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The Wicker Man
Front Row Wicker Man Radio Documentary

The traditional way of creating a cinematic hit is to produce a film which a lot of people go to see but confusingly an alternative route to movie fame is to create a film which almost no-one has ever seen but is much talked about. This happens when the film becomes a cult, a movie, which spawns strange stories about its making, or subsequent reception which film fans at conferences on the internet describe as one of the unacknowledged masterpieces.

One such film, the 1973 horror movie, The Wicker Man is screened by Channel 4 on Thursday night. Released in 1973 The Wicker Man, a rare example of a cult film which is actually about a cult, stars Edward Woodward as a Scottish policeman who investigates the disappearance of a child on an island run by Lord Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee, an aristocrat who practices Pagan rites. But this mystery film spawned many mysteries of its own: What happened to the original print? Why do three different versions exist? Can it really be true that the pop star Rod Stewart bought all copies and destroyed them to censor a Britt Ekland nude scene? With the help of director Robin Hardy and Allan Brown, author of a new book about the film, Front Row investigated this strange and much cut movie.

Allan Brown: The real problems with The Wicker Man started as soon as it went into the cutting studio. Between the end of filming and the beginning of the pre-production process the management of British Lion, the independent British studio had changed. Previously, the studio had been run by Peter Snell, the producer of The Wicker Man who was very sympathetic to the film. The new management of British Lion hated the film and had absolutely no enthusiasm for releasing it. The only way they could see to release it was as a B feature and so its running time had to be quite substantially cut. This is what happened in the cutting room. The director Robin Hardy was more or less barred from the studio and the film was given to Eric Boyd-Perkins, the film editor and basically it was an overnight job. He was told to cut around 16-17 minutes from the film by the following morning. There was a crate of whisky waiting for him the next day when he completed the job.

Robin Hardy: We were locked out of the editing room and they just hacked about it really. They took it from being a 48-hour film and took a complete night out of it.

Allan Brown: It really wasn't the same film at all. Hardy and Lee were absolutely shocked and Lee especially; I think he felt The Wicker Man for him was going to be a big bridgehead between his career as a Hammer actor and a different career that he saw for himself. When he saw the finished version I think he realised that The Wicker Man wasn't going to do any business. It really was a shadow of what it should have been.

The films resurrection really began at the end of the seventies in the South of America with a company called Abraxas Films which was a specialist distribution house dealing in sort of cult films. They contacted British Lion, quite reasonably hoping to get access to the negatives and whatever footage remained and hoped to reassemble the film as a kind of restoration job. This is when it was discovered the fact which bedevils Wicker Man fans to this day which is that all the footage, the negative, all the original material had been inadvertently destroyed, probably used as landfill for the M3 which at that time was being built past Shepperton studios. It was quite a common practice for film companies to sell off huge rolls of film and all kinds of junk material to be used as landfill. And apparently, accidentally, The Wicker Man negative got stuck on the truck going to this motorway construction site.

Robin Hardy: And so somewhat in despair we looked around for anything, a print of the old film from which we could make a restoration. We found that Roger Corman's editor actually still had a print, a print that had only been screened once. It was really in pristine condition.

Allan Brown: Then it became a very torturous process of turning that print into a negative and to take new prints of that negative to distribute around the States.

Robin Hardy: It really started its successful distribution in San Francisco - a perfect place for it to start really. The film had colossal crowds, queues, day after day after day. Various cult groups, which proliferated in California, appeared. In one case I felt slightly threatened by a group who said we were giving Paganism a bad name. But on the whole its cult status was conferred there and then in the city of cults.

Allan Brown: Obviously a second negative was then struck later in the seventies in America. But even those have now disappeared. The network of companies which have a stake in The Wicker Man, which own rights to it in America is absolutely labrynthian, and where the second negative and the prints that were struck where they might be is just completely unknown. A company called Churchill films became involved at one point. It is believed that they took possession of all The Wicker Man material effects as it were That company is now non-traceable. All that really exists of The Wicker Man is the American home video version which was taken from one of the 102-minute prints before they disappeared.

Front Row: The video of the full-length version ceased to be sold in the early 1990s and it disappeared from the shelves. Copies of it were thought to be lost until one was put up for sale last year on the internet, rapidly becoming a clearing house for missing material. It was spotted by Film Four, Channel 4's movie channel which is run by Nick Jones.

Nick Jones: Somebody here at Film Four was trawling around the internet and came across an auction site in which he saw advertised a VHS video cassette of the full length Wicker Man. So duly this tape came back, rather battered and rather care worn tape, we played it and to our astonishment, here for the first time in years and years is the long, full version. We then discovered that most enthusiastic of film collectors Martin Scorsese, apparently had a 35mm print of this long version in cold storage in Philadelphia. We contacted the Scorsese office and we were so thrilled at the thought of being able to present it then we got a crushing piece of news from the States which was that this print has mysteriously disappeared out of the warehouse. So once again fate has intervened. There's something about The Wicker Man.

Inside The Wicker Man by Allan Brown (ISBN 0-283-06355-6) is published by Sidgwick and Jackson.
The Wicker Man by Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer (ISBN 0-330-39018) the novelization of the film is republished by Pan.

Source: Front Row
Thanks to Steve Mortimore for providing the tape