15 Fascinating Facts About The Wicker Man
By Jane Rose
Though in many ways it was a cinematic oddity, Robin Hardy’s 1973 movie The Wicker Man has captured the imaginations of critics and devoted fans with its representation of life on a remote Scottish island, depictions of pagan rites (with weird animal masks), and a combination of whimsy, musicality, and dread. Christopher Lee’s turn as Lord Summerisle cemented his reputation as one of cinema’s great villains.
The movie has inspired filmmakers and spawned spinoffs, tributes, and an infamous 2006 remake. But The Wicker Man’s road has been rough to say the least. Its makers wanted to offer something new and more substantial in a horror landscape dominated by monsters and busty women, an attempt that was met with incomprehension and outright hostility by the production studios. Fortunately, it has survived in all its strange and fascinating glory. Here are some fun facts about one of cinema’s greatest pagan horror musicals.
1. ITS SCRIPT IS LOOSELY BASED ON DAVID PINNER’S 1967 NOVEL, RITUAL.
Author David Pinner wrote Ritual as a script treatment for another director, but adapted it into a novel after the director declined the project. The Wicker Man screenwriter Anthony Shaffer, producer Peter Snell, and actor Christopher Lee later acquired the rights to the story, which combined elements of mystery and the occult and involved the mysterious death of a teenage girl in a Cornish village. Shaffer, however, decided the novel would not adapt well to the screen and used its basic outline to craft a new story.
2. JAMES GEORGE FRAZER’S THE GOLDEN BOUGH WAS ALSO AN INSPIRATION.
Shaffer and director Robin Hardy—who passed away on July 1, 2016—plumbed Frazer’s seminal work of comparative mythology for ideas, drawing liberally from the different traditions Fraser described then fashioning them into a believable modern pagan religion with ancient roots. Hardy also said he was deeply influenced by The Wicker Image, a 1676 engraving depicting a giant, humanoid, cage-like figure with compartments full of human offerings.
3. THE STORY IS SET IN THE SPRING, BUT SHOOTING TOOK PLACE MOSTLY IN NOVEMBER.
The pagan romps of The Wicker Man transpire amid spring’s fecundity, but because of studio British Lion’s financial troubles, production was rushed and the film was shot in late fall in Scotland. The art department had to create the illusion of spring by attaching artificial blossoms to bare branches and bringing in fake apple trees, while cast members had to hold ice in their mouths to keep their breath from steaming in the cold air.
4. NONE OF THE MOVIE’S SCENES WERE ACTUALLY SHOT ON AN ISLAND.
The story unfolds on the fictional Scottish island of Summerisle, but filming happened in several coastal locations around the production base in Newton Stewart, Scotland. The film’s opening aerial images were filmed en route to the Isle of Skye and in South Africa, where there were more blossoming trees, while director Hardy was on a commercial shoot.
5. STAR CHRISTOPHER LEE CONSIDERED IT TO BE HIS BEST FILM, AND HIS BEST PERFORMANCE.
Lee, who had been typecast for years as a blood-sucker in Hammer horror films, had sworn off playing Dracula and was looking for more challenging roles. An acquaintance of Shaffer, Lee was involved in the development of the film from the beginning and would later champion it as it struggled to find a commercial foothold. Lee declared The Wicker Man to be “the best film I’ve ever been in, the best part I’ve ever had. And—not that I’m a judge at all—the best performance I’ve ever given.”
6. LEE WAS NOT PAID TO APPEAR IN THE MOVIE.
Apparently Lee’s desire to walk away from Dracula was so great that he reportedly agreed to play the starring role of Lord Summerisle for free.
7. ACTRESS BRITT EKLAND HAD A BUTT DOUBLE.
Swedish actress Britt Ekland, who plays the innkeeper’s seductive daughter Willow MacGregor, was already known as a sex symbol due to previous roles in The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968) and Get Carter (1971). She agreed to appear topless in The Wicker Man, but refused to let her rear end be shown. Two body doubles, an exotic dancer and an 18-year-old extra, were brought in for Willow’s famous dance in a doorway and to stand in for her backside. Her semi-nudity still caused trouble, though, when she later dated Rod Stewart, who reportedly tried to buy up all of the film’s negatives and destroy them so that no one could look at his naked girlfriend.
Ekland’s butt was not the only thing that was faked. Her dialogue and singing were later dubbed over with the voice of Scottish singer Annie Ross, to Ekland’s dismay, because Ekland could not pull off a passable Scottish accent.
8. THERE ARE MULTIPLE VERSIONS OF THE FILM.
After production was completed, Hardy assembled a 99-minute version of the film based on the original script. But EMI Films, who had bought out British Lion Films during production and whose executive, Michael Deeley, detested the movie, excised a large portion of it, releasing an 87-minute version to theaters. In 1976, Hardy decided to try and reassemble the original film, but was unable to obtain the original negatives from EMI. Hardy was able to reconstitute what he had lost from the full-length version from a copy he had given to Roger Corman, and put together a 95-minute version known as the “Director’s Cut.” This was followed in 2001 by a DVD version close to the 99-minute original, known as the “Extended version,” and finally, after the discovery of a 35mm print in Harvard’s film archives, by the release of Hardy’s “Final Cut” in 2013.
9. THE FILM’S ORIGINAL NEGATIVE MAY LIE UNDER THE M3 HIGHWAY IN ENGLAND.
Stewart’s threats to destroy the footage were unnecessary. EMI executives, foisting off Hardy’s requests for the original footage in 1976, eventually told him that the 368 canisters of film he sought had been used as filler in construction of Britain’s M3 highway, even leading producer Peter Snell to the landfill and pointing to a trove of cans at the bottom of a hole to underscore the point.
10. IT WAS ORIGINALLY RELEASED AS A DOUBLE FEATURE WITH NICOLAS ROEG’S DON’T LOOK NOW.
The Wicker Man-hating executives at EMI saw a chance to unload the film’s theatrical version by appending it to another movie as a B picture. It finally limped into public view in the shadow of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, which was having its second run in London in 1973. The release was particularly insulting to The Wicker Man given that the A/B movie system had practically been abolished by that time.
11. MOST SONGS IN THE SOUNDTRACK ARE BASED ON TRADITIONAL FOLK TUNES.
The film’s songs are one of its most unique features and important enough to the narrative that it could almost be considered a musical. American composer Paul Giovanni arranged the soundtrack based on or inspired by traditional songs and recorded them with folk band Magnet. The lyrics of the opening song “Corn Rigs” are taken from a ballad by 18th-century poet Robert Burns, while the song “Sumer Is Icumen In,” sung during the final burning scene, is a traditional 13th-century song.
12. SERGEANT HOWIE’S STUNNED LOOK AT THE END IS GENUINE.
The stricken look on the face of the sacrificial Sergeant Howie, played by Edward Woodward, as he is brought to the eponymous Wicker Man was real, as Woodward had seen only drawings of the giant prop before. Not only that, but the scene was shot in an incredible rush, as the production was on the run from studio heads who wanted to shut it down. Woodward had no time to learn his lines and had to read them off of giant letters on bed sheets hung from nearby cliffs.
13. A GOAT INSIDE THE WICKER MAN ALSO FOUND THE PREDICAMENT VERY UPSETTING.
Hardy reported that as the crew set the giant on fire and filmed the final scene from below, a goat in one of the man’s compartments above peed on them. Hardy also stressed that the fire was kept under control and was put out soon afterward, and that no animals were harmed while filming the scene.
14. THE STUDIO WANTED A MORE CHEERFUL ENDING.
EMI executives suggested a more “upbeat” ending in which Howie’s life is saved, even suggesting that a torrential rain put out the fire consuming the wicker man. Hardy flatly refused this proposal.
15. IT INSPIRED A SCOTTISH MUSIC AND ARTS FESTIVAL.
The Wicker Man Festival has been held every summer since 2001 in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, near where the film was shot. Unfortunately, the 2016 festival has been canceled due to the tragic death of its co-founder, Jamie Gilroy; it will return again in 2017.