The protagonist of Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer’s 1973 horror classic The Wicker Man, a Scottish police sergeant named Neil Howie, is a devout Christian. Early in the film, we see him attending church, taking Communion. At work, his subordinates mock him behind his back for his humorlessness, his strictness. Howie is so devout, in fact, that even in the early 1970s, when a more uninhibited United Kingdom should have been in full swing, he has chosen to remain a virgin until marriage. Even at his age—about 40; Edward Woodward, the actor who expertly plays Howie, was 43 when the film came out—he is, outwardly at least, content with this arrangement, despite the temptation all around. He’s devout to the point of rudeness, as if those who don’t share his faith and moral certainty are nothing more than hindrances on his personal road to Heaven.
(Plot points from this 47-year-old movie shall be discussed in this essay, including the ending, so please consider yourself warned of spoilers.)
Howie is investigating the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison. He’s received an anonymous letter asking for his help, so he flies to Summerisle, off the coast of Scotland, where the little girl lives. There begins an immediately combative relationship with the citizens of Summerisle. He barks orders at them, and is horrified that none of them share his Christian values (though at this point you’d think he’d be used to it). At one point, after he learns from the schoolteacher (Diane Cilento) that Rowan, the girl he has come to the island to find, is dead and buried in the grounds of what once was, but is no longer, a Christian church, he finds the burial plot and puts a crudely made cross in a place where he believes there should be one. That this is not the wish of anyone related to Rowan Morrison makes no difference to him. His beliefs override the beliefs of anyone else.
And anyway, by this point, he’s pretty fed up with the flaunting of the islanders’ beliefs—which are not merely not Christian, but full-throated paganism—and their modern, blunt, free-wheeling sexuality. The latter is personified by Willow (Britt Ekland), by whom Howie is badly tempted, and with whom he will eventually share a kind of psychic seduction, with Willow dancing nude on the other side of a wall of the room at the inn where Howie is sleeping, while Howie spends a sweaty, trembling few minutes trying to pretend he doesn’t want what he so clearly wants. The viewer senses that Howie has never come this close to cracking before.
For most people, if not literally everybody, Sgt. Howie is a hard man to like. In their general attitudes, the islanders are his opposite: friendly, welcoming, seemingly tolerant of his antagonistic religious beliefs. They’re certainly more tolerant of his than he is of theirs—not only does he go around handing out crosses nobody asked for, he actively destroys pagan religious symbols. Howie seems incapable of taking anything in stride: at dinner in the local pub, he orders an apple for dessert, but is told by Willow, his waitress, that there are no apples available. Summerisle is known for its apples, and apparently the crops failed. But Howie reacts to the news as though this were happening to him. Nothing is ever shrugged off by Howie; for all the ostensible optimism at the heart of his faith, there is no light in him. Meanwhile, the patriarch of the island and its people, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), is nothing but light. Howie meets with Lord Summerisle several times in the course of his investigation, and never misses a chance to make known his feelings about the paganism that Lord Summerisle not only allows to flourish on his island, but encourages. At one point, Howie is furious when he sees young girls dancing nude around a maypole on Lord Summerisle’s property, and tells him so. Summerisle, for his part, remains calm and smiling, explaining gently what he considers a healthy, earthy, pagan approach to sexuality. Howie is so angry he’s about to have an aneurysm, while Lord Summerisle is so relaxed in the face of it that he might be relaxing in an easy chair with a pipe and some tea.
It’s now somewhat fashionable, for all the reasons stated above, to view Howie as the villain of The Wicker Man. He’s acerbic, cold, unkind. Even his dealings with children on the island range from a warm playfulness that is clearly a put-on, something he has to pretend to be in order to do his job, and calling them “despicable little liars.” He forces his religion on others, almost literally. He’s smug, arrogant, unpleasant. Why root for someone who you wouldn’t even want to share an elevator with? On the other hand, who is looking for Rowan Morrison? Who else cares about her? No one on Summerisle seems to, not even her family. Only Howie cares. And there’s nothing hidden or nefarious about his concern. It’s not a self-serving pursuit, he simply wants to first find, and later save (after he’s become certain that she is not in fact dead), a little girl from an island full of people who, happy and fun-loving though they may be, are quite obviously very strange, the joyousness they project eventually taking on an air of unmistakable menace.
So why root against Howie? From the point of view of Anthony Shaffer, who wrote The Wicker Man, and Robin Hardy, who directed, there is a little bit of “we’re not so different, you and I” going on between Howie and Lord Summerisle, but just a little bit, and only up to a point. Besides, that it’s there at all would never be recognized or acknowledged by either one. Yet each man clings fiercely to their faith, and each man experiences doubts at the end. When the truth about what is actually going on in the story is revealed—that all along Howie was Summerisle’s sacrificial lamb, lured to the island on purpose (Rowan Morrison is fine and was never in danger) so that he, a virgin, could be sacrificed, burned alive in the terrifying wicker man (“Oh God!” Howie screams, not prayerfully, upon seeing it. “Oh Jesus Christ!”), along with many pigs, birds, and other animals, in the belief, the hope, that this will save the next apple crop—Howie attempts to save himself by pointing out, no doubt correctly, that his death will change nothing, the crop will still fail, and who will they sacrifice then, more than a flicker of doubt, of fear, can been seen shadowing the face of Lord Summerisle. And while Howie attempts to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” in defiance of his fate, that singing turns to screams once the flames reach him.
But Howie was trying, simply, to save a child he believed was in danger. How can he be entirely unsympathetic? How can he be, as the new thinking about the film goes, the villain? In 1978, Shaffer and Hardy co-wrote a novelization of The Wicker Man, and during the early stages of the burning of the wicker man, they write:
[Howie’s] mission in coming to this infernal island had been to find a child. If he could only save some of the increasingly terrified birds he could see in the Wicker Man’s arm he might not count his police mission here an entire failure.
Just as long as he can save something. He goes on to imagine—or rather, to try not to imagine—the life he will not now be able to enjoy with Mary, the woman he was going to marry, or the grief she will suffer at his death. And in the book, his faith seems less tenuous in the face of torturous death.
Not so the Howie of the film, or anyway, that’s not how it seems to me. In Woodward’s performance of Howie in these final moments, as he stares wildly out of the wicker man and down at the islanders dancing and singing joyfully, there is something of the mental breakdown into genuine insanity that makes Marilyn Burns’s performance in the final minutes of 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre so indelible. In both films, the protagonist is faced with a horror that is not merely frightening and dangerous, but so bizarre, so unearthly yet grounded, neither of them can find a handle on it, and their minds fly apart as a result. Howie, at least, has some context, some warning, but when it comes down to it nothing about what is happening to him—not just the physical reality of it, but the visual component, the gigantic man-shaped wicker cage, towering and burning above celebrating pagans—makes any sense.
The film feels like an attempt to slam two types of zealotry against each other, as hard as it can; it would be a stretch to describe the picture as pro-Christianity. What The Wicker Man does not do, however, is traffic in lazy, contemptible moral relativism. And this is where the efforts to turn the policeman into a villain, a stooge who deserves his fate, falter. Sgt. Howie can be fairly described as kind of a jerk. But his goal was to save a life.
The citizens of Summerisle just wanted apples.