ROBIN HARDY

Robin Hardy, di­rec­tor of un­for­get­table folk hor­ror The Wicker Man, passed away last month. An un­pub­lished in­ter­view by Alan Barnes cel­e­brates the man and his mas­ter­piece

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A pre­vi­ously un­pub­lished in­ter­view with the late di­rec­tor of The Wicker Man.

Twenty-one years ago, I in­ter­viewed the some­time film di­rec­tor Robin Hardy in the din­ing room of a mod­er­ately swanky Soho mem­bers club. I say “some­time” be­cause he was keen to stress “I’m also a jour­nal­ist, I write quite a lot for the New York

Times, I write nov­els… I don’t think I would want sim­ply to di­rect movies, although I like di­rect­ing movies.”

“You want a long epi­taph on your grave­stone?” I re­sponded, toad­y­ishly. “Not just ‘Di­rec­tor of The Wicker Man’?” “That’s right!” he laughed. Robin Hardy, di­rec­tor of The Wicker Man, died on 1 July, aged 86.

That’s not meant un­kindly. To have di­rected – in fact, co-cre­ated – a film as en­dur­ing as The Wicker Man is an ex­tra­or­di­nary thing, be­cause

The Wicker Man it­self is an ex­tra­or­di­nary thing. A hor­ror film, cer­tainly; per­haps the last great film of the Ham­mer hor­ror era, con­tain­ing the late Christo­pher Lee’s finest screen per­for­mance, as Lord Sum­merisle. It’s the defin­ing work of the “folk hor­ror” genre, too – its in­flu­ence tan­gi­ble in films such as Ben Wheat­ley’s Kill List (2011), and just re­cently Chris Hopewell’s video for Ra­dio­head’s “Burn The Witch” (2016). It’s an in­tri­cate, sat­is­fy­ing pic­ture, its fiery con­clu­sion re­tain­ing all of its orig­i­nal power, how­ever many times you’ve seen it.

When I met with Hardy, I was work­ing for Mar­vel UK’s Ham­mer Hor­ror mag­a­zine – but the com­pany was taken over shortly af­ter we’d met. Its new own­ers closed us down, and so I never got around to tran­scrib­ing the tape… un­til now.

Back in 1995, Hardy was sur­prised to still be talk­ing about a film he’d made 22 years earlier, in 1972. “What amazes me is that it keeps on com­ing back… I think it’s be­cause it is sort of in­de­fin­able that it’s stayed in the reper­tory as long as it has. It is a kind of time­less film, it doesn’t date very much. It was out of time and space in the story. Par­tic­u­larly with an Amer­i­can au­di­ence, where this is some­thing that hap­pens in funny lit­tle Europe, it’s com­pletely time­less.”

The Wicker Man be­gins with the ar­rival of strait-laced main­land po­lice sergeant Neil Howie (Ed­ward Wood­ward) on a re­mote Scot­tish isle, there to ques­tion its iso­lated, in­bred com­mu­nity about the al­leged dis­ap­pear­ance of a lo­cal girl. Sum­merisle looks very much like the quasi-me­dieval, mid­dleEurope ru­ral back­wa­ter into which un­lucky trav­ellers blun­der in the typical Ham­mer hor­ror pic­ture. When Howie first en­ters the Green Man inn, his ar­rival kills the lo­cals’ rhubarb­ing dead; he takes a room from the land­lord (Lind­say Kemp), and is in­tro­duced to his star­tlingly Scan­di­na­vian-look­ing daugh­ter (Britt Ek­land, every inch the typical Ham­mer beauty). But per­haps that’s not so sur­pris­ing, since both Hardy and Wicker Man scriptwriter An­thony Shaf­fer “were very fa­mil­iar with, and fans of, the Ham­mer hor­ror pic­tures. But we thought that it’d be in­ter­est­ing to go back to the semi-mytho­log­i­cal but nonethe­less his­tor­i­cal ori­gins of all of those rules that the Ham­mer film writ­ers and pro­duc­ers had set them­selves. They were go­ing to [Drac­ula au­thor] Bram Stoker or who­ever for their sto­ries and what sold, they went on mak­ing – you know, ‘Don’t let’s do any­thing too orig­i­nal!’

“But be­cause both Tony and I had some interest in his­tory and mythol­ogy and re­li­gion too, we thought it’d be in­ter­est­ing to try and cre­ate, or recre­ate, in a semi-jokey form of way, the world from which all these sort of cus­toms and rit­u­als and so on came from.” A pre-Chris­tian world: “The Druids, the Ro­mans, ev­ery­one in West­ern Europe had a

pro­pi­ti­at­ing re­li­gion where you of­fered up some­thing to the gods, to make sure that things went right, or didn’t go wrong.” Howie is shocked to dis­cover school­teacher Miss Rose de­scrib­ing a may­pole to her pupils as “the im­age of the pe­nis”, among other blas­phemies.

HU­MOR­OUS HOR­ROR

The school­room scene, like much of the film, is out­ra­geously funny. “A lot of it’s in­ten­tion­ally funny,” agreed Hardy, “but I don’t think there’s any rule.” Hardy faced huge dif­fi­cul­ties get­ting orig­i­nal pro­duc­ers Bri­tish Lion to re­lease his film at all: “This is what puz­zled the sales peo­ple here, you see – hor­ror films are sup­posed to be hor­ror films. You’re not sup­posed to laugh in a hor­ror film. You’re not sup­posed to be ro­man­tic in a hor­ror film. You’re not sup­posed to have beau­ti­ful scenery in a hor­ror film…” Mim­ick­ing the closed­minded, he con­tin­ued: “‘I mean, what is all this about? And what’s all this dis­cus­sion about re­li­gion and things like that? Let’s go on and on with driv­ing a stake through some­body’s heart. Why’s there no blood?’ Huh!” he snorted. “I think a lot of peo­ple have been more fright­ened by The Wicker Man than they were ever fright­ened by a Ham­mer hor­ror film.”

So he would have clas­sifed The Wicker Man as a hor­ror film, then? “If I had to, I would,” he con­curred, sound­ing a lit­tle pained, “but I do think there is a genre, which I think the French would call film fan­tas­tique. And a film fan­tas­tique can be funny or it can be hor­ri­fy­ing or it can be both, but it is an at­ten­u­ated fan­tasy. Not en­tirely with­out, in this case, some cere­bral con­tent, one hopes. I don’t think it’s a hor­ror film, be­cause peo­ple who go to see hor­ror films ex­pect­ing a cer­tain kind of pic­ture are dis­ap­pointed, and there­fore to give them this la­bel, it’s al­most to mis­la­bel it.”

Ul­ti­mately, Howie learns that he’s been lured to the is­land to be­come the per­fect May Day sac­ri­fice – and ends up im­mo­lated in­side a wil­low idol, to ap­pease the gods of the har­vest. Like Shaf­fer’s play Sleuth (1970), The Wicker

Man’s plot is an elab­o­rate game – played on Howie and the au­di­ence alike. “It’s a quest, and it’s a game; and the game for the au­di­ence is to guess, from all the clues that they’re given – which are end­less, all the way through the film – as to what kind of so­ci­ety [Howie’s] in, what the end for him will be. It doesn’t cheat on that ba­sis; it’s all there. But it would be fruit­less to think that the av­er­age au­di­ence could be ex­pected to bone up on [old folkhis­tory an­thol­ogy] The Golden Bough be­fore they go to see The Wicker Man in or­der to get all the clues…”

The end­ing is open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion. Is it a near-heroic demise for the de­vout Howie, since

" I WAS MOBBED BY A GROUP OF FU­RI­OUS PA­GANS SWATHED IN LEATHER AND CHAINS"

(as Sum­merisle him­self says) he dies “a mar­tyr’s death”? Or will the Sum­meris­landers in­deed reap a fine har­vest come the au­tumn? Or, ni­hilis­ti­cally, does it sug­gest that both world­views are equally de­luded? Hardy wasn’t let­ting on. “In a way, ‘You pays your money, you takes your choice.’ The film is per­fectly okay as far as Chris­tian­ity is con­cerned, be­cause you can well ac­cept that [Howie] gets his re­ward in heaven.” That was partly the line that Hardy took while tour­ing Amer­ica to pro­mote the film: “In the Bible Belt, where we gave a spe­cial screen­ing for the rev­erends and the pas­tors and the priests, I did a lit­tle ex­plain­ing. They all went to their pul­pits and said, ‘You must go and see this film, it’s one of the true Chris­tian pic­tures.’ In a sense, it’s per­fectly true. It ac­tu­ally deals with an im­por­tant the­o­log­i­cal point.” The movie elicited a very dif­fer­ent re­ac­tion in San Fran­cisco, how­ever. Ex­it­ing the Cas­tro The­ater on its open­ing night, Hardy re­mem­bered: “I was al­most mobbed by a group of pa­gans swathed in leather and chains and things, who were fu­ri­ous, and said, ‘You’re giv­ing pa­gan­ism a bad name!’”

At this, Hardy chuck­led till he choked. “I didn’t al­low for the fact that of course with a lot of au­di­ences – not only in Amer­ica, but cer­tainly here, too – the tongue-in-cheek part of the movie would pass right over peo­ple’s heads. I get a lot of peo­ple who en­joy the movie of whom that’s true…” he sighed.

As our meet­ing ended, Hardy con­fided that he’d heard whis­pers that moves were afoot to re­make the film. “I don’t quite un­der­stand why they’d re­make it,” he said, clearly mys­ti­fied. “Bizarre.” That re­make ap­peared 11 years later, star­ring Ni­co­las Cage. “Bizarre” wasn’t the word for it. Five years af­ter that, Hardy made

The Wicker Tree, his own “spir­i­tual se­quel”. The orig­i­nal’s fire burns no less brightly to­day, how­ever. Most of those who made it are gone now – Hardy, Shaf­fer, Lee, Wood­ward, In­grid Pitt… But on Sum­merisle, we know, “the old gods aren’t dead”.

ROBIN HARDY 1929-2016

Ed­ward Wood­ward, Christo­pher Lee, Robin Hardy and a piece of fruit.

Shoot­ing the film in the au­tumn of 1972.

Re­mark­ably, Christo­pher Lee ap­peared in the film for no fee!

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