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

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

Arts and Entertainment
Full circle: Wu-Tang’s Method Man Getty

Music review

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game