Have you ever had one of those moments when suddenly you realise you’ve been following the wrong rule book? You think you're playing one game, but then you see you’re caught up in something very different? And maybe something much darker than you’d imagined. You’ve been pouring your energy, intellect or emotions into one task, only to find that someone higher up has been redirecting your efforts towards other ends.
Officer Kujan, in The Usual Suspects, reaches this point: having teased out the long, complex story from “Verbal” Kint, he releases his witness, only to discover, moments too late, that Kint was not a witness but Keyser Soze, the perpetrator himself. The scales fall from our eyes simultaneously, as we survey the notice board together with Kujan and see how Kint had improvised his yarn from the names of people and places he’d seen there. As listeners, we undergo a similar experience in the course of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony. A banal little tune enters in the middle of the first movement, but as the repetitions continue obsessively, and as the orchestration thickens and darkens, the horror of the situation dawns on us: banality is united with the horror of a war of annihilation in the form of the Nazi war machine, which had advanced through Russia and reached the outskirts of Leningrad by the time the symphony was broadcast in the streets of the besieged city.
Sergeant Howie, the luckless, repressed protagonist of The Wicker Man, experiences this lurch too. And even ends up in the costume of a fool to drive the point home. But once his eyes are opened, he has to be sacrificed. Religious reasons, of course – like people who know too much can say some very awkward things for those whose power depends on the success of their lies.
It all looked very different at the start. We thought we knew what the game was: a detective suspense movie. Howie thought he knew what his job was: to fly over to Summerisle, find the missing girl, or her corpse, and to catch the kidnappers or murderers (yes, yes, Sassenach reader, I know how you love to hear “murrdurr”, and you’ll get a year’s supply in The Wicker Man). But all along the way he’s stonewalled by the islanders – even the girl’s own mother – and good leads turn into red herrings. Even the bedrock of his assumptions, that there actually was a missing girl, turns out to be another illusion, and Howie finally sees that the game really revolves around him instead, because he has already been chosen as the sacrificial victim even before he came to Summerisle.
And we, as careful and critical viewers, congratulate ourselves on noticing that there’s another game in motion, namely the friction between two utterly different moral outlooks. On the one side, we have the pursed lips and raised eyebrows of Howie’s uptight Christianity, exchanging six days of self-denial and repression for the austere, whitewashed pleasures of his hymn-singing and bible reading. And on the other side, the obvious attractions of the islanders’ way of life, their freedom to follow their pleasures without shame, mediated by rituals that have so much more colour and mystery than anything in Howie’s repertoire. So we know which side we’re on.
OK, we’re with the islanders and against Howie. Except. Child sacrifice. Now that’s difficult to swallow. Call it the anthropologist’s dilemma: you don’t want to claim your Western values are universal, so you refuse to pass judgement on the morals and practises of other societies. Until you hit something like this that you ... just ... can’t ... bring yourself ... to accept. But, you say, let’s make a slight adjustment to the game – we’re playing moral dilemmas now. Tougher terrain, but still familiar, the very stuff of good drama.
Now here’s where I’m going to part company with everyone else (and possibly even with the director and the author of the screenplay, going by the interviews they’ve given). Because I want to show why the moral-dilemma game is just as much a red herring as the detective game. When Samuel P. Huntington tells us that the key to wars and cold wars is the “clash of civilisations” we rightly ask whether we’re being taken for fools. Does the seven-figure death toll in Iraq really stem from some primeval tectonic friction between “Western” and “Muslim” “civilisations”? How sordid of us to drag Huntington’s pristine account of cultural history down to the level of strategic control of oil reserves.
If we can reject the “Clash of Civilisations” as the ultimate ground of explanation (and justification) for world conflict, it shouldn’t be too difficult for us to see that there should be something beyond the clash between Howie’s Christianity and Summerisle’s paganism. Especially when all the information we need is contained within the film. The centrepiece is the scene where Howie visits the castle, and finally meets Lord Summerisle face to face. After toying with Howie and mocking his beliefs, Summerisle turns serious and offers Howie a very candid explanation for the islanders' ways:
In the last century, the islanders were starving. Like our neighbours today, they were scratching a bare subsistence from sheep and sea. Then in 1868, my grandfather bought this barren island and began to change things. A distinguished Victorian scientist, agronomist, freethinker. ... What attracted my grandfather to the island, apart from the profuse source of wiry labour that it promised, was the unique combination of volcanic soil and the warm gulf stream that surrounded it. You see, his experiments had led him to believe that it was possible to induce here the successful growth of certain new strains of fruit that he’d developed. So, with typical mid-Victorian zeal, he set to work.
So the pioneering grandfather was an enlightened man of science. Then why did he bring a new religion to the island? Couldn’t he share his “freethinking” with the inhabitants?
The best way of accomplishing this – so it seemed to him – was to rouse the people from their apathy by giving them back their joyous old gods. And that as a result of this worship, the barren island would burgeon and bring forth fruit in great abundance. What he did, of course, was to develop new cultivars of hardy fruit suited to local conditions.
Summerisle is holding back a little here. The grandfather’s scientific knowledge could have been taught to the islanders, and “the joyous old gods” would have been redundant. But if the islanders had the science, then the scientist himself would have become redundant. So the scientist had to transform himself into a priest in order to maintain his power over the islanders (his life of leisure, his servants and his fine castle), replacing the island’s ministers, who’d been scared off in the meantime:
Well, of course, to begin with they worked for him because he fed and clothed them, but later when the trees started fruiting, it became a very different matter, and the ministers fled the island, never to return. What my grandfather had started out of expediency, my father continued out of love. He brought me up the same way: to reverence the music and the drama and the rituals of the old gods; to love nature, and to fear it – and to rely on it and to appease it where necessary.
So if Summerisle’s own words tell us most of what we need to know, why have they been overlooked? Or at best seen as marginalia, while the culture clash is seen as central? When we hear these words, our sympathies still lie firmly with the islanders and their pagan beliefs, which seem liberating in contrast to Howie’s Christianity, and this allows the material underpinnings of the island’s cult to pass us by. A little later, the brief flashbacks to Summerisle’s monologue focus precisely on the lines that don’t contextualise the cult, leading us astray again.
But the final exchange between Summerisle and Howie forces us to confront the reality behind the culture clash, not as some discursive intrusion, but now integrated into the dramatic situation, Alongside Howie, we finally realise what Summerisle had planned all along. A defeated but defiant Howie, in his last words to Summerisle, says that the sacrifice – of Howie himself – will only buy Summerisle another year. Summerisle knows this, but the islanders don't ... yet.
Your crops failed because your strains failed. Fruit is not meant to be grown on these islands – it’s against nature. Well don’t you see that killing me is not going to bring back your apples? Summerisle, you know it won’t. ... Don’t you understand that if your crops fail this year, next year you’re going to have to have another blood sacrifice. And next year, no-one less than the king of Summerisle himself will do. When the crops fail, Summerisle, next year your people will kill you on May Day.
The arrogance and contempt drain from Summerisle’s face, and he can’t bring himself to look at Howie – not from guilt, but fear, since he knows Howie is speaking the truth. This, at last gives us a perspective that takes us outside the problems we'd thought the film was engaged with, and offers us an understanding both of the facts and the morality of what we’ve seen.
For so long as it appeared to be a tale of conflicting world views, the film latched on to contemporary cultural and moral debates; but now that we’ve outgrown that opposition, let’s see what the film can tell us about the world then (and today). The imagery of people being burnt to death was at the time most clearly associated with the war on the people of Vietnam (and Cambodia, and Laos). The real representative of our rulers in all their horror turns out to be Summerisle, not Howie – the same laird we were earlier invited to see as a benign, even liberating patriarch. The wicker-man sacrifice shows him flailing out with violence to stave off the disaster that awaits him, just as the US ruling class set South-East Asia alight rather than face up to its own inescapable economic and social problems. But the ultimate failure of the Summerisle agricultural experiment after three human generations – “it’s against nature”, as Howie says – also points to fears over the unsustainability of the industrialised world, fears that were beginning to emerge in popular consciousness when the film was released, and which we have all the more reason to heed today.
As the system begins to collapse, our rulers and owners, who maintain it in their interests, will sooner sacrifice ever more human lives rather than loosen their grasp on the source of their profits. They know this can’t save them in the long run, but so long as they think it will postpone their day of reckoning, they’ll continue to feed the flames with human bodies. And they’ll continue to use their house-trained journalists, academics and clerics to wrap up murder so that it looks grand and right.