Whether slurping sanguine sips from the necks of fair maidens as Dracula, smacking Gandalf around for a spell as Saruman or routing rebel scum as the aforementioned Jedi turncoat, Sir Christopher always brought the weight with just enough eccentricity to make you believe he really could be as evilly twisted as all the heavies he played.
But without a doubt, it’s tough to out-there his way-out-there role as Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man. There’s maypole dancing, animal masks, mass fertility rituals and–as the title implies–a towering, wooden sacrificial idol. And Lee is the madman in charge of the whole asylum.
Things are going just fine and pagan-ly on his little island paradise until mainland investigator Edward Woodward (long before he became The Equalizer, unfortunately for him) comes a’callin’ to investigate the disappearance of a young girl.
The ensuing eighty-eight minutes are a trippy, sometimes troublesome tale (especially for Christians) that feels like a bizarre History Channel documentary; you’re confused, offended and slightly horrified–yet you can’t turn away.
Hang in there, and you’ll come away wondering what the heck you just watched…and likely be haunted by the implications for days. Because as it turns out–sometimes even in the movies–the good guys don’t always win. And like it or not, that’s hard lesson that we all have to face.
Sheep mask optional.
It begins like tourism propaganda.
As the opening titles roll, you’re soaring over emerald isles, enjoying the romanticized twang of a highland ballad, certain that at any second, a narrator will try to persuade you to summer or winter or even spring in Scotland.
Then you touch down and thirty minutes later you realize, there are about a million better destinations.
You’ve just landed in the weird, wanton world of The Wicker Man.
The flyer turns out to be Scotland Police Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward). He’s flown to the tiny island of Summerisle after receiving an anonymous request to investigate the disappearance of one Rowan Morrison, an adolescent girl who no one seems to remember.
At first glance, Summerisle appears to be an idyllic, quaint farming community resplendent with old-world charm. The island’s lush, fertile fields produce bountiful fruit harvests and local merchants and shopkeepers never squabble or compete for business. Like a European, seaside Lake Wobegon, all the women are strong, all the men good looking and the all children…well all the children are learning some crazy stuff. Howie gets a glimpse of their education firsthand, when he drops by the tiny schoolhouse to ask a few questions. The lesson that day? The phallic significance of the Maypole that a group of their classmates wrap just outside the classroom window. And that’s just the tip (pardon the pun) of a very creepy iceberg.
Howie, a vocally devout Christian, soon discovers the entirety of the island’s inhabitants are pagans, and they aren’t afraid to show it. Old-school magic replaces scientific medicine (all the girls kiss frogs here…at least the ones seeking relief from upper respiratory infections) and couples are perfectly happy to take their behind-closed-doors activities outdoors for all the world to see. The lone church is now used for reincarnation ceremonies. And no one, including Rowan’s mother, seems to want to cooperate with Howie’s investigation. In fact, they all deny Rowan’s existence.
At the local inn, he examines a series of framed photographs on the wall of his room. Each picture seems to commemorate the island’s annual harvests and features a different young girl designated as that year’s May Queen. The latest picture is missing, reportedly “broken.” And, of course, there’s no negative.
Howie discovers Rowan’s grave, and goes to question the local leader, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) about her. Summerisle is the weirdest of the weird, but he turns out to be a wealth of background information. Turns out his grandfather was a scientist who bioengineered a species of fruit that would grow exceptionally well in the volcanic soil and conducive climate of Summerisle. Grandpa kept the science part a secret from the locals, convincing them the old gods were responsible for the repeated prodigious harvests. It wasn’t long before no one needed that whole pesky Judeo-Christian theology; the priests were all sent packing and the natives started worshiping agricultural/fertility gods.
When Lord Summerisle insists that Howie’s Christian God is dead, the infuriated inspector insists that Rowan’s body be exhumed. The loony Lord agrees, but the grave’s lone occupant is a dead hare. Furious, Howie returns, threatening to bring down the whole island for its complicity in what he believes was a ritualistic pagan sacrifice. But Lord Summerisle and his people don’t exactly cotton to Howie and his outsider beliefs.
Undeterred, Howie keeps piecing clues together and soon learns the truth about Rowan’s disappearance…and the purpose of the giant wooden idol dominating the far end of the island (here’s a hint: he’s not the Burning Man, but he’s a burning man–one with a hollow chest cavity just the right size for an adult male sacrifice).
Without giving away everything about the film’s ending, The Wicker Man teaches a tough lesson (lean in close kids): good doesn’t always triumph over evil, at least not on this side of Eternity. Though garishly stylized in Lord Summerisle’s reel world, this simple truth is dealt out much more harshly, and even more brutally in our real world. All too often, we follow Christ with a sense of karmic-invulnerability. We’re the good guys and with Christ on our side, there’s nothing we can’t overcome. But there are volumes upon volumes of decades upon centuries that prove otherwise. How many have failed while championing the Savior? How many have fallen to the powers of this world when serving as His bannermen? And why is there so much evil in the world if our God is still alive?
Followers are still persecuted, the Faithful are still killed and little by little–sometimes more and more–it seems we, like Sergeant Howie, are screaming in vain as a world-sized Summerisle laughs at our belief in a God that remains quiet, despite our pleas.
Where is God when we need him?
As in “here” in the sense that he’s right here with us, not “there” as in the sense that He got a better offer.
It would be so much easier if He would just show up and wipe all the evil away, but He doesn’t work that way. To do so would eliminate the entire concept of Free Will, because like it or not, He loves all of us enough to give us that gift–even those who choose to abuse it.
He may not swoop in with the cavalry (though He could, should He choose) or rain thunder and lightning down upon our oppressors (again, though He’s perfectly capable), but He is no doubt here with us–grieving with us, aching for us, hurting for us, comforting us, reassuring us, loving us–through all of it.
He knows our heartache; he felt it when his best friends betrayed and denied him. He knows our fear; He sweat blood in the Garden he was so scared. He knows our shame; he cringed when they stripped him and mocked him and spit on him. And he knows our pain; His one Friday’s worth was enough to last a lifetime.
And because He’s lived it, He can help us live with it. Even if we don’t live through it.
He is a source of comfort and assurance, for the victim and the mourner; a limitless spring of peace for both. Through the power and promise of His Resurrection, we are victors–more than conquerors–even if we forfeit our own lives chasing His glory.
May we have the courage to endure adversity, strong in our conviction and the promise of His love, knowing that the battle is not ours and that it’s already won. May we boldly stand against the Wicker Men.
And may we be made of stronger stuff.