Brexit-Is-Iccumen-In: The Wicker Man And Britain Today
, March 10th, 2017 13:22
With Brexit looming on the horizon like a, well, a massive wicker man, writer Adam Scovell, author of the forthcoming book Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful And Things Strange, looks back at Robin Hardy's 1973 cult classic and finds surprising parallels between it and our current political predicament
Consider the following: an inward looking island community being duped into social, moral and economic calamity through the lies of a tweed-wearing figure of the elite establishment. I could be describing the political landscape of Britain in 2016 but, equally, I could be summarising the narrative of Robin Hardy's 1973 cult Folk Horror film, The Wicker Man. Having spent most of 2016 writing a book about Folk Horror - a genre filled with closed communities who greatly fear any sort of outsider, fascist instincts rising again as a race memory from Martian insects, and violence directed by superstition, paranoia and gestalt mentalities - the run up to, and subsequent fallout of, the United Kingdom's vote to leave the European Union on the 23rd of June felt distinctly like déjà vu. Folk Horror unusually and accurately maps the nationalistic elements of post-Brexit Britain, perhaps explaining its recent prescience and rise once more in popularity. Never has there been such an admiration for films such as Witchfinder General (1968), television series such Children Of The Stones (1977), and books by M.R. James and Alan Garner. But, more than other examples of the genre, The Wicker Man provides a perfect snapshot of both where we are now as a nation and hints of our potential future woes.
Discussing The Wicker Man without spoiling its main plot twist is difficult though not impossible. The film revolves around an apple-growing community who live on an island off Scotland called Summerisle; a counter-culture society that mixes arable farming with a post-sexual revolution embracement of a sexually open society. A puritanical and devout Christian policeman, Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward) is sent to the island in order to investigate the apparent disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison (Gerry Cowper). Discovering the island's community to be, by all accounts, eccentric and uncooperative with his investigation, he begins to suspect that a dark fate awaits the girl on May Day and its celebratory ceremony. Lead by the island's landowning gentry, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), Howie learns that the community believes the failure of last year's crop of apples to be caused by an unappeased pagan god. It is only in the final moments of the film that Howie, in the words of Rowan Morrison's own mother, understands "the true nature of sacrifice."
Because of the film's incredibly popular pulp aspects, it's sometimes forgotten how essentially political The Wicker Man actually is. Having Christopher Lee's best performance, one of the best popular soundtracks ever recorded (by Paul Giovanni) and a cutting history more complex than most films quite rightly distracts from the overall mechanism behind the film's narrative. This mechanism is also the film's chief tie to Brexit Britain. When Lord Summerisle explains how he inherited the island, its special strains of fruit and its esoteric beliefs from his Grandfather, he is telling more about his power over the community of the island than he first realises. According to Lord Summerisle, the adoption of a vaguely pagan belief system with some trimmings of sexual openness is a way for him to essentially have a free and unquestioning labour force. Deep down the viewer knows that Lord Summerisle is using this to take advantage of his workers and continue adding to his own financial power. When the crops fail, aptly due to the island's unusual and rare climate changing, he goes for a last ditch effort to keep control of his workforce by involving them in what is essentially a communal murder dressed up as a religious sacrifice intended to solve all of the island's problems.
The burning of the person in the wicker man is quite literally the straw man argument of the film; it not only fools the Summerislanders into believing that their economic and political problems are now solved but further restricts and enmeshes them within the grip of the powerful, landowning elite. Now, consider Brexit. Instead of addressing the underlying problems at the heart of the UK, the Leave campaign focussed on a similar set straw man arguments; that somehow burning our relationship with the European Union and attacking the very concept of immigration ("a local shop for local people!") would somehow alleviate the problems that the country faces. This is rather than actually addressing the fundamental flaws at the heart of our economic and political systems. Like the Summerislanders, the belief that burning the sacrifice would simplistically solve such problems was taken wholeheartedly; the social perks of counter-culture fun-in-the-sun of the film replaced by empty, sloganeering cries of "£350 million to the NHS", "Take back control" and other similar utopian lies. The fact that both the Summerislanders and 52% of the voting electorate were taken in by such arguments put forward by a rich, tweed-wearing elite is rather depressing in hindsight. Yet The Wicker Man also explains the ease with which such lies were lapped up. The whole narrative of the film functions on it being isolated, set on an island away from the general moral and political consensus. Britain has been faced with its own islander mentality for some time, the term referring to its border-heavy outlook, obsessed with the paranoid perception of its own constructed identity coming under pressure from its colonial past folding back in upon itself; the absolute tyranny of the "Good old days" and its blindsided nostalgia.
In all finality, The Wicker Man shows the fallacy of falling for such narratives. When the Summerislanders proudly and happily sing "Summer-Is-Iccumen-In" as their sacrifice burns painfully to death, the viewer knows that the islanders will ultimately suffer the true hardship in the end. Even Lord Summerisle is trounced by the chosen sacrifice, effectively lining him up to be burned if the crops fail again the following year. We have yet to reach our real-life equivalent of this moment with many of the chief perpetrators of Brexit's lies seeming to be so far unscathed. Though ultimately, when the crops do fail again for the UK, in the words of Sgt. Howie, "Next year... your people will come for you on May Day!". For the moment, however, we have all but burnt our sacrifice in the wicker man, waiting naively for our crops to flourish. As the weeks and months continue to pass, just as the Summerislanders will eventually find out, we will see that our sacrifice and our waiting for the apples to grow once again has been in vain. Who we choose to burn next, however, is another matter.