This film explores the practices of paganism and a Christian policeman’s attitudes to them when he visits Summerisle on the trail of a missing girl. He is disgusted by how the children are being educated to believe in nature, and a variety of gods and goddesses rather than the one true God whom he is deeply devoted to. He refuses to accept any of their customs, insulting their practices. The people explain to him that they are “heathens, perhaps, but not unenlightened.”
As the policeman investigates the island, he eventually learns that the girl has been sacrificed by the people of Summerisle, in the hope of pleasing the gods and wishing for a better harvest the following year.
The practices that we see on the film – the scene in the school, the dancing round a fire to promote fertility, the beating of the apple trees, the hobby horse (or snapdragon) and the spilling of the ale are still carried on today in various parts of England. The nature of sacrifice, still remains a powerful icon to people of most faiths and it is this we retain.
As the story unfolds and we see the people on Summerisle, it is hard not to find the sense of community, the sex- positive, earth-positive nature of their beliefs attractive, especially in contrast to the policeman, Howie’s dour Christianity. What give this movie it force is its willingness to show the fear, the terror, of Sergeant Howie as he faces his horrible death, being burned alive in the giant wicker man statue, at the end of the film. The people of Summerisle joyfully sing, as Howie becomes their offering to the goddess for a good harvest. I think Shaffer meant for it to be a meditation on religious perspective, disturbing as the various contrasts between Howie and the islanders play themselves out, reaching the final contrast.
Many of the old traditions are touched on in the movie such as the landlord’s daughter as the Maiden priestess, introducing the young Ash Bucannan to the joys of sex, the Morris dancers with their swords, the children who “carry death out of the village”, the red and white streamers that symbolise the moonflow and the semen on the Maypole instead of a rainbow of colours, the blessing of the orchard by the pregnant women, and many others.
One glaring mistake is that if the people of Summer Isle were really following the ancient belief of sacrifice, Lord Summerisle, himself, would have been the most perfect sacrifice because it was believed that the land failed when the king or male leader failed to be potent.
It’s a very skilfully crafted and effective horror film. It also does a lot to stir up our Pagan instincts and shows a very different way of living, a strong contrast to the usual, Christian way of life.