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