WTFW: Cowboys for Christ/The Wicker Tree (2011)

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Thursday, January 16, 2014

WTFW: Cowboys for Christ/The Wicker Tree (2011)

Every once and a while we come across a film that requires background to fully understand it’s peculiarities.  Tonight is one of those cases.  Dually kind of a sequel and kind of it’s own film, to understand the breadth of the subject matter we must refresh our memories of the source material, the novel this film is based on and the first film and it’s source novel.  Basically, get comfortable, this is going to be a long one.

The Wicker Man is a series of three horror films (the third of which remains unproduced) created by British author and director Robin Hardy.  Hardy announced plans for the trilogy in a 2007 interview with The Guardian newspaper, though the first film in the trilogy, The Wicker Man, was originally made 34 years before, in 1973.  The films are not directly linked to one another, but all deal with the theme of paganism in the modern world.  The first two films feature actor Christopher Lee.  The 2006 American remake of The Wicker Man is not a part of the series, and Hardy has dissociated himself from it.

Ritual is a horror novel by British actor and author David Pinner, first published in 1967.  The protagonist of Ritual is an English police officer named David Hanlin.  A puritanical Christian, Hanlin is requested to investigate what appears to be the ritualistic murder of a local child in an enclosed rural Cornish village.  During his short stay, Hanlin deals with psychological trickery, sexual seduction, ancient religious practices and nightmarish sacrificial rituals.

When Pinner was 26, he had just written the vampire comedy Fanghorn, and was playing the lead role of Sergeant Trotter in Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap on the West End of London.  He decided to write a film treatment that dealt with the occult (like Fanghorn) but which was also a detective story (like The Mousetrap).  Film director Michael Winner liked Pinner's Ritual treatment, and considered making it his next film, with English actor John Hurt in mind for the lead role.  However, Winner deemed the treatment to be "too full of imagery", and Pinner's agent, Jonathan Clowes, felt that Winner might sit on the project for a long time. The collaboration came to a halt.

Clowes suggested that Pinner instead expand Ritual into a novel, promising that he would get it published.  Pinner wrote it in seven weeks, while he was still acting in The Mousetrap.  He would write sections of the novel on the tube train on his way into the West End, and even on his dressing room floor.  While driving to his agent's office with the only completed copy of Ritual in existence, Pinner accidentally left the manuscript on the roof of the car; it would most likely have fallen off and been lost forever if another driver had not gotten Pinner's attention and alerted him to his mistake.

In 1973, Ritual was used as the basis for The Wicker Man, a British horror film directed by Robin Hardy and written for the screen by Anthony Shaffer.  Edward Woodward stars as the policeman, renamed Sergeant Neil Howie. Pinner discussed the book in a 2011 interview.  "I then sold the film rights of the book to Christopher Lee in 1971 – the basic idea and the structure of it was used for The Wicker Man."  Pinner has said that he likes the film, but feels that it lacks the humor of the novel.  As a result of the film's popularity, Ritual became a much sought-after collector's item, and was being sold for £400 to £500 on eBay.  It was not until the 2011 reprint that the novel became widely available.

The Wicker Man is generally very highly regarded by critics.  Film magazine Cinefantastique described it as "The Citizen Kane of Horror Movies", and in 2004 the magazine Total Film named The Wicker Man the sixth greatest British film of all time.  It also won the 1978 Saturn Award for Best Horror Film.  A scene from this film was #45 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments.  During the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, the film was included as part of a sequence that celebrated British cinema. 

Decades after its release, the film still receives positive reviews from critics and is considered one of the best films of 1973.  The film currently holds an 89% "Fresh" rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.  In 2008, The Wicker Man was ranked by Empire Magazine as 485th of The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time.   Christopher Lee considers The Wicker Man his best film.  In his 2010 BBC documentary series A History of Horror, writer and actor Mark Gatiss referred to the film as a prime example of a short-lived sub-genre he called "folk horror", grouping it with 1968's Witchfinder General and 1971's Blood on Satan's Claw.


The Wicker Man (1973)

  • Genre: Horror – Music – Mystery
  • Directed: Robin Hardy
  • Produced: Peter Snell
  • Written: Anthony Shaffer (Screenplay)
  • Starring: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland, Ingrid Pitt, Lindsay Kemp, Russell Waters, Aubrey Morris, Irene Sunters, Walter Carr, Ian Campbell
  • Music: Paul Giovanni
  • Cinematography: Harry Waxman
  • Editing: Eric Boyd-Perkins
  • Studio: British Lion Film Corporation
  • Distributed:
    • British Lion Film Corporation  
    • Warner Bros.  
    • Rialto Pictures  
    • Anchor Bay Entertainment  
    • Channel 4 Television Corporation  
    • Media Home Entertainment  
    • Republic Pictures Home Video  
    • StudioCanal
  • Rated:
  • Release Date:
    • December 1973 (UK) 
    • June 1975 (USA)
  • Running Time: 88 minutes
  • Country: United Kingdom
  • Language: English

Sergeant Neil Howie receives an anonymous letter requesting his presence on Summerisle, a remote Hebridean island famed for its popular and unusually abundant fruit produce, to take the case of a young girl named Rowan Morrison, who has been missing for a number of months.

Howie, a devout and celibate Christian, travels to the island and is profoundly disturbed to find a society that worships the old pagan, Celtic gods of their ancestors.  Couples copulate openly in fields, children are taught in school of the phallic importance of the maypole and frogs are placed in the mouth to cure sore throat.  Howie encounters difficulty in extracting information from the islanders, who claim never to have heard of Rowan.  Even Rowan's own mother insists the girl does not exist.  Rooming at an inn, where he is introduced to the daughter of the landlord, Willow, Howie notices a series of photographs celebrating the island's annual harvests, with each photograph featuring a young girl, the May Queen.  The latest photograph is missing due to it being "broken". Howie spends the night at the inn, where Willow openly attempts to seduce him, which he refuses, in the morning explaining that he is engaged and does not believe in premarital sex.

After discovering a grave bearing Rowan Morrison's name, Howie's search eventually brings him into contact with the island's community leader, Laird (Lord) Summerisle, who explains to Howie the island's recent history and culture.  Summerisle's grandfather, a Victorian scientist, developed several new strains of fruit that he believed could prosper in Scotland's climate.  He inculcated in the local populace a belief that the old gods were real and worshipping the gods by farming the new crop strains would deliver them from their meager livelihood.  Howie's exhumation of Rowan's grave reveals only the body of a hare.  He angrily confronts Summerisle once more, declaring that he believes that Rowan was murdered as part of a pagan sacrifice.

Howie later discovers that a negative of last year's harvest photograph does in fact exist.  It shows Rowan standing amidst a group of boxes, indicating that last year's harvest was a poor one and that the crops—the island's only means of income—had failed.  Struck by his research that indicates pagan societies offer a human sacrifice in the event of crop failure, Howie deduces that Rowan is in fact still alive and that she will be sacrificed as part of the May Day celebrations to ensure a plentiful harvest for the coming year.

Howie stays at the inn for another night.  The next morning, discovering that his plane has been sabotaged, Howie elects to search the island for Rowan himself.  He ties up the innkeeper and assumes his place as Punch, a principal character of the May Day festival.  Disguised, he joins the procession of islanders as they cavort through the town and perform harmless sacrifices to various gods.  Rowan is finally revealed, tied to a post.  Howie cuts her free and flees but after a brief chase, emerges at another entrance where Summerisle and his followers stand waiting for them.  Howie is shocked to see Rowan merrily embrace her captors and then notices that he is being surrounded.

Lord Summerisle explains to Howie that he was lured to Summerisle by the islanders, who have been successful in a conspiracy to lead him to believe that a missing girl was being held captive, and confirms to him that last year's harvest failed disastrously.  Their religion calls for a sacrifice to be made to the sun god.  The facts that Howie is still a virgin, came of his own free will, and has "the power of a king - representing the law" mean that he meets the outstanding criteria for an adult that is to be sacrificed to appease the gods and provide a successful harvest.

In spite of his protests that the crops failed because fruit was not meant to grow on these islands, Howie is stripped bare, dressed in ceremonial robes and led to the summit of a cliff with his hands tied.  He is horrified to find a giant, hollow wicker man statue inside which he is then imprisoned with animals in other compartments.  The statue is soon set afire.  As the islanders surround the burning wicker man and sing the Middle English folk-song "Sumer Is Icumen In", an anguished Howie proclaims that God has deprived them of their harvest for their paganism and deceit, and as the fires build around him, recites Psalm 23 as he prays to God for ascension to Heaven.  He then screams out the name of Jesus Christ as he perishes.  The film ends as the burning head of the wicker man falls from its shoulders, revealing the setting sun in the distance.

Still with me?  Ok, now the real subject matter of tonight’s entry.  In 2006, Robin Hardy published a follow-up novel to The Wicker Man storyline entitled Cowboys for Christ.  It follows two young Americans, Beth and Steve, who leave Texas to spread Christianity in Tressock, Scotland.  They are welcomed by Sir Lachlan Morrison and his wife, Delia Morrison; unbeknown to Beth and Steve, they are in grave danger from a Celtic pagan community in the village.

A film adaptation, entitled The Wicker Tree, was produced in 2009, with Hardy directing from his own screenplay.  It had a film festival showing in 2011.  A limited theatrical release occurred in January 2012 in the U.S., followed by a DVD release in April 2012.

Cowboys for Christ: On May Day is a novel first published in 2006 by Luath Press.  It is a partial sequel of Hardy's previous film The Wicker Man (1973), dealing with many of the same themes and ideas, namely the clash between paganism and Christianity.

Beth is a successful pop music singer and a devout Protestant Christian from Texas, USA.  She and her boyfriend Steve both belong to a group known as the "Cowboys for Christ", who travel to "heathen areas" of the world to preach Christianity.  They travel to Glasgow,Scotland, hoping to save some souls once there.  However, they are shocked when they receive a very negative reception, Beth even being set upon by a large dog.

After performing a concert at a local cathedral, the duo are approached by Lord Lachlan and his wife Delia, aristocrats from the small village of Tressock in the Scottish lowlands.  They invite Beth and Steve to come back with them to Tressock in order to preach.

Meanwhile, detective Orlando is sent to Tressock, posing as the local police officer, in order to secretly investigate reports of a pagan cult.  Beth and Steve decide that they shall begin their preaching at the May Day celebrations in the village.  Meanwhile Orlando discovers that the people of the village worship the ancient Celt goddess Sulis1.

In an attempt to impress the locals, Steve and Beth agree to becoming the local Queen of the May and the Laddie for the festival.  In this role, they must split up for the day, and it is during this that the Laddie is devoured by the locals on an island in the middle of the river Sulis.  Beth discovers this, and tries to escape, but is captured and embalmed.


The Wicker Tree (2011)

  • Genre: Drama – Horror
  • Directed: Robin Hardy
  • Produced:
    • Kim Davis 
    • Alastair Gourlay 
    • Clare Kerr 
    • Izzie Martin 
    • Donough O'Brien 
    • Peter Snell 
    • Peter Watson-Wood
  • Written: Robin Hardy
  • Starring: Graham McTavish, Jacqueline Leonard, Henry Garrett, Honeysuckle Weeks, Clive Russell, Prue Clarke, Lesley Mackie, David Plimmer, Christopher Lee, Brittania Nicol, Astrid Azurdia, Alessandro Conetta, Keith Easdale
  • Music: John Scott
  • Cinematography: Jan Pester
  • Editing:
    • Sean Barton 
    • Ray Lau
  • Studio:
    • British Lion Film Corporation  
    • Euro Center Productions  
    • Tressock Films
  • Distributed: Anchor Bay Entertainment
  • Rated:
  • Release Date:
    • 19 July 2011 (Canada) 
    • 27 August 2011 (UK) 
    • 27 January 2012 (USA)
  • Running Time: 96 minutes
  • Country: United Kingdom
  • Language: English

Beth is a successful pop singer and a devout evangelical Christian from Texas, United States.  She and her fiancé Steve both wear purity rings, and belong to a group known as the "Cowboys for Christ", who travel to "heathen areas" of the world to preach Christianity.  The Reverend Moriarty (James Mapes) sends them off to travel to Glasgow, Scotland, hoping to save some souls once there.  However, they are shocked when they receive a very negative reception, Beth even being set upon by a large dog.

After performing a concert at a local cathedral, the duo are approached by Sir Lachlan Morrison and his wife Delia, the laird of the small village of Tressock in the Scottish lowlands.  They invite Beth and Steve to come back with them to preach, but intend them for a more central part in Tressock's May Day celebration.

Meanwhile, detective Orlando is sent to Tressock, posing as the local police officer, in order to secretly investigate reports of a pagan cult.  Orlando discovers that the people of the village worship the ancient Celt goddess Sulis.

Beth and Steve decide to begin their preaching at the May Day celebrations in the village.  In an attempt to impress the locals, they agree to becoming the local Queen of the May and the Laddie for the festival not realizing the consequences of their decision and not knowing what awaits them.  At the end, both of them are killed in the ritual.  The benefit of writing both the novel and script plus being the director allows you to do an adaption so close to the novel your movie description can be almost identical to your novel’s description.

The Wicker Tree went through several title changes before its release, including The Riding of the Laddie, May Day, and Cowboys for Christ.  The film had its premiere at the Fantasia Festival in Montreal in July 2011.  Anchor Bay handled U.S. distribution, and the film received a limited release on January 27, 2012.  No wide theatrical release date has yet been announced, although it was released on Blu-ray in the UK and US in April 2012.

Initial reviews from the premiere at Fantasia festival were polarized.  The Fangoria review was mildly positive with misgivings: "even as a black comedy, Wicker Tree can’t match the impact of its predecessor.  Still, for those fans of Wicker Man who can open their minds to viewing, as Monty Python used to put it, something completely different, the new movie can be appreciated as an entertaining variation on its themes."  The Starburst magazine  review was negative, remarking that "Sometimes cult films really should be left alone", and, "Prepare to have your hopes dashed however as The Wicker Tree is awful."

The film had a limited U.S. theatrical release in January 2012.  In April of that year, Hardy discussed the film's mixed critical reception. "The New York Times’s reviewer said it wasn't as gritty as the original Wicker Man, but it's a thousand times better than the remake.  I was quite happy with that."  When asked whether he preferred The Wicker Tree to the original version of The Wicker Man, Hardy replied, "No, I really don't."


The Wrath of the Gods (2015)

The Wrath of the Gods is an upcoming romantic black comedy film written and directed by Robin Hardy, and based on Twilight of the Gods, the final part of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle.  The film is currently in pre-production.  In this film, "the gods get their comeuppance".

The film was originally intended to be set primarily in Iceland; however, Hardy decided that filming there would be too impractical, and rewrote the script, re-setting the story in Shetland, with some scenes to be shot in Los Angeles.  Since Shetland has a largely Scandinavian folklore rather than Celtic, this allows the story to remain focused on Norse mythology.

The film is divided into two parts. The main protagonists are a young couple, Siegfried and Brynne.  Siegfried is handsome but "incredibly stupid", and he has been overtaken by his own hubris and sporting ability.  Brynne loves him despite his flaws, and she succeeds in teaching him to make love, in a "triumphal moment".  Director Robin Hardy has said that the film is ultimately about "what happens to the gods, not just to the people who are offering sacrifices to them.  The gods themselves get sucked into the mêlée in the third film.  I looked for a suitable carapace to put that in and the last act of the Ring cycle seems to work very well – and it allows me to mix full-blast Wagner."

Another of the film's key protagonists is Brynne's father, a chief of police.  He has a tragic romance with a middle-aged woman, who has been accused of murder in Canada.  Director Robin Hardy has stated that the chief of police will have to turn her in because he is an honorable man.  The main antagonist of The Wrath of the Gods is Mr. Odin, a one-eyed Hollywood studio executive who decides to create a theme park based on the Norse sagas which originated in Iceland.

The Wrath of the Gods was originally intended to begin shooting in 2011, but was delayed.  Filming is now expected to start as early as June or July 2012.  The film will be shot on 35 mm film.  Once the film's production is complete, Hardy plans for the sets to become a tourist attraction.

Brynne will be played by Icelandic actress Hatla Williams.  Mr. Odin will be played by James Mapes, the actor who played Reverend Moriarty in Hardy's previous film, The Wicker Tree.  Hardy has stated that he intends to cast French actress Juliette Binoche as the murder suspect.

In a Q&A session at the University of Hertfordshire, at a special screening of The Wicker Man, Robin Hardy confirmed that he intends to begin shooting in the Summer of 2013.  In an interview with ScreenDaily, ahead of the release of 'The Wicker Man: The Final Cut', director Robin Hardy confirmed that he is currently in the opening stages of financing the third film, and hopes to make it this year (2014).



1. In localized Celtic polytheism practiced in Britain, Sulis was a deity worshiped at the thermal spring of Bath (now in Somerset).  She was worshipped by the Romano-British as Sulis Minerva, whose votive objects and inscribed lead tablets suggest that she was conceived of both as a nourishing, life-giving mother goddess and as an effective agent of curses wished by her votaries.

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