Flower Children only got so far in changing the world. Their aesthetic and milieu was a reaction to the cynicism of the 1950s and a direct push against the military industrial complexities of Post Modern living. Shoving all that love into the outside world didn’t yield good returns. By the 1970s, people were looking towards going back to simpler lives behind village walls to insulate themselves from the fast paced communication technology world that was rapidly being born. Enter then, an emblem to carry them to places they didn’t quite remember but their hearts yearned for
The Wicker Man
In 1973, a new kind of horror film was released in the UK. It featured all the tropes that would become hallmarks of the Folk Horror Movement: village scenes worthy of Thomas Kincade, city folks underestimating country folks, odd family and community customs steeped in history, harvest, harvest festivals, harvesting, guests and newcomers to said festivals getting information on a need to know basis, and conventionally attractive young people in various stages of traditional dress and undress.
The studio that produced it knew it was strange. They tried to bury it by minimizing promotion. Its success and eventual release in the US in 1975 was due entirely to the efforts of Christopher Lee. From the start, he knew this was his own weird and wyrd masterwork. He knew it would have an impact on art, film, and music. And he knew the ideas behind it had long lasting resonance.
Several different cuts of the film exist. Their differences are relatively small- but seem to have tremendous significance to the fan cult of followers that have encircled this film for decades. The basic plot is that Summerisle, an isolated Scottish community, has spent generations cultivating a particularly famous kind of apples. These apples and other crops that grow on the island depend on the insular bee population as well as a mysterious specific type of fertilizer and cultivation regimen. This agricultural venture is the primary enterprise of the village and the inhabitants are extremely focused on success. A law enforcement officer from the mainland comes to the island to investigate reports of foul play. Once on the island, he becomes immersed in the local culture and eventually learns of the customs specific to the community.
****** spoilers ahead.******
Hidden behind those initial tropes are some very important issues- the follies of selective memory, learning from cherry picked history- not the whole apple cart, and the pros and cons of community isolation. Also there are messages about unwavering faith. In general, the film has sparked creative ideas and social discourse since it was released
People even do pilgrimages to the locations used in the production
As compelling as the film is, it is not based on a solid foundation. The “original” reports about wicker men came from Julius Caesar in his musings about Gaul and the Druids. This quote may be the single most culturally impacting image in ‘The Conquest of Gaul” .
This imagery made for great media. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when there was expansion of access to printed engravings and translated and original language writings of classical authors, depictions of the wicker man became sensational. Wicker men became official classical elements of the Celtic resistance to the colonization of Britain by the Romans.
However, much of this is problematic. In addition to Caesar, wicker men are mentioned by the Greek geographer Strabo
” We are told of still other kinds of human sacrifices; for example, they would shoot victims to death with arrows, or impale them in the temples, or, having devised a colossus of straw and wood, throw into the colossus cattle and wild animals of all sorts and human beings, and then make a burnt-offering of the whole thing.” Strabo IV, 4:5
But here’s the thing- neither of these accounts specifically place the wicker man practice in Britain. And these two descriptions, which are interestingly alike in detail and original wording , seem to not be witness accounts but riffs off of the writings of someone else- an ethnographer named Posidonius.
Additionally, there is no archeological evidence to support this practice.
Not to mention, there are some engineering factors and material sourcing issues that make the actual physical construction of a 3 story tall wicker man not something that was likely to ever be possible in Pre-Roman Britain.
Ok. Fine. It is just one of those things whose description has a specific communal resonance and was used by the art world to create compelling imagery and provocative plot structures. Ms. Sid- Can’t we please just have some fun with this crazy fever dream of a really good time?
Yes. Yes you can.
Heck, throw a party!!