POLICE SERGEANT HOWIE flies off to a remote Scottish isle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. During his investigation, he finds that the natives of the quiet Scottish hamlet are a bit more than odd — they’re pagans! What follows during the next 90 minutes is public group sex, people spontaneously breaking out into song, nude women crying in grave yards, schoolchildren singing odes to phallic symbols, naked flashdancing, foreskins in jars — ultimately culminating in Sgt. Howie being roasted alive in a giant rattan action figure (so the crops will grow).
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is The Wicker Man.
This gem from 1973, starring Edward Woodward, bears the rare distinction of being the only movie in film history that Rod Stewart tried to get banned — and not because it’s a bad movie. It all has to do with Britt Ekland and some dancing….
Anyway, Sgt. Howie, played by Woodward, is sent to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison. When Sgt. Howie arrives, he is met by several locals who, besides being confoundedly stupid, insist that the girl is not a resident of the island. They’ve never heard of her, they say. But Howie is as nosy as he is persistent, and he continues to search for young Rowan, despite the fact that everyone on the island, including the woman who is Rowan’s alleged mother, claims that they do not know the girl.
As Howie searches for the missing girl, he finds that the residents of Summerisle are pagans who worship the old gods and reject Christianity (this fact offends Howie, who is a Christian). Howie begins to suspect that the island’s May Day ritual may be more than mere re-enactment, but a full-scale human sacrifice made to appease the gods. Howie suspects that Rowan is not missing, but intended to be the isle’s offering.
After a game of cat and mouse (I really hate that cliche), Howie finds that it is he who is the intended sacrifice, and he is given up to the gods — burned alive inside the Wicker Man.
The Film’s protagonist, Sgt. Howie, is a Christian. Howie, as a modern man thrown into the strange world of paganism, is intended to represent the audience. The audience, meaning us, and Howie are products of Christendom. We’ve been raised with, whether we’ve accepted Christianity or not, Christian morality. Our collective Christian sensibilities tell us that paganism, in particular, pagan practices that call for blood sacrifices, is not only a useless practice, but morally reprehensible as well.
The audience, as well as Sgt. Howie would regard the practices on Summerisle as heathen and blasphemous according to our Christian perspective. Our God, the Christian God, as Howie proclaims, is the “true God”. Howie calls the religion of Summerisle “fake”, and demands to know why the children have “never heard of Jesus”. As people raised with (or at least in the presence of ) the Christian faith, we can understand Howie’s outrage. And we also share Howie’s disgust when he discovers that the Summerislanders intend to perform ritual human sacrifice.
But, the residents of Summerisle have a different point of view. When Sgt. Howie meets Lord Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee ( the first man I usually think of when I think of a Scotsman), Summerisle explains to Howie that his grandfather, in an attempt to rekindle the spirit of the people living on the island and cure them of their apathy, brought back the old gods.
The people, along with the local flora, flourished. The ethic, Lord Summerisle tells Howie, is to love and fear nature, to rely on it, and to “please it when necessary”. Summerisle tells Howie that the Christian God is not worshipped on his island because the Christian God failed to help the people. “He’s dead,” Summerisle says. He had his chance and blew it. When Howie, furious at Summerisle’s unrepentant paganism proclaims that Summerisle is a pagan, Summerisle responds, ” A heathen conceivably, but not I hope an unenlightened one”.
But Howie sees Summerisle and his people as just that — unenlightened.
Unenlightened people do stuff like this:
And things like this:
The people of Summerisle, Howie thinks, are backwards, savage, and barbaric.
I guess it’s a lot like spending a night in any city in Nevada outside of Las Vegas.
Howie knows that Summerisle knows that bringing back the old gods did not make his island prosperous, but correctly using the island’s volcanic soil to raise crops that would grow in that environment saved the island and its people. If Summerisle is not an unenlightened pagan, Howie knows, then certainly the people of Summerisle are, as they believe that sacrifice will please the gods and renew their harvests.
As he is being led off to his date with the Wicker Man, Howie tells the islanders that burning him will not bring back their failed crops. He says that, if the crops fail again, that no sacrifice other than the Lord Summerisle himself will appease their gods. As Howie burns in the Wicker Man, he sings the Psalm of David ( Psalm 23), while the people of Summerisle, led by Summerisle, sing a triumphant pagan ‘let’s roast a cop in the fire’ song.
This song in particular:
By the way, there really is a Summerisle located off the coast of Scotland. I’m not sure if the events depicted in the film are representative of events that actually go on there, but rest assured I’m not going there any time soon to find out.*
This brings us to a very important question: what are we to do when we are confronted with competing moral theories? In particular, how do we decide moral rightness when each side claims that their side is morally correct? What do we do if we have, as in this case, competing religious claims?
Ok, let’s take out the fact that Lord Summerisle knows that paganism is wacked. Let’s say that he, and the people of the island, truly believe that performing human sacrifices will bring back their failed crops. Their gods, they believe, demand that they do. If they do not obey, they believe, the gods will get angry with them and kill their crops, causing the deaths of hundreds of people. So, let’s stick Sgt. Howie in the mix. And, like the people of Summerisle, Howie believes that his religion prohibits human sacrifice. His religion, he believes, will punish those who unlawfully shed the blood of an innocent.
Each claims that their religion is morally correct. Each operates from a mandate from God or their gods — including potential punishment if each does not obey. How are we to solve the ethical dilemma? How are we to determine which side is morally correct? Is doing so possible? If there is, which ethical system can/should we appeal to to settle the difference?
Usually, when we are faced with ethical dilemmas, even when we pull out the old thought experiment, we consider ethical dilemmas one theory at a time. So, for instance, if everyone in this situation were Kantians, we could easily draw some conclusion as to which side is morally correct. we might say that ritual human sacrifice is murder and that the pagans have no right, morally speaking, to perform their evil deed. Moreover, Sgt. Howie is an unwilling participant, and to sacrifice him is using him as a mere means to their end.
Problem solved. We wipe off our hands, and pat ourselves on the back after winning the ethics bowl round.
But we can make such an easy decision here. Each side says that it is their moral imperative to act as they do. So now what do we do? Let’s look at another theory. Let’s say that this time, everyone is a utilitarian. The utilitarian says that we must only act in such a way that will bring the greatest good for the greatest number.
Ok. We’ve got Sgt. Howie on one side saying that the sacrifice won’t work. The crops are going to fail, no matter what, and if they fail next year, no sacrifice other than Lord Summerisle himself will do. So, according to Howie, performing the sacrifice will be pretty bad for everyone. So, let’s give benefits a plus five, and the negatives a minus twenty.
So, after hearing Howie trying to worm out of doing something beneficial for his island, Lord Summerisle says that, if they commit the sacrifice the crops will grow, and the people will prosper. And, Summerisle explains, Howie will benefit as well.
Summerisle tells Howie that he will join with the forces of the universe and sit at the right hand of the gods. And even from Howie’s Christian perspective, Summerisle says, Howie benefits from having a martyr’s death. So Summerisle says the benefits are all plusses — plus twenty, plus twenty, and plus fifty for Howie.
Fear not, Sgt. Howie. Pain is only temporary. Heaven is forever.
Well, this isn’t working. Somehow it seems that Summerisle beats Howie. In fact, Summerisle claims that, if Howie participates, he benefits more than everyone else. Now, the obvious problem here, is these claims, like any utilitarian claim, remain speculative (at best). We don’t know whose god (or God or gods) is/are right. There’s a chance that Summerisle’s gods are the “real” gods. In that case, if we follow Howie’s advice, we’ve done more harm than good. So, is there anything out there that can help us?
We might want to abandon, at least for now, any ethical system that takes a definitive stand on rightness or wrongness. So let’s try moral relativism.
According to the relativist, different cultures have different standards of right and wrong (cultural relativism). From that fact we conclude — since every culture has a different standard for right and wrong, there exists no universal standard of right and wrong. Therefore, we cannot objectively measure the rightness or wrongness of a given act. Or something like that.
Sorry. Nicholas Cage popped up again.
Man, he’s everywhere, isn’t he?
Well, this gets us absolutely nowhere. All a relativist can say is that Sgt. Howie has one set of morals and the people of Summerisle have another. They’re both right. But unfortunately for Howie, he can’t both be burned in the Wicker Man and as far away from that damned island as possible at the same time. So we’re back at square one. The natives are lighting their torches and we’ve got to make a decision, quick. How do we decide which is morally right?
Luckily for us in this case, there actually is a way to solve the dilemma. I mentioned before that we should forget that Summerisle knew that paganism is a load of poo. Well, that’s our cheat. And even though we are secretly rooting for the pagans, (let’s face it, Howie was rude and nosy and he deserved to die) but we know that Howie is dying for nothing. What makes matters worse is the fact that Howie himself knows this as well.
And then this happens…..
We know what the people of Summerisle do not know. We know that Summerisle knows the real reason why his grandfather brought back the old gods. And because of this, we know that sacrificing Howie is wrong. It’s wrong because Summerisle is not only using Howie to further his own ends, but he is also using the people of Summerisle for his own benefit. He is relying on their ignorance ot maintain control over them. Although Summerisle claims that he loves his people, we can see that this may not be the case. He loves ruling over them. He enjoys manipulating Sgt. Howie into falling prey to his plan to use him as a sacrifice ( notice that he did not use one of the island’s natives but a mainlander). In this case, unlike so many we see in the real world, it is easy to tell. The sacrifice is wrong. Thankfully the pagan gods of Sumerisle and screenwriters make it all so easy to figure it out.
If only real philosophy were that easy……