Sunday, November 2, 2014

SECRETLY CONSERVATIVE MOVIES: "The Wicker Man" (1973)

It’s long considered one of the most criminally underrated horror films in history, but is it also the greatest anti-hippie motion picture ever made?



“The Wicker Man” and “Don’t Look Now” were released virtually simultaneously -- in fact, in the U.K., the films debuted as a double-bill feature. However, the long-term reactions to both films are quite different. “Don’t Look Now” is considered a cornerstone of modern horror films (one list even named it the greatest British production of all-time), while “The Wicker Man” is largely remembered best for its secondary impact on popular culture.

Ever the celluloid dissident, I always thought “Don’t Look Now” was a fairly overrated genre film. Once you get over the film’s twist ending -- admittedly, a terrific finale -- there’s really not a whole lot to the picture. Yeah, the “religion/superstition versus science/rationalism” overtones were interesting, but the general theme of the film, I believe, was much, much better implemented in “The Omen,” which itself owes much of it’s tone to Nicolas Roeg’s much-celebrated production.

Despite having a gargantuan influence on post Gen X society (more on that later), why is it that “The Wicker Man” remains a criminally underrated horror flick, while “Don’t Look Now” is perennially over-celebrated by film nerds the world over?

Some of that obscurity, I suppose, can be blamed on the disastrous 2006 “remake” starring Nicholas Cage -- methinks a fair share of would-be viewers of the 1973 original have opted out of doing so, simply confusing the movie as one of Gen Y’s greatest Schadenfreude anti-masterpieces. Beyond that, however? I think most viewers simply don’t want to accept the film’s central message -- which, ironically, is the very antithesis of why the film is most celebrated as a pop cultural contribution.

The “creator” of the notorious “Burning Man” festival said “The Wicker Man” played no part in inspiring the event. If that’s truly the case, the neo-pagan ritual is all the more interesting when examining Robin Hardy’s 1973 film as a philosophical object -- especially considering its strangely reverent view of contemporary Christian mores.

I tend to wonder just how many college kids decked out in those fleshy animal masks -- no doubt, you’ve seen their smarmy, horse-headed visages before -- have actually seen “The Wicker Man.” The parallels between the Scottish pagans in that film and the drug-dropping, sexually promiscuous denizens of events like Burning Man and Coachella run deep, indeed. Alas, Hardy’s film -- much like the book nobody's ever heard of that formed the basis of the movie -- is by no means a celebration of the Old Gods, nor is it really a refutation of traditional, Judeo-Christian values. I remain convinced the film is actually a fairly conservative allegory for how the new wave leftist mentality is devouring the continental Christian morality, and why the end dividends for culture as a whole isn’t the creation of a free man’s utopia, but rather, a society beholden to man’s most animalistic qualities. The secular triumph over Christianity, “The Wicker Man” seems to suggest, is ultimately little more than a moralistic regression to the simple, savage ways of  yore -- a path not to enlightenment, but an entirely different kind of animism.

Much like “The Exorcist,” “The Wicker Man” is a devoutly Christian film often misconstrued to be an anti-Christian feature. While in both films the lead protagonists are killed by dark forces, neither film truly indicates those deaths to be real triumphs over men of God. The same way Father Karras leapt to his death in Georgetown to save a demon-possessed youngster, Officer Howie’s demise in “The Wicker Man” can likewise be viewed as an act of martyrdom, an example of true, and even altruistic, Christian faith.

No doubt, Officer Howie is anything but your typical horror film protagonist. Ed Woodward brings a stern, somber silence to his portrayal, as a man rock solid in his convictions. Not once is the whole-heartedly Christian Howie tempted by the fruits of Summer Isle -- not even Ingrid Pitt’s nude tango/booty call was enough to get him to break his vow of celibacy. He is far and away the most certain person in the entire picture, and the only character in the film who seems cognizant of the backdrop’s illogicality. Even at the local tavern, he’s disgusted by the local’s penchant for drink and dance -- he’s an almost blunt representation of the stoic, Protestant archetype as discussed in Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.”

So, if Howie represented contemporary -- if not overly-stuffy -- continental Christianity, then what did the citizens of Summerisle represent?

The sexually liberated neo-pagans, I believe, represent the new leftists ideals of the Western world. Showing incredible foresight, Hardy projected the future of liberalism not to be the hardened, centralized Soviet regimes of the day, but instead, the counterculture within U.K. society itself -- a force perhaps best embodied by the New Age revelers who flocked to the Isle of Wight in 1970 for a week of debauchery so sordid, it made Woodstock look like a staid boardroom meeting by comparison.

The metaphor is so obvious, it’s a shock to me that hardly anyone ever brings it up when discussing the film. To the makers of “The Wicker Man,” the hippies represented mankind’s regression, a backwards crawl into the naturalistic chaos of our primitive roots. While Christian man triumphed over his animal nature, anti-Christian man sought to return to it -- a notion that literally drives “The Wicker Man” as a horror picture.

Counterintuitive to the notion that Protestants are anti-modernity, the Christian society represented in “The Wicker Man” is depicted as a technological state in which biological sciences are very much respected. While Summerisle residents rely upon horse-drawn buggies, Howie is more or less free to come and go as he pleases on his plane. The insular pagan community knows nothing of modern medicine, finding themselves reliant upon superstitious practices -- recall Howie’s disdain watching the school nurse feed a student a live frog to cure her sore throat.

By shunning contemporary infrastructure and medicinal practices, the pagans represent a culture whose ideals and values are based upon an unquestionable totem as opposed to empirical knowledge. While Howie’s Christian, mainland society strives for societal cohesion, order and technological progress, the Summerisle pagans are left beholden to an obscure, intangible “morality” that hardly provides them any guidance as inhabitants of a cultural system. As did the Manson family and Jim Jones’ followers, they ignorantly stumble through the day-to-day motions, with only the cockamamie preaching of the island’s divinely-appointed head-of-state to provide them any sort of direction as human beings.

In perhaps the film’s most bluntly political moment, Howie chastises the school teacher for indoctrinating the island’s children with pagan nonsense. The criticism could more or less be lifted directly from the pages of Weaver’s “Ideas Have Consequences” or Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” -- the state-operated school system here can be construed as nothing more than an ideological training ground, a cultural reinforcement mechanism. The Summerisle school -- and perhaps, Western education as a whole -- is not an institution providing skills and knowledge, but instead, a means of inculcating the masses with desired traits and convictions.

Of course, Howie’s own Protestant culture is guilty of doing very much the same -- lest we forget his cries towards the film’s end, where he blames Summerisle’s poor harvest on their turning away from the Judeo Christian god -- but the film is careful to make a big distinction between Howie’s faith and the faith of the pagans. Howie’s religion, the Western Christian religion, is a Tao of production, a truly social philosophy designed to create the most stability and personal freedom for members of a culture. The religion of the pagans, however, is an ill-defined (and fairly nihilistic) “faith” tantamount to the worship of one’s personal liberty.

Philosophically, the most interesting character in the film is certainly Christopher Lee’s “lord” of the island, an almost pan-sexual Libertine who worships nature (in the extended version, literally in the form of apples) as an abstract construct. The prototypical cult of personality, he seems to admit to Howie that even he doesn’t believe his own pagan bullshit, but figures bringing back the Old Gods was the best way to satisfy masses reeling from a lackluster harvest. In many ways, the figure can be seen as the embodiment of the new, new Left -- an individual who strives not for social equality, but the very destruction of the old societal values. Lee’s character, fundamentally, is a post-socialist figure, the leader of a culture where beyond socioeconomic classes, sex and gender have all but been eliminated from the social consciousness.

Sexual freedom is all freedom, he states, and the laws of mother earth are the only regulations that apply for mankind.  Of course, the “natural laws” the literally two-sexed head honcho of Summerisle advocates are your standard, neo-Buddhist nihilistic dreck, as no naturalist can promote the tenets of Darwinism and post-sexuality leftism simultaneously.

The central warning of “The Wicker Man,” then, is that our typical notions of “justice,” “family” and “freedom” simply cannot exist within such a hippie-leftist-pagan post-post-modern idealized state. When all that a culture strives for is an idea of what should be instead of concrete principles centralized around what actually is, you’re left with a culture incapable of handling its own weight, a formless society where the pursuit of the pleasure principle takes precedence over the continuation of the society as a whole.

When Howie is burned alive in the giant straw effigy at the film’s end, it’s such a blatantly symbolic moment that it almost feels unnecessary to comment on its subtext. At the hands of the leftists -- whose only deities are the cultural affirmation their own wants and the elimination of “normal” as any kind of social qualifier -- the Westernized, Protestant idea of culture is burnt to a crisp, a needed sacrifice to please the old gods of amoral excess and irrational self-interest.

For a film so utterly driven by the notion of what constitutes morality, “The Wicker Man” is a weirdly irreligious film. By no means does it ever say that Protestant Christianity is the only source of morality, nor does it ever really claim to believe in the Judeo Christian god whatsoever (the studio's proposed ending, in which a fluke rainstorm saves Howie from being incinerated, would have definitely given the film a different subtext.)

What “The Wicker Man” does seem to state, however, is that the Protestant morality that propped up modern Western civilization is a necessary philosophical driver for the success of the social system as a whole. Regardless of one’s religious inclinations, it’s a stern, resounding message anyone can take away from the picture: if we abandon the core ethos that made our culture great to begin with, maybe we shouldn’t be all that surprised when we find ourselves served up as burnt offerings to appease the gods of whatever we're being told is the new normal.

3 comments:

  1. This has made me see the film in a whole new light, I've been studying the film in Media and our Teacher gave us a copy of this article. It sparked an interesting period's worth of discussion.

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    2. Awesome. I'd love to hear what you and your classmates thought .

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