This is the original and classic WICKER MAN, please not to be confused with the already butt-of-obscure-jokes Nic Cage re-envisioning. Since others in the Film Club family outstrip my wit, I'll focus on the symbolic content and historical context and, following my EngLit training, will just make up whatever I can't figure out.
WICKER MAN starts with water. Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward), an officer of the English mainland, flies to the island of Summerisle to investigate a report of a missing child. Summerisle, "off the west coast of Scotland," is populated by neopagans who have jettisoned Christianity in favor of the old gods. They're famous for crops, grown on an island composed of volcanic soil and sea water. They're also seriously into sexy business and scandy behavior—they do it, they sing songs about it, and Sergeant Howie, a devout Christian, is seriously shocked by it. He determines that the entire population is complicit in planned murder, only to discover that this is not entirely gospel-true.
WICKER MAN is brainier than most genre fare. It's tough to even label it a genre film—it definitely has elements of horror, but it's also practically a musical and an awful anti-bildungsroman and an erotic thriller. Everything can be reduced to sexuality: fire becomes a surrogate for sperm, as ladies leap across a bonfire to hasten pregnancy; graves are "protected by the ejaculation of serpents"; and all songs are Bulletboys-esque in their obsessions with filthy ways ("When her name is mentioned/The parts of every gentleman stand up at attention").
As you might have surmised, all this copulation does not sit right with pious Sgt. Howie. For a hero, Howie is remarkably stiff NOT LIKE THAT and, although most viewers will share his values more than those of island folks who like to offer liquid sacrifices to the god of the sea, it is still difficult to empathize with him as he wanders around town looking google-eyed at phallic symbols and nude gamboling. It is kind of telling that he doesn't see the parallels between Summerislish culture and that of his own ostensibly-Christian culture. For ex, the neopagans clearly link human-body fecundity with crop fecundity (making canned peaches a bad omen on second viewing), so saying things like, "Take, eat, this is my body which is broken for you" if you are the island's only Christian is perhaps not the wisest thing to do.
But Howie, though the film's traditional figure of authority, is clearly way out of his element. In his interactions with Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), he is obviously outmaneuvered long before the looming end arrives. His rigidity and deep-seated beliefs, while an advantage in his own culture, blind him to the signs of danger on Summerisle. "I don't believe in it...before marriage" and "I believe in the life eternal, as promised to us by our Lord, Jesus Christ!" are his exclamations, but you can believe in ANYTHING and it won't save you if you refuse to believe in the reality of furries with torches. The clash-of-cultures subtext in this film is especially relevant to our days, as we struggle with new global connections and the integration of foreigners with foreign beliefs into Western societies. How should community and social mores be weighed? By number? If everyone except you believes that killing someone will make apples grow, is it okay to kill them? If enough of them believe that Sharia should be enacted, is that okay? If enough believe that robbing the rich will solve all of life's problems, is that okay? If enough believe that we need to blow up the Middle East and rebuild it in our image, is that okay? If enough people believe something, can it really be wrong, or insane? Could fifty million Nazis be wrong?
The last scene of the film is harrowing. The situation, yes, but also the dual singing, with Howie shrieking, "The Lord's My Shepherd," in light of his inevitable end. It is only in this scene that he really felt like a hero to me, a very tragic hero, and the glamour of the Summerislanders fell before the ugliness and pointlessness of their act. The film's makers call it a cautionary tale, but only the finale truly bears this out.
A brilliant film, one that should not have to bear its remake's sins.