A tale of pagan burial

Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man was declared 'unscreenable', hacked, then Rod Stewart tried to have it burnt. Ryan Gilbey on a cult one-hit wonder

The plot of the 1973 cult thriller The Wicker Man is a strange one. Howie, a puritanical policeman played by Edward Woodward, visits an island off the coast of Scotland to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, but ends up being burnt alive as a sacrifice to pagan gods.

The story behind the film, however, is stranger still. The studio tried to bury it. The editor allegedly colluded with the studio to "lose" crucial footage. Tax shelter company bosses went to prison because of it. Rod Stewart wanted it burnt, for goodness' sake, and here's a man who has admitted to drug-taking and cavorting with naked women. (Disappointingly, his motives form the least scurrilous part of the yarn: it was reported that he tried to buy the negative in order to destroy it, and with it his then-lover Britt Ekland's nude scenes.)

But the cause for concern had nothing to do with the exploration of pagan lifestyles. In fact, a screening had been arranged for religious leaders soon after completion, to forestall any such controversy. All approved of its restraint and delicacy. ("We will say so to our congregations from the pulpit," one promised.)

Instead, the film was destined to fall foul of knotty boardroom politics. Did Robin Hardy, the movie's director, know what was in store for him when he became involved with the project?

"Good gracious no," he exclaims. "Everything went smoothly. The film arose out of a long weekend I spent with Christopher Lee, Peter Snell [producer] and Tony [Shaffer, the screenwriter]. We did some research, wrote the first draft, found that a few people were interested in it, including Roger Corman, who would have been perfect. But, in the end, the studio [British Lion] was taken over by John Bentley, and The Wicker Man got made very quickly and cheaply. He just wrote us a cheque and that was that."

Until then, Hardy had kept himself busy directing movies-of-the-week and TV plays - a Cyrano de Bergerac here, a Miss Julie there. Nothing, though, to prepare him for the crossfire that he became caught up in once The Wicker Man had wrapped. British Lion had been bought up in early 1972, which is where the problems began.

"The people who were taking over the studio were already shareholders and they needed some excuse to get rid of Peter Snell, the managing director and producer. The thing was, he'd done rather well. Very well, in fact, so it wasn't going to be easy. They had to find something that would make him an absolute disaster, and once The Wicker Man was finished, they declared it unscreenable, said it should never be shown, and that Peter had to go. It was a classic internal boardroom push. And the film itself became a sacrifice in the process."

But they hadn't reckoned on the pride and enthusiasm of one cast member.

"Christopher Lee took the film to the festival in Paris," Hardy remembers, "where it won the Grand Prix. So people thought, 'Hello, there's something funny going on here, why haven't we seen this film?' We arranged some private screenings for critics in London who were shocked it hadn't got a release. Then, like politicians, they forgot about it. A real nine- day wonder."

When the film did finally emerge in Britain, it was as a supporting feature to Don't Look Now, its second-place billing necessitating some particularly brutal cuts.

"Those support films had to be short, so British Lion just waded in and hacked at it. Appalling. Down to 84 minutes I think. I don't regret losing some of the footage, but Chris's scenes were tampered with. And there's another scene that I'm sorry we lost, where a young lad is taken by Britt Ekland for his sexual initiation, and everyone is singing as he goes. As you can imagine, this absolutely blows the policeman's mind."

The 84-minute version has been released this month as part of Warner's "Terror-Vision" video collection. Hardy says that the 102-minute version available in America was passed over for British release simply because Lumiere, which owns the film, didn't know of its existence.

Hardy's career since the making of The Wicker Man has been varied to say the least. He returned to America, made hundreds of commercials, wrote some novels and screenplays, became a New York Times journalist, directed some TV, penned the much-derided Churchill musical Winnie, and made a follow-up film, The Fantasist, a tongue-in-cheek thriller with horrific overtones.

The future bodes well, with Hardy juggling two projects. Uli Edel, director of Last Exit to Brooklyn and, less memorably, the Madonna turkey Body of Evidence, is currently shooting a thriller which Hardy wrote called Peace Breaks Out. And Hardy himself is back behind the camera, directing Griff Rhys-Jones and Elizabeth Hurley in a new comedy he's written, Bachelors Anonymous. Which should be just dandy so long as Hugh Grant doesn't take umbrage at anything and try to do a Rod Stewart.

n 'The Wicker Man' is out now (Warner) pounds 10.99

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'