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The Wicker Man and the cult movie myth

As yet another version of The Wicker Man is released, Geoffrey Macnab argues that most long-sought directors' cuts are not the masterpieces that fans hope for

You could call it the Orson Welles syndrome. The film director delivers the final cut of the movie. Then come the previews and the financiers panic. The film is re-edited behind the director's back before being released in a bowdlerised version that does patchy business and gets lousy reviews. Years pass. The film is rediscovered by critics and fans and the hunt is suddenly on to track down the original version, which has mysteriously vanished. Its champions scour the labs and the archives but the original film never turns up.

There are many, many films that will never be seen in the way their directors intended. That, though, arguably, adds to their mystique. Their fans are desperate to see them in their original cuts but, at the same time, wary that if these films do surface in an archive somewhere, they might prove just a little... anti-climactic.

Erich von Stroheim's silent movie Greed (1924) is the most celebrated of the lost masterpieces that we can only see in our imaginations. Von Stroheim's first cut was over eight hours long. The version viewed by the public after MGM had pared it down was a quarter of the length. We have to rely on von Stroheim's own testimony and on that of the few of his contemporaries who saw Greed as he intended that it really was one of the greatest films ever made. Given that MGM reportedly burned much of the original footage to extract the silver in the nitrate, it would be a miracle if Greed turned up now.

Posthumous restorations of films that were butchered during their directors' lifetimes are invariably slightly unsatisfactory. Whether it's Sam Fuller's The Big Red One (1980) or Donald Cammell's Wild Side (1995), the restorations are fascinating in themselves and far richer than the botched studio versions but we're never quite sure whether they are really what their directors intended.

Robin Hardy, director of cult favourite The Wicker Man (1973), has seen several different versions of his film released over the years. Dubbed by some critics as “The Citizen Kane of horror movies”, it is now about to be re-released yet again to mark its 40th anniversary in what its distributors are calling its “final cut”. This isn't the version that Hardy first delivered but the 83-year-old filmmaker reckons it is true to his intentions.

What happened to The Wicker Man first time round was precisely what happened to Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) 30 years before. These were movies caught up in studio politicking. Senior executives stood to gain if they failed.

In Welles's case, The Magnificent Ambersons previewed in front of a roughhouse Saturday night audience in Pomona in 1941 in a double bill with a Dorothy Lamour romp called The Fleet's In. The response was mixed at best and gave the studio RKO the excuse to whittle down the film from 131 minutes to less than 90.

Even now, the circumstances in which Ambersons was re-edited remain shrouded in controversy and mystery. The editor Robert Wise (later to direct The Sound of Music) defended the studio's changes in light of the supposedly disastrous preview. Others claim that RKO (then undergoing management changes) was simply looking for an excuse to end Welles's contract. Whatever the case, Welles was known to have had a print of the long version of the film with him in Brazil where he was making his equally ill-starred documentary It's All True. Welles fans have long dreamed that this print will one day turn up somewhere in Brazil.

Hardy's battles were with the businessmen at Shepperton Studios. The Wicker Man had been financed by British Lion, then under control of young tycoon John Bentley, “a takeover and break-up merchant” as he was styled by the press. The unions were intensely suspicious that Bentley was going to end film production at Shepperton (then run by British Lion).

“In order to prove to the unions that Shepperton and British Lion were still in business, he [Bentley] hunted around on his desk for a script that they could make into a film,” Hardy explains the haphazard way that The Wicker Man was greenlit. “We were the lucky ones. He signed a cheque and we made the film.”

However, before The Wicker Man was released, Bentley had sold on British Lion/Shepperton. The new regime didn't care for the film at all. “They planned simply never to show it.” Hardy recalls.

The director credits the film's star Christopher Lee (who called The Wicker Man “the best-scripted film I ever took part in”) with rescuing it from total oblivion. “Christopher, not an easily bowed chap, put the film under his arm as it were and went off to Paris to submit it to the Festival du Film Fantastique.” The film won the Grand Prix and its critical reputation began to grow.

Even so, when The Wicker Man was released in the UK, it had been “butchered” (in Hardy's words.) The running time had been winnowed down to less than 90 minutes and the film was put out as the bottom half of a double bill with Nic Roeg's Don't Look Now.

As with The Magnificent Ambersons, the original long cut of The Wicker Man appears to be lost. However, a 1979 version assembled from the 35mm print of the original edit Hardy made in 1973 was recently discovered in Harvard's Film Archives. It is this version that has been restored and is now being released.

Hardy is sanguine enough about the new “final cut” of The Wicker Man. He accepts that the long version he first delivered in 1973 will never be found. (One much repeated myth/theory is that when the studio cleared its archives, the original reels were used as landfill under the M3 motorway.) However, he is happy that Christopher Lee's character, the pagan Lord Summerisle, is properly foregrounded and that the image and sound are now so pristine. Some of the mainland scenes have been removed. (“In retrospect, they don't particularly help the film,” the director suggests). However, audiences can still see dour Christian policeman Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) in his own church on the mainland before he is introduced to the devilish rituals on the Hebridean island.

The director is currently beginning to raise finance for a new feature, Wrath of the Gods. This will mark the third and final part in the “Wicker” trilogy, following on from The Wicker Man (1973) and The Wicker Tree (2011.) He now seems resigned to the fact that the original edit of The Wicker Man will never turn up.

“As far as I am concerned, I am completely satisfied,” Hardy says of the latest, supposedly “final”, release of The Wicker Man. It's a surprising remark given that this still isn't quite the film he first delivered. However, it's a version he endorses and approves. “If somebody wants to re-cut it, it's up to them!” Besides, perhaps he realises the myth of the missing masterpiece is better served if the original Wicker Man doesn't turn up. That way, fans can still dream of the perfect movie without any risk of anti-climax.

'The Wicker Man: The Final Cut' is in cinemas now and is released on DVD on 14 October