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The Most Pagan Movie

This post was written by Donald Michael Kraig
on August 9, 2010 | Comments (10)

There have been very few movies that illustrate Paganism. The few that do show Paganism have fleeting glimpses of Pagan practices most often taken out of context, used as mere plot points rather than presenting real Pagan practices, and are usually given a very negative light.

There is only one film I’ve ever seen that reveals what it might be like to live fully in an actual Pagan world and that presents real Pagan practices. That film, of course, is Robin Hardy’s 1973 movie, The Wicker Man.*

Warning! Spoiler Alert!
This post reveals what happens in the movie.

Although supposedly based on a 1967 novel by David Piner called The Ritual, at best it can be said that Piner’s horrific novel merely inspired Hardy (one scene from the novel was used in the movie) who did intense research with the help of Anthony Shaffer, famed for writing the play Sleuth. Their main source was The Golden Bough by Sir James G. Frazer. Much of the music in the movie is based on ancient Pagan music. The concluding song, “Sumer is Icumen In” (meaning “Summer Has Arrived”), is the oldest song written in English for which both the words and music are known.

The initial problem of creating a culture that was virtually completely Celtic Pagan was finding a way it could exist in a world that was thoroughly industrialized. This was solved by putting the civilization on a small and isolated Scottish island, the fictional island called Summerisle (possibly inspired by the archipelago group of tiny lands called the  Summer Islands of the Inner Hebrides). The owner of the fictional island, naturally, is Lord Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee. Lee worked for free and insists that it is the best script he ever saw. The woman he is obviously dating in the film, the school teacher “Miss Rose,” was played by Diane Cilento who had actually semi-retired before doing this movie. She claimed she was a “White Witch” in real life and helped choreograph the dance of the women leaping the fire. An image in the inn was taken from the art she had designed for a Tarot deck.

Christianity vs. Paganism

In the story, Lord Summerisle’s grandfather had purchased the island and had created a thriving agrarian society where none should exist by introducing hardy crop strains. To keep the people happy he reverted them to the Old Gods. Most recently, however, the crops have failed. Now,  a Pagan solution needed to be found.

Police Sergent Howie receives a mysterious letter with a photo of a young girl said to be missing on Summerisle. He takes a small seaplane to the island to investigate. During his investigation the ultra-Christian Howie is confronted with the very traditional Pagan beliefs of Lord Summerisle and the locals. He constantly seems revulsed, appalled, and shocked at their beliefs and actions while the Pagans seem patient, tolerant and bemused at the outsider. Eventually, Howie comes to the conclusion that the missing girl is going to be sacrificed at a May day ritual to bring back good harvests. He searches frantically for her, leading to the twist ending and his own fate.

The Controversy

Although through most of the movie the Pagans are shown in a positive light and Howie’s Christianity is shown as pompous, unbelievable, and constraining, the ending is horrifying to our modern sensibilities and has caused many Pagans to “disown” the movie. For in the end, it turns out that the actions of Howie have been directed by the islanders. The missing girl is quite safe, and the virgin sacrifice, along with a group of farm animals, is none other than Howie himself. It is this horrendous burning alive of the targeted victim that has angered many Pagans.

I disagree with that view.

Sgt. Howie is a Fool. No, he is not foolish, but he is playing the ancient role of The Fool. In the parade at the end of the film he even wears the costume and acts like a Fool. He is also the Divine King—or in this case, a representative of the king. Thus, this is a re-enactment of the ancient tradition of a Fool being treated as a King for the Day, and then sacrificed for the well-being of the people.

The problem many people have with this is the way it is admitted that Howie’s actions were orchestrated. Traditionally, human sacrifices that had spiritual meaning were voluntary. If his actions were orchestrated, how could they also have been voluntary?

My response it that Sgt. Howie has numerous chances to avoid his fate and he choose to ignore every one of them. He was told to go away. He was told the missing girl wasn’t there. He was given a chance to be seduced by “The Landlord’s Daughter” and refused, remaining a virgin and appropriate for the sacrifice. He was told to leave before the May day celebration several times. He ignored it all. It is true that his actions were orchestrated, but he choose—in essence, he volunteered—to follow the orchestration. He was a willing sacrifice to the gods to improve the crops of Summerisle, even though, at the end, he tried to deny his volunteering.

The Wicker Man is both beautiful and horrifying, just like human life. Because of the shock value it has been called “The Citizen Kane of Horror.” It is certainly more popular today than when it was initially released. It is unfortunate that the film has been butchered in editing. I own four different versions of the film.

What do you think of the movie? Love it? Hate it? Love/hate it? Share your feelings in the comments.

[*Do not confuse this with the Neil Labute’s 2006 embarrassing financial flop of moviemaking by the same name starring Nicholas Cage. Hardy’s film is now considered a classic and one of the 500 best films of all time while the latter received five “Razzie” award nominations including worst film of 2006 and worst on-screen couple: Cage and his amazingly hysterical bear costume.]

Reader Comments

Written By Ty
on August 10th, 2010 @ 7:15 am

I’ve been arguing the same interpretation for years! It’s a great, but often misunderstood movie.

Written By JB
on August 11th, 2010 @ 7:06 am

have you seen the modern remake of Wicker Man with Nick Cage? It’s not bad at all.

Written By Obsidian
on August 11th, 2010 @ 8:03 am

My take is that, in the end, Sgt. Howie got what he truly wanted….to become like Jesus, his “spiritual hero.”

Written By JB
on August 11th, 2010 @ 8:19 am

Donald, I had a request if you would be so kind. I would love to hear (read) your thoughts on the works of Franz Bardon (Initiation into Hermetics, etc.) When I was much younger I was very fascinated with his work and found it very influential.It seemed to me at the time that a person could practically spend a lifetime practicing just what was in his books. Anyway I would love to get your perspective on Bardon and his work, possibly in a future blog post here. Thank you!!

Written By Donald Michael Kraig
on August 11th, 2010 @ 11:54 am

Hi, JB.

I saw the remake of Wicker Man in a theater. Most of the audience was laughing at it. I also own a copy of the DVD (purchased used) because I wanted to see the “different” ending they enticingly promised.

I fear that at best we’ll have to “agree to disagree” concerning the modern remake. I hold the opposite view when compared to your assessment of the film for a variety of reasons, ranging from misogyny, plot holes to bad acting and direction. However, more importantly (from my perspective), was Mr. Labute’s complete lack of understanding of Paganism and the power of myth, turning a fascinating look at competing cultures and religions with a horrific ending into a simple and simplistic horror/shock film.

The remake only presented the “shell” of the original, completely abandoning the inner “nut” of meaning. That’s too bad. Some of the actors in the remake have done outstanding work, as has Labute. I don’t think this movie will make their lists of “career milestones.” According to Wikipedia (not my favorite source), “The film was poorly received by critics, and Robin Hardy, co-creator and director of the original British film, disassociated himself from it.”

Concerning Bardon, that will take another blog post in the future. I will say that many people copy from him, directly or indirectly, and rarely give him credit.

Written By James Berry
on August 11th, 2010 @ 1:47 pm

I disagree. I think it’s showing religion according to the ancient principles by which our ancestors lived. It certainly follows a morality that is alien to our Judeo-Christian culture. Additionally, the movie isn’t meant to portray modern …neo-pagans but rather a return to *ancient* British paganism–remember that we’re still pulling strangled bodies out of sacred bogs 3000 years later!
Sgt Howie is given every chance to get out of it–he needs to be a virgin so they send a lady to seduce him and so forth. Hi choices keep him suitable as a sacrifice. Our ancestors would have done exactly the same thing–and they did. Look up ‘sacred king’ online and you’ll find more info.
Remember that today we hit a grocery store. Crops fail? We ship ’em in from elsewhere. Back then if crops failed, people died. The sacrifice of one to save many is morally acceptable from that POV–so much so that Spock cited it as well. XD

Written By Dolfin
on August 11th, 2010 @ 5:02 pm

What if you hadn’t seen the original first? What if the Remake was the first version you saw? Can you be objective enough of your assessment of the Remake without letting your previous experience sway your judgment? I have never seen either one. I think I will see the remake, before I see the original, just so that the original doesn’t sway me.

What are your thoughts?

Written By Donald Michael Kraig
on August 11th, 2010 @ 10:01 pm

Hi, Dolfin.

When movies are made from books, they usually change things in order to be more appropriate for the film medium. As a result, even if I’ve read the book, I always approach a film from the standpoint of an original work about which I know nothing. Sometimes movies that try to copy a book too exactly are not very good as movies, even if they do follow the book (the original release of David Lynch’s version of Dune, for example). Sometimes movies can have little to do with their sources but are great movies (Tim Burton’s recent Alice in Wonderland). So when I saw the remake, I approached it fresh. The acting was uniformly poor. The plot had massive holes. It was misogynistic. The directing was bad and some of the costumes (Cage’s bear suit) were just hilariously bad. Chances are, if I had seen the remake first I would not have bothered with the original. The 1939 version of Beau Geste had a lot of back story not included in the 1966 remake. But Telly Savalas’ Sergeant Major Dagineau was so much more intense than Brian Donlevy as Sergeant Markoff that I enjoyed the remake just as much, but for different reasons.

Written By Celestial Elf
on October 7th, 2013 @ 1:24 am

Interesting post, I thought you might like my machinima animation about The Wise Woman, The Witch
Bright Blessings ~


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