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.]

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Written by Donald Michael Kraig
Donald Michael Kraig graduated from UCLA with a degree in philosophy. He has also studied public speaking and music (traditional and experimental) on the university level. After a decade of personal study and practice, he began ten years of teaching courses in the Southern California area on such ...