In what may not be the wisest casting decision ever, Nicolas Cage is starring in a high-budget American remake of low-budget seventies British classic The Wicker Man. Production costs for the original were helped by Christopher Lee giving his services for free. Cage’s paycheck is most likely higher.
I won’t spoil the original for anyone whose years are too tender to have seen it yet. Let’s just say it comes down to a clash between two inimical traditions, yer basic Christianity and a much older pagan religion as practiced on a remote Scottish island. The clash is embodied in the interaction of the two lead characters: slightly dour Scottish Presbyterian Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) and the local laird, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee in the role of his life; anyone who just associates him with Saruman has some unlearning to do). A key but underplayed-till-it’s-important plot point is the fact that Howie is a virgin.
This was where my heart really started to sink, because I read in the latest SFX that this point has been removed from the remake as there’s no way the director thought Middle America would buy the idea of Nicolas Cage knowing not the love of women. Logic would suggest that if your lead actor can’t convince your paying audience of a key aspect of his character’s persona, then you’ve cast the wrong actor. But what do I know.
You may be thinking – wow, a film that shows a clash between Christians and pagans, jeewhillickers, I haven’t seen one of those before. What makes it distinct is the sympathy shown to Howie’s character. No, he’s not the life and soul of the party (and is ribbed by his police colleagues for it) but he is a humbly steadfast, righteous man. He resists the seduction of Britt Ekland when his every molecule wants to go for it, and he quietly reconsecrates a deserted church with the help of a broken packing crate, giving his God what honour he can. Faced with insuperable odds, he simply sticks to doing right as he is best able, and trusts God to fill in the gaps. If he’s a tad puritanical then it’s through personal choice and conviction, not smug hypocrisy or any personal inadequacy.
The people of Summerisle are the dark side of the New Age, seemingly all fun-loving and in touch with nature, but don’t look too deep. Lord Summerisle is confident and assured throughout the movie (and he gets all the best lines*), right until the end when Howie asks him what will happen if his intended plan to revive the island’s fortunes (and it’s an extreme plan) doesn’t work. The mask slips; for just a moment there is no smile, no smugness, indeed it’s almost a snarl as Summerisle declares dogmatically that it will work. Then the smile and the poise are back, and the plot is led to its downbeat fulfilment.
But it stays with you. Howie is physically, instinctively afraid but his convictions never slip. Not once. Summerisle’s distinctly slipped.
A few years ago, Chocolat showed a clash between rules-based Christianity and allegedly free-spirited paganism in a small community. There, the pagan was in the minority. Thankfully, both sides were shown to be flawed, with the lead character just as enslaved by her own personal demons as the villagers were by the pointless rules of the church, and both parties are freed by the end of the feature. But critic Roger Ebert wondered if anyone would ever make "a film in which the glowing, life-affirming local Christians prevailed over glowering, prejudiced, puritan and bitter Druid worshippers".
The original Wicker Man is not that film, and as you watch the final denouement and the credits start to roll, you may think it never even came near. But once the credits are done and the ad break has come up, and you start to think back to the examples set by the characters, you realise that for all its emphatically unhappy ending it was pretty close.
How close the remake comes remains to be seen. Anyway, closeness is a relative term. Sometimes Mars is quite close to Earth.
[* An aghast Howie has just seen naked teenage girls jumping over a bonfire.
- Summerisle: They do love their divinity lessons.
- Howie: But they’re naked!
- Summerisle: Of course. It’s very dangerous to jump over a bonfire with your clothes on.]