The Wicker Man is one of those movies where I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen it. Admittedly, the beginning of our relationship was rocky, but it wasn’t either of our faults; the VHS copies extant in the late eighties and early nineties, when I first discovered the film, were butchered messes that should never have seen the light of day, and when I saw them, I wondered what it was everyone was raving about. Then, roundabout the mid- to late nineties—I don’t know exactly when, but I picked up a VHS copy on ebay in 1998ish—a 104-minute “definitive” cut was released that put back all known and still available footage from the film. The first time I saw that, it finally clicked for me, and since then it’s been smooth sailing. One of the two things I had never been able to do with The Wicker Man was see it on the big screen. Until, that is, last night.
When I first got wind that (a) Hardy was recutting the film for a fortieth-anniversary release and (b) it was going to contain footage previously thought lost, my immediate reaction was “by apples, we’re finally going to get the long-rumored 126-minute cut that my friend Ian Davey has been prophesying for years is actually mixed into the concrete somewhere on the M1!” Then the Capitol Theater released the specs, and… ninety-four minutes? There was trepidation. But still, ninety-four minutes of The Wicker Man on the big screen is almost guaranteed to beat the pants off anything in current release, so was there a chance I was going to miss it? Not on your life, bub.
Insert lots of dross here about the difference between seeing something on a TV screen, no matter how many times you do it, and seeing it on the big screen. There were things I noticed for the first time, yes, and not things, I believe, that were the result of new footage. (The late Paul Giovanni, for one thing, who I thought appeared in only a single scene, pops up three distinct times, including in a group shot at the end.) Some scenes are just plain more powerful on the big screen than they ever could be at home. Everyone’s aware that the infamous dance Willow (The Man with the Golden Gun‘s Britt Ekland) does to try and seduce staid Sergeant Howie (The Appointment‘s Edward Woodward) is one of the most erotic scenes ever committed to film, but—and this may be new footage, I was hoping to give the 104-minute cut a rewatch when I got home last night but ended up not having the time—Howie’s ritual cleansing at the end of the film at the hands of Willow and the Librarian (Where Eagles Dare‘s Ingrid Pitt)? Powerful stuff indeed, and done with no one naked, which by the end of the film seems positively abnormal. If this cut makes it to your neck of the woods, you’ve never seen it in glorious 35mm, and you’re at all a fan of the movie, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you pass it up.
Still, there are a few things that didn’t sit quite right. Specifically, in Willow’s dance, there’s a surprisingly sloppy edit that removes the final two lines of the first bridge (“I’ll catch a rainbow in the sky/and tie the ends together.”) The visuals line up well enough, but there’s an audible glitch in the soundtrack. Eh? (That’s not the only cut to the song, and presumably the dance, but the others have been around in the film forever—which is one of the main reasons you’ve never heard a cover of the song that contains the final couplet, which is excised from the film. It appears in the version on the soundtrack.) There are some other odd edits in this cut, mostly places where it looks as if a scene was plunked down in the middle of another—you’re in the Green Man carousing with the crowd, then you cut to something else, then all of a sudden you’re back in the Green Man picking up exactly where you left off. I’d imagine more casual fans of the film will notice something doesn’t seem quite right in those places, but may not get quite what. Well, that’s it.
It’s still, as famously named by Cinefantastique, “the Citizen Kane of horror films” (you’ve heard that term applied to a few others, folks, but rest assured it originated here). Anthony Shaffer, by some accounts with a good deal of help from Robin Hardy (who would go on to write the novelization, which is itself quite wonderful) and Christopher Lee, took a psychedelic-but-not-terribly-supernatural thriller and turned it into a grand meditation on sovereignty, religious intolerance, man’s attempt to “rise above” the natural order of things, and a half-dozen other important, and eternal, questions on the human condition. The new cut contains some of the talky stuff that was left out of both the theatrical and definitive (I still consider the 104-minute cut, at this point, the definitive one) cuts; for example, in the scene where Howie is requesting Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee)’s permission to exhume Rowan Morrison’s body, there’s another couple of minutes of the Laird’s explanations of how things came to be the way they are on Summerisle. It’s good stuff, though some of the added talky bits are more heavy-handed than was, perhaps, necessary (Summerisle’s monologue outside the Green Man while watching the snails, for example, could have been thirty seconds shorter, and would have been better-served by it).
I still want to see that rumored 126-minute cut (the other, by the by, of the two things I’ve never been able to do with the film, mentioned at the end of the first paragraph). Devotees of the movie will be disappointed to note that the oft-bandied-about sequence of Howie riding a bicycle whilst interviewing island residents didn’t make this cut, so we still have no idea where it appears in the movie, or whether anything of import happens or if it’s just set decoration. One way or the other, though, religious intolerance attempting to stamp on paganism? Naked women leaping through bonfires? Long, warm nights in the pub? Fresh produce? If there’s a better movie to see on a cold Christmastime evening, I certainly can’t think of it.
The original 1973 theatrical trailer.