Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Wicker Man's Woodward Dies

Edward Woodward, 79, the central leading actor in The Wicker Man, died on Monday, November 16, 2009.

The Wicker Man is a 1973 British horror film, combining thriller, existential horror and musical genres, directed by Robin Hardy and written by Anthony Shaffer. The film stars Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Ingrid Pitt and Britt Ekland. Paul Giovanni composed the soundtrack. The film is now considered a cult classic.

Based on David Pinner's 1967 novel The Ritual, the story is about a Scottish police officer, Sergeant Neil Howie (played by Woodward), visiting the isolated island of Summerisle to search for a missing girl (named, significantly, "Rowan") whom the locals claim never existed. Police Sergeant Neil Howie is sent an anonymous letter recommending that he investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison, on the remote Hebridean island of Summerisle (a fictional island apparently inspired by the real-life Summer Isles of the Inner Hebrides).

The inhabitants of Summerisle all celebrate a reconstructed form of Celtic paganism, which upsets the devoutly Christian Sergeant. In the original uncut version of the film, he witnesses couples copulating in the church yard, in addition to finding a naked woman sobbing on a grave. He angrily threatens to involve the authorities after discovering the school mistress (Diane Cilento) is teaching young girls about the phallic importance of the maypole.

The character played by Woodward (an intriguing name, in and of itself) finds himself attracted strongly to Willow (Britt Ekland), the sexually liberated daughter of the landlord. In the restored director's cut of the film, Lord Summerisle refers to Willow as Aphrodite when presenting her with a young male adolescent to seduce. The police sergeant cannot help but overhear their passionate lovemaking. To compound matters, Willow tries to seduce him the following night, dancing naked and beating upon his bedroom wall, but he resists the torment with some obvious physical discomfort.

(The uncensored version is difficult to view online, but the pagan passion of "Willow's Song" is clearly evident even in what is to be discovered on YouTube.)

Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) clearly is a match for Sergeant Howie. During a May Day festival, Howie attempts to learn more about what is occurring there by dressing at Punch. But that backfires, to say the least and perhaps to state so as a pun.

Lord Summerisle and his followers explain to the good Christian Sergeant that his sacrifice will be effective because Howie came to them of his own free will; as a virgin; with the power of a king (by representing the law); and as a fool ("You are the Fool, Mr. Howie: Punch, one of the great fool-victims in history! For you have accepted the role of King-For-A-Day, and who but a Fool would do that?" asks the school mistress, referring to the way that Howie has conducted his investigations).

Howie in turn admonishes them, claiming that killing him will not restore their fertility and that they all would be guilty of murder. He argues that if the crops fail next year they will have to sacrifice Summerisle. Lord Summerisle asserts that Howie's sacrifice will have the desired results.

The policeman is dragged screaming into the belly of a large hollow wicker statue of a man which is subsequently ignited. In the final scene of the film, the islanders surround the burning wicker man and sing the Middle English folk-song "Sumer Is Icumen In" while the terrified Howie shouts out Psalm 23. The film ends with the Wicker Man engulfed in flames, and collapsing in front of the setting sun.

Woodward, who also starred in Breaker Morant and in the "The Equalizer" on television, died in a hospital in Cornwall after an illness, said Janet Glass of the Eric Glass Ltd. agency in London.

He won an Emmy Award in 1990 for "Remembering World War II" and a Golden Globe in 1987 for "The Equalizer," which ran for 88 episodes from 1985 to 1989 on the U.S. network CBS.

In a career that began in 1946 in a regional production of "A Kiss for Cinderella," Woodward played roles in productions ranging from the popular British soap opera "Eastenders" to productions of Shakespeare, and at least 40 films for theater or television.

His last film appearances were in 2007's Hot Fuzz (an ironic name, considering The Wicker Man role) and Congregation of Ghosts, now in post-production.

"I think I've probably more television than any actor living," Woodward said in a 1987 interview with The Associated Press. "I've done over 2,000, could be 3,000 now, television productions."

"I suppose there is also the feeling that it is the largest medium by far for information, education and above all, entertainment," he added. "And after all, that's what an actor's life is all about. Getting work and entertaining people."

At the time, Woodward was promoting a U.S. television film of Uncle Tom's Cabin, in which played the wicked slave owner, Simon Legree. He found the role strangely refreshing.

"If you are a British actor, you do lots of Shakespeare and lots of classical work. There is always a great actor who has just played your character," he said.

"Lucky for me, Simon Legree has not been done very often," he added.

Woodward is survived by his second wife, actress Michele Dotrice, their daughter, and two sons and a daughter from his first marriage.

Funeral arrangements have not been announced.


RonNasty said...

I really enjoyed the Equalizer back in the day. One of the best TV themes ever. Sorry to hear of his passing, but I didn't read or hear about this anywhere else, so thank you for the update.

Anonymous said...

I note that you didn't mention the 2006 American re-make, starring Nicholas Cage. Possibly with good reason, I suppose.