40 years on, the definitive version arrives.
So many cult movies have suffered the wrath of censorship in the past, and few more so than The Wicker Man. While director RobinHardy's original cut in 1973 ran 102 minutes, it was only ever released in the UK in a massively curtailed 88 minute version - so shortened to tie into a bizarre double bill with Don't Look Know.
The extra material was considered lost forever (at least in a form better than a US VHS copy) until this year when a global search turned up a 35mm print of the so-called 'Middle Version' - which includes enough scenes for Hardy to go back and assemble his preferred version of the much vaunted horror classic.
And so we have The Final Cut, a 94 minute new edition of the film which the director himself confirms as the closest we'll ever see to his original intention. After a brief theatrical re-release, it's heading to DVD and blu-ray and we'll have a review up soon. First, here's some words from the director about his experience of revisting the film yet again.
Q: The Wicker Man was originally released in the UK in a butchered cut – known here as the1973 UK Theatrical Cut (the so-called ‘Short Version’) which runs at 88 minutes. How did this comeabout?
A: It was entirely to do with Michael Deeley and Barry Spikings at British Lion. They were major shareholdersand they were very anxious to have a pay-day by selling the entire company to EMI, and it was primarily soldfor its library. It had the most important film library in Britain. So they had to justify to the other shareholdersof British Lion that Peter Snell had made a severe mistake in making The Wicker Man, and saw him out asmanaging director. So the film was butchered – almost as a punishment. But also because when double-featureshad to be marketed in those days, one had to be shorter [and in 1974, Mike Deeley put out this ‘Short Version’on a double-bill with Don’t Look Now].
Q: So when you later decided to release the film in the US, what happened?
A: I tried to get the missing negative from EMI back in the 1970s and was simply told it was lost. As a result offurther appeals, it was clear it could not have been lost. Because negatives are never lost – particularly at a bigstudio like Shepperton, which was then running perfectly normally, as it is now. There were stupid stories aboutit being put as filler in the M3 motorway.
Q: So that was just a rumour?
A: Yes, put about by the EMI people, because they had to have some explanation why they didn’t have thenegative. After all, they were a division of a professional film company. The ludicrous thing is this: imagine ifyou’re a sensible Irish navvy working hard on the M3 and you’re trying to fill a hole…you don’t say: ‘Let’s fill thisby going to Shepperton to get some negative to fill it.’ It doesn’t really bear examination!
Q: How did you get involved with this search for missing materials on The Wicker Man? Was itSTUDIOCANAL’s idea?
A: It was their idea. The thing is this, I have been lobbying for the ‘first night’ [sequence] – which starts withChristopher Lee in the garden, and the song Gently Johnny, and all that – to get that back into what the Britishdistributors have always called the ‘theatrical version’. And it’s the theatrical version [aka the 1973 UK TheatricalCut] because it was released all those years ago as a second feature to Don’t Look Now. So it’s remained thetheatrical version. In the United States, where the film was extensively released theatrically, we managed to putout a version that was far closer to what we had originally intended.
Q: Now this is the 94 minute US Theatrical Cut (aka the Middle Version) we’re now seeing,previously released in the US by Abraxas. But there is also the 102 minute version – the originalDirector’s Cut or Long Version – that was sent to Roger Corman to potentially release…
A: Yes. We used the Roger Corman print, in effect, as the negative all those years ago to restore this ‘first night’section, and we had to do that by the ‘liquid gate’ process which is very time-consuming and expensive anddifficult. But anyway, that’s how we made the American version. So the version released by Abraxas in the USis based on the print we sent to Corman and which he had been anxious to see released in full in the US.
Q: So this Director’s Cut– which is about ten minutes longer than the US Theatrical Cut or ‘Final Cut’as its now called – is that a version you still stand by?
A: I certainly stand by the Final Cut, which I have approved.
Q: Thus, this Final Cut is the one you’re happiest with?
A: Absolutely. In my dialogue with STUDIOCANAL, we agreed that we really didn’t need all that police station stuff.That was very much my decision – although I shot it, I’ve never really liked it very much. But what I did like and do feel isabsolutely necessary is the scene in the church at the beginning, because that sets up the whole precept of the sacrifice –which is vital if you’re making a comparison with the Pagan sacrifice at the end of the film. So I’m very pleased to see thatthat’s in, and I think it’s in for just the right length. Of course one never really knows how much an audience remembers theseclues that you give them.
Q: I guess you pick up on these clues more on a second viewing…
A: I think you do. One of the ways of looking at this film is that it’s a game. Tony Shaffer and I, who workedtogether for 13 years – he producing and I directing – used to play elaborate games on each other. He had agreat friend in Stephen Sondheim, who was also a great games player. In a way it’s an awful obsession, if youget into it. Each successful game you play on somebody else makes them want to play an even more successfulone on you. And that’s what Sleuth, his play, is about. And it’s certainly present in The Wicker Man; there’s even
a speech at the end on the cliff, in which Christopher mentions the game – the hunted leading the hunter. That is one of the important threads in the film.
Q: Did you ever think about searching for materials before you were approached this time around?
A: Well, I had an extensive search when we actually restored the film. At that time, I was drawing a blankeverywhere. There’s a limited amount of time you can give to these sorts of things. This was when we weredoing the restoration, immediately before the American release in 1979. After that, I had things to do – booksto write, films to make.
Q: When you were approached about this search for missing footage this time around, were youconfident it would be a success?
A: I was pretty confident, because the film was so popular in the USA at the time that the likelihood of peoplekeeping stuff…there must’ve been dozens and dozens of prints floating around, after the distribution. It’s well knownthat the projectionists very often end up having their own little collection of films!
Q: Once the news came through that the Harvard Film Archive had this cut, how did that make youfeel? Did you got to America to see it?
A: No, they brought it over here. I saw it with STUDIOCANAL at Deluxe. At the same time, we had a discussionabout the opening of the film, and I said I’d like the church scene really to be the only mainland piece, as it wasthe only plot-advancing scene that was relevant. And that was how it happened.
Q: How involved were you then with this new 2K restoration? And how do you feel about how itnow looks?
A: Well, I was consulted at all the key stages. The problem has always been that inevitably if you have to restoreit through using a print as negative, you were going to have to go through several generations, so therefore itwould be more grainy; I’ve always said I don’t think that matters if you were dealing entirely with night scenes,which they are. The scene with Christopher in the garden is a night scene – it doesn’t matter if those snails area bit grainy! It tells the story, and telling the story is the most important thing. The film has other very beautifulscenes in my opinion, and if those are slightly less than perfect-looking, I’m OK with that. I think that they areconsistent with the night scenes.
Q: Why has the film endured over all this time?
A: Well, it was enormously successful theatrically in the US. It was a phenomenon. Christopher Lee was a verywell known actor. I suppose you could’ve called him a star. But that was purely in Hammer Films. This was a big change in his career. The reaction that Christopher had, when it was going to be cut, was to go to Paris and tosubmit it – probably quite illegally! – to the Festival des Films Fantastiques et Science Fiction, where it won theGrand Prix. As a result, reviewers in England demanded to see it and had to be shown it, and not only that, but itgot a rave review in Variety, which led to Cinefantastique doing a complete issue devoted it. It was on the coverand something like 80% of the magazine was devoted to it. And that was really a phenomenon. At that point,the student group that took it up as a project started the process in which I was very closely involved. I had tohelp them with the fundraising, which meant going around showing the film in it’s truncated state and saying wewanted to restore the rest of the film and we needed money for that.
Q: There’s some talk that there are other lost scenes which would have resulted in a 117 minuteversion. Do you think that’s true?
A: No, I don’t. If you count the length of the rough cut of the film, it might be possible that it was 117 minutes. Thereare scenes which we cut, which are not lost – but cut. These were agreed between the editor, the producer andmyself. For instance, there’s a great deal in that scene where Christopher is going on about the apples, withEdward. But actually that scene is about two or three minutes longer, and we know more about apples at theend of it, than anyone could really want to know who wasn’t in the apple business!
Q: So is more of that in the 102 minute ‘Long Version’?
A: Perhaps, some of it. I know I cut it and Christopher wasn’t terribly pleased because he liked it. In a way, it waspart of the tongue-in-cheek idiom of the film; to suddenly have this arcane description of how apples can be matedand propagated is risible. It’s funny! And Tony saw it that way, so I’m sure he’d have agreed to cut it.
Q: How does it feel then to still be talking about the film after 40 years?
A: I’m really pleased and very proud of the film. But I’m also particularly pleased because it will help with thepromotion of the third film in the Wicker Man trilogy [after The Wicker Man and The Wicker Tree] that I’mworking on. We have a script. I have some casting. We have locations – we’re moving along. But putting thefinal financing in place is always the hard part for an independent picture. It’s alright if you’re making a studiopicture, and there’s a green-light and suddenly someone writes a cheque, but most British pictures are puttogether in bits and pieces. It’s complex and of itself expensive, because it involved lawyers at every single point.But we’re on our way. I’ve obviously done it before and I hope by the end of next year, we’ll have a completetrilogy of Wicker Man films.
The Wicker Man The Final Cut is coming to DVD and blu-ray from the 14th of October 2013.