June Butler jumps through fire and revists Robin Hardy’s 1973 classic The Wicker Man.

Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) is summoned to the remote island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper). Howie travels to the island by waterplane and moors the plane up in the bay. A local boatman takes him to the harbour where he is greeted with suspicion and barely concealed antipathy by the islanders.

A man with deep-rooted and heartfelt religious convictions, the prim and proper Howie, has vowed not to have sexual relations until he is married. Early scenes in the film show him at a religious service in church with his betrothed. Without a shred of humour or wit, Sergeant Howie is committed to upholding good and banishing evil. His misfortune is to be imbued with pompous sanctimony. He is an individual who staunchly believes in good and evil, is unable to ascertain the motives of others, and feels he has an unassailable right to pass judgement on the behaviour of those around him. Howie possesses no common sense or emotional intelligence. He is convinced of his own righteousness and fails to witness the nature of human duplicity and deceit or even conceive that it exists.

Upon his arrival on the Island, Howie starts to investigate Rowan’s whereabouts but meets with silent resistance. He visits Rowan’s mother – or so he is led to believe. May Morrison appears to be the quintessential motherly type. She fusses and frets but denies that she is Rowan’s mother, even going so far as to say that Rowan doesn’t exist. Puzzled, Howie questions another daughter, who tells Howie she knows the girl but then shows him a drawing of a mythical hare claiming this is the Rowan she was referring to. On visiting a school, the children cast quiet sidelong glances at each other when Howie quizzes them about Rowan’s whereabouts yet continues to deny any knowledge of the girl. Their school teacher, Miss Rose (Diane Cilento) insists she knows no one by the child’s name, and maintains she never taught her. Howie demands to see the school register and sees that Rowan is listed among the attendees. He loudly berates the teacher and children for lying to him, causing several of Rowan’s classmates to cry. Howie begins to realise that the islanders have denounced Christianity and embraced Paganism in its place. Shocked and aghast, the priggish Howie observes children being exposed to sexual acts while their parents and other adults pass such conduct off as entirely normal. He sees couples openly fornicating in fields and there are countless other blatantly sexual references – both in supposedly harmless songs and by innuendo. All of this is enacted by the islanders as if it were normal and mundane. When circumstances force him to remain on the island (the mechanics and radio of his seaplane are vandalised and rendered useless), Howie has no choice but to stay in the local tavern where the alluring Willow MacGregor (Britt Ekland) attempts to seduce him, aided and abetted by her leering father, landlord Alder MacGregor (Lindsay Kemp). As Howie continues to ask questions, he is met with deliberate obstruction – the islanders seem to be in cahoots with each other in their calculating efforts to elide and obfuscate Howie’s best intentions. Refusing to admit or acknowledge it, Howie has lost control and with the fragmentation of what he represents, namely law and order, all sangfroid dissipates and he begins to psychologically disintegrate. Howie’s impotent rage only feeds into the actions of jeering school children and simpering school mistresses who provoke and harry without respite. By the time Howie visits the stately home of the gleefully unhinged Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), to continue his enquiries, he is on the brink of a mental collapse.

In 1930, John B. Watson, an American Psychologist and expert on Behaviourism once maintained he could indoctrinate any child into becoming an expert in whatever profession he chose including more nefarious, criminal pursuits. All Watson needed was his own small-scale version, a world where the conditions were consistently stable, and he could mould an infant into his own specifications, doctor, lawyer, beggarman, thief. Summerisle is a perfect microcosm for a cultlike existence, and particularly the brainwashing of children.

No one person laid out rules for tyranny, but various psychologists conceived theories and tests to prove just how easy it was to manipulate people into following orders even if it went against their individual moral code. Two studies stand out – one was the 1971 Stanford University prison experiment where student volunteers were divided into groups of prisoners and jailers. The aim was to monitor the effects of authority and dehumanization on a group of ‘inmates’ in a mock prison system. The experiment took place over a period of two weeks and was carried out in the basement of Jordan Hall, one of Stanford University campus buildings. The research, which was conducted by Professor Philip Zimbardo, had to be called off after only six days due to the extreme mistreatment meted out by ‘jailers’ to ‘prisoners’. The second study, devised by Stanley Milgram, was run in 1961. Milgram attempted to measure the likelihood of people obeying an authority figure, despite those instructions contradicting personal conscience. A group of volunteers were divided into learners and teachers. At the last minute, the roles were switched so that the teachers became the learners and vice versa. The teacher was asked to give an electric shock when the learner incorrectly answered a question. Teachers were on one side of a partition and learners on the other. The learners were in on the experiment and not actually being shocked but told to act as if they were. As the learners continued to deliberately give incorrect answers, the teachers responded by meting out ever increasing currents of electricity. The results of the study were staggering – 65% of the teachers continued to the highest level of 450 volts where in normal circumstances, death would occur. All the ‘teachers’ administered up to 300 volts. The outcome is that normal people, given a certain set of defined circumstances, are easily persuaded into doing the dirty work of a tyrant.

Keeping in mind the requirements before tyranny is able to fully form, it is easy to consider how the islander’s behaviour on Summerisle connects to both studies. First, engender prejudice and form a dominant group with an ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ mindset. The jailers in Stanford Prison, teachers in Milgram’s study and the islanders fulfil this nod to autocracy. There is no outside influence, no one to contradict a ludicrous and nonsensical mindset, no overarching observer who imposes reasonable rules for people to adhere to and follows up defying such laws with consequences. One of the key outcomes is Howie’s descent into powerlessness but he is so convinced of his own authority, he cannot see how events are slotting neatly into place. The audience can sense the danger, but Howie is completely unaware of what is to come.

The Wicker Man is an epithet to the desecration of purity – a defilement of innocence, the loss of supremacy, and the subtle sadistic glee that comes with such annihilation. What happens next is arguably one of the most defining and horrific moments in cinematic history. No spoilers here but don’t watch this movie on your own. You will be looking over your shoulder for weeks afterwards.



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