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 An unpublished interview by Alan Barnes celebrates the man and his masterpiece
A previously unpublished interview with the late director of The Wicker Man.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.
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!