Robin Hardy’s 1973 cult classic, The Wicker Man, has been digitally restored by StudioCanal, having sourced a 35mm print at Harvard Film Archives. Hardy oversaw this cut for American release, via the Abraxis distribution label, in 1979.
The release history of The Wicker Man is a complicated affair. A mythology grew up around the film and its ‘lost’ material – including the oft-told tale about the original negative being buried under the M4 motorway by workmen (a rumour spread by director Alex Cox). The problem in restoring The Wicker Man has always been the lack of a strong enough source to work off. You cannot restore a film, at all satisfactorily, from videotape and other low-grade material.
We met up with the director in central London to discuss the film's legacy and why this ‘Final Cut’ restoration has his seal of approval.
GFW: Christopher Lee gets a bit annoyed when fans or journalists describe The Wicker Man as a ‘horror movie’. What would you call it?
Robin Hardy: It’s a black comedy ... We got this wonderful headline review very early on: ‘The Citizen Kane of horror movies’. You couldn’t disown a review like that because of the ‘Citizen Kane’ part. We became stuck with the ‘horror film’ tag.
How closely have you been involved in this new restoration?
I’ve done it all before, when we had to restore it in the United States. But then it was done under much more difficult circumstances because the technology – the digital technology – now makes it much simpler. We had to do something called the ‘Liquid Gate’ process, frame-by-frame … it was a really big deal and expensive. What could be done in a matter of days here [with the StudioCanal restoration] took us weeks then. Anyway, I have been consulted at the crucial stages and made my comments. The big problem has always been where we had no negative, which is, roughly speaking, after he goes into the pub until he comes out in the morning and she’s [landlord’s daughter played by Britt Ekland, below] scrubbing the tables. That’s it. Those scenes are all night scenes … so my opinion back then, and now, if you do have more grain [on the images] you just have to say, ‘That’s night’.
It is noticeable, the change in image quality.
Did you see it on the screen?
Honestly, I don’t think you’ll particularly notice it on a DVD.
Britt Ekland as Willow.
When British Lion re-cut the movie, to put it on a double bill with Nicholas Roeg's Don’t Look Now, did they do that without your consent?
That was entirely British Lion ... They did that because they were getting rid of Peter Snell, the producer, who was also the managing director of British Lion and they said it [The Wicker Man] was a disaster and they blamed him because he produced it. That opened the way, therefore, to sell the entire company to EMI ... It was a corporate-political thing.
Is it true that the film’s reputation grew from stellar reviews in America?
No, not entirely true. Christopher Lee went to Michael Deeley, who was by that the time the Managing Director, having elbowed out Peter Snell, and he [Christopher] said, ‘This is a wonderful film and the best film I’ve ever made.’ They simply said, ‘Sorry, this is one of the worst films we’ve ever seen and we can’t distribute it’. Christopher was very cross and he was also very cross, this is typical Christopher: He went on this visit to British Lion with his wife and Michael Deeley didn’t stand up [when they entered the room]. Christopher thought this was extraordinarily rude. He remembered that more, I think, and that drove him to take the film to Paris, on top of the fact he resented their opinion. Of course in Paris it was shown at a film festival and won the Grand Prix award. By that time, the journalists here [in London] said, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ and probably many of them hadn’t seen it, and British Lion certainly hadn’t screened it for them. We ended up with rave reviews.
What are you memories of working with Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward?
I knew Christopher would be wonderful because I’d seen an awful lot of his work. Woodward’s work, I was familiar with because of a thriller series on television (Callan), which, while he did it very well, didn’t show his range. The discovery was extraordinary because his range and insight into what he was doing was really wonderful. Once I knew that was happening, and you can’t tell those things in advance, just by having lunch with somebody, it doesn’t work like that, it was a great pleasure.
Edward Woodward as virginal Christian Sergeant Howie.
Was there anybody in the cast that were uncertain about the project, given it’s a very odd picture?
I think you’re right. It wasn’t the cast, though, but the crew. Harry Waxman, a wonderful cameraman, was unconvinced that we could get the shots at the end – where the Wicker Man burns – without a lot of [photographic] trickery. We shot the film in November-December time.
It was shot in winter?!
The whole film was.
The film is set in the springtime, with the restoration establishing a clear 72-hour period for the story...
If the camera had panned up you’d have seen the snow on the hills. We had to put ice in the actors’ mouths so their breaths wouldn’t appear on screen.
Tell us about Summerisle as a place. It has a sort of Mediterranean look in some scenes.
When I was selecting the locations and looked at them, Summerisle was a place where everything grew so you had to have that. There were some rather splendid sub-tropical gardens on the west coast of Scotland. They’re freaks of nature, really. They’re defended by hills from the sea and the rain, so it was conducive to what you saw in the film. I cheated because it was seasonal… apples will not grow in the winter. The shots you see in the air as he’s landing were shot in South Africa.
The folk songs are very much part of The Wicker Man’s ‘cult appeal’. Why did you use them so heavily?
The folk music reflects the old religion. The lyrics, which had to be bowdlerised, or de-bowdlerised I should say, were sort of… erotic, and so on and so forth, and reflected the beliefs of the islanders.
'The Wicker Man: The Final Cut' will be released theatrically on 27 September.