The Morbid Ingenuities

Sometimes I’m embarrassed how long I leave a book lying around before reading it. A quick look at ‘Inside The Wicker Man’ (Macmillan £14.99) shows it was published in 2000. Edward Woodward was still alive (he provided the foreword), as was Christopher Lee. Still sparring about their respective inputs were director Robin Hardy and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer. Thus an up-to-date analysis of a historical artefact itself becomes a historical artefact. You could argue it’s even more intriguing to read now. The view from 2000 on a film made in 1972 is completely different to how it looks in 2020. Two decades more have confirmed its eerie power.

The author Allan Brown treads a clever line between providing nerdish minutiae for fans, while remaining slightly aloof from cultish fandom himself. Having his John Barleycorn and eating it, so to speak. Maps and detailed lists of locations have their own fascination: learning that Culzean Castle provided the exterior of Lord Summerisle’s castle, and Lochinch Castle its interior, for example, or that Sergeant Howie’s bedroom and that of Willow (played by Britt Ekland) were in two separate places, neither of them upstairs in the Green Man pub. The bar scenes were filmed in the Ellangowan Hotel, Creetown, itself largely unchanged (at least in 2000).

Myths and legends were still swirling around the film, and some of those involved possibly liked pulling the legs of the unwary. Woodward claimed that he recently returned to the area’s locations and found in a cemetery Sergeant Howie’s wooden cross, which had ‘lain there untouched since I had discarded it at the end of the scene twenty-five years before’.

One of the most famous legends of The Wicker Man concerns the long avenue of apple trees in full blossom Howie drives along in a pony and trap, to get to Lord Summerisle’s castle. There weren’t enough trees to dress the entire scene, and Woodward recalls barely being able to keep a straight face as a relays of prop men ‘took the apple blossom trees from where we just passed, ran round behind me and put them in front.’ (Though the film is set in balmy spring, due to financial constraits filming took place in chilly autumn.) Assistant director Jake Wright remembers it differently: ‘Unlikely, because they would have had to run very fast to overtake the carriage… And also those trees took quite a long time to set up. But it’s a good story, Edward.’

Brown himself says: ‘While looking into The Wicker Man, I had become used to the fact that no two stories tallied, no two accounts meshed… those involved remembered what suited them.’ Of the struggles for conceptual pre-eminence between Hardy and Shaffer, it’s the latter who comes across as most believable. His asides are wonderfully acerbic, including this on Britt Ekland: ‘She was ravishing. Not in the flesh, strangely, she looked rather dumpy, but on camera she was fantastic, the camera loved her.’

Brown deals briskly and expertly with the film’s convoluted finances, editing, cutting and release, as well as with the still-vexed question of the missing footage, rumoured to be buried under a motorway. A hugely enjoyable appendix details samples from the US and UK reviews, once the film eventually crept out to no fanfare; it was considered a no-hoper by studio bosses at British Lion. The critic of the Financial Times, writing in November 1973 gave away a massive spoiler in revealing the ending. Though having likened the plot to The Bacchae and placing Woodward in the role of an updated Pentheus, the critic had already tipped off the classically minded.

Dilys Powell in the Sunday Times called elements of the film ‘too horrible for pleasure’ but admired the ‘distinction’ of Hardy’s direction. ‘Try to catch it,’ urged the reviewer of Evening News, while not managing to highlight much more than the ‘primitive sex rituals’, while an article in Studio Vista had the weirdest take, dubbing it ‘A brilliant example of the deceit practised by woman upon the unsuspecting male’. The writer managed not to mention Lord Summerisle or Christopher Lee at all.

Brown’s subtitle, ‘The Morbid Ingenuities’, comes from the academic George Steiner. After interviewing Steiner, Brown was due to report on a conference airing theories about the assassination of JFK. Hearing this, Steiner remarked: ‘These poor fools. It is easy to feel sorry for anyone consumed by such… morbid ingenuities.’ With the rise in conspiracy theories since Brown wrote ‘Inside The Wicker Man’, the comment had more prescience than either of them could have seen.

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