—and as such underline these superficial differences in these aspects. In the original production, the sacrifice is a jovial affair, with wide smiles and pastoral dancing; the music is especially fanciful. Howie’s death-cries become all the more chilling because these people seem to be doing what comes naturally to them, something that is completely usual and, moreover, positively virtuous in their eyes. They are portrayed as believers, and as such are afforded dignity; they are merely acting in accordance with their beliefs, and what scares us is not so much that people could be so potentially unreasonable, but that this potential antagonizes a niggling subconscious concern: that there is no God, and thus that any action can obtain moral legitimacy simply by virtue of numbers. We are taunted with the fact that it really is the survival of the fittest, and yes, that is frightening indeed. 

In LaBute’s remake, the characters chant emotionlessly; Willow in particular looks mesmerised, her eyes continually rolling back as she repeats the words, “the drone must die.” The actors and actresses here are playing fanatics, cultists; the characters seem almost brainwashed, oblivious to the implications of their actions. This slight diminishes the validity of their choices, and again presents them as being in some way deluded, simply deviant from the norm. The scene is less frightening as a result: we witness a horrific injustice. But at least it is an injustice—that is somehow comforting; Hardy’s production denies that there is any rationale for justice at all. We are alone, and the strongest will prosper. It is for this reason that Cage never seems as hopelessly isolated as his counterpart in the first movie, and explains why this level of isolation is so conspicuously absent in the remake. The lack of a mobile network simply cannot compete with the ineffable majesty of the Scottish mountains. 

Faith in power

So, in the original film, we could describe the belief-systems as cancelling one another out; as articles of faith, they are similarly justified and have equal claim on the world around them. This is clearly a nihilistic stance, and one that leaves a gaping ideological vacuum in its wake. Any successful attempt to fill the abyss is therefore, as it must be when one admits inherent anarchy, a product of power. Power is another pivotal theme in both films, and again it is treated very differently.

Both films approach the topic in terms of gender politics. LaBute’s film takes this to the extreme, populating the island with a matriarchal super-class of women and suppressing the masculine elements of the society. The film speaks in hive terms—the men as “drones,” doing the heavy manual work and occasionally fertilizing an egg or two; indeed, throughout the film we see them collecting material for the Wicker Man, like honey-bees collecting nectar.

Officer Malus (man + phallus?) enters the island as patriarch, but finds the balance of power reversed; like Sergeant Howie, he is confronted with a grim parody of what he would describe as “normality,” and is accordingly outraged: “whackos,” he screams into Sister Summersisle’s face. The film is pointing to the absurdity of any oppressive society—it is an exercise in satire, in irony. Like the religious equality found in Hardy’s film, the absurdity of the Islanders’ politics is supported by the fact that it is found in nature; the film offers the politics of the hive as evidence. Why would the politics of the hive be any more ludicrous than the politics of the pride?

But, of course, for somebody so deeply marinated in patriarchal ideology, this is a little hard to swallow. This is why Malus is allergic to bees, and why they nearly prove his undoing.

Gender is important in the original production too, but there it feeds into the previously mentioned religious tract. We are told that Summersisle is famous for its apples—“the forbidden fruit.” The use of such an overtly religious allegory isolates Woman as the siren who lured Man onto the jagged rocks of Original Sin. She is reduced to “temptation object” and held accountable for this reduction. Hardy’s film oozes sexuality, and women are invested with its power. Sergeant Howie very nearly gives in to Willow’s famous erotic dance—it presents an almost insurmountable challenge to his religious beliefs; religion is an affront to nature, and man is beast first and rational-being second. Unlike most classical narratives, the Man is punished for his virginity—as opposed to the Woman for her promiscuity.

In Hardy’s film, we might consider “woman” to symbolize Mankind’s relationship to nature, sexuality being the most natural act in our repertoire. Analysis of the filmic gaze, however, undermines this position and therefore finds the film to be guilty of the crimes it identifies as wrong—it is hypercritical, constructed to flatter masculine patterns of pleasure. LaBute’s film attempts to right this wrong.

Yet it would be hasty to describe the remake as a more progressive text. While the representation of any gendered society is ridiculed, feminism is at the same time rendered terrifying. I think it’s a close one to call. Certainly, the characters are presented as the most negative “new age” types imaginable. The only performance which would pass in the original is that of the school-teacher, Sister Rose, played by Molly Parker.

Faith in ourselves

So, The Wicker Man is, on the whole, an insistence that we are the meaning-makers, that nothing is intrinsic or given. Reach for the Nietzsche. The relevance of the world around us is open to debate, and for any one idea to become dominant is down to assertion. A police-officer, a law enforcer, carrying with him the dominant values of the dominant regime, becomes the lesser party in a new power-relationship: all that he has stood for becomes meaningless, and he is vulnerable to the whims of the new force-wielders.

LaBute’s adherence to Hardy’s ending betrays the liberties he has taken with the rest of the script, which is perhaps why the remake requires a further scene “six months later” in order to provide closure; previously, this scene had tied all the loose thematic ends.

In the original film, Lord Summersisle—played superbly by Christopher Lee—tells Howie that he will become “a martyr, and sit amongst the Gods”; this is intended as consolation—as a believer, dying for his faith, he will sit alongside his God. The line is wholly out-of-place in the remake—an anomaly, a remnant; one can only assume that belief in “martyrdom” is being offered as further evidence of the Islanders’ madness, especially given the whole new meaning the term has been given in the light of suicide-bombing.

Academics have long theorized that cinema is society daydreaming, dealing with its anxieties in abstract and symbolic ways. It may be possible to psychoanalyze an entire culture by watching the films it makes, the industry reacting to the changes in the tastes and preoccupations of its audience.

Who knows? One could say that recent war films—Troy, King Arthur, and Kingdom of Heaven for example—have started talking in terms of glory, honour and justice, a far cry from the horrors of Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and Platoon. Perhaps this simply reflects a cultural desire to engage with more positive (or balanced) renderings of war, to soften the abrasive character any deliberation on the War on Terror throws up. Religion is certainly becoming more prominent in Hollywood; Superman Returns had its undertones and Jesus Christ has a cameo in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center.

Well, LaBute’s vision of The Wicker Man features an American man, in the line of duty, wading into a strange land overseas, failing to enforce his culture’s values upon the natives, and ultimately finding their beliefs and practices downright incomprehensible, even oppressive, sinister, and threatening. In fact, the effort leads to death in flames. The Wicker Man taunts the audience with the suggestion that this really is how it is; it teases the audience with its worst moral quandary.

But then, in this way the two films have more in common than first meets the eye. In Hardy’s film, Sergeant Howie—and therefore the audience, for whom he stands as onscreen surrogate—is forced to confront his own crisis of faith by staring into its exaggerated caricature. The scary thing is, whatever it is we believe in, somewhere deep-down we acknowledge the fact that we may be mistaken—and no matter how hard we try, that niggling doubt won’t go away. :::
Adam Dobson lives in London. His recent film, “. . . 2005 . . .”, is scheduled for exhibition at the Exposures film festival in Manchester, 4–7th December 2006.

Posted by: editor on Sep 04, 2006 | 6:33 pm

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