Why Christopher Lee Wasn’t Paid for 1973’s The Wicker Man
The Wicker Man is a classic folk horror movie with an outstanding performance from Christopher Lee as the cult leader, so why didn’t he get paid for his work?
Christopher Lee was one of the most acclaimed actors of all time, but he never got paid for one of his greatest performances: as Lord Summerisle in the original 1973 version of The wicker man. Lee is best remembered for playing a number of iconic roles throughout his career, including Count Dracula in the Hammer Horror films, Saruman in Peter Jackson. The the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, James Bond villain Francisco Scaramanga and Count Dooku in the star wars prequels. But one of Lee’s most influential performances was in The wicker manso how could production not pay him for his work?
The wicker man is a British folk horror film that follows devoutly Catholic Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) as he investigates the case of a missing girl on the remote Scottish island of Summerisle. Upon arrival, Howie is horrified to discover that all the villagers of Summerisle practice paganism, led by Lord Summersisle (Lee), who tells the sergeant that his people need their ancient religion so that their crops can thrive. Howie eventually finds the girl but discovers that her disappearance was only an inducement so the townspeople could sacrifice him to the old gods for a bountiful harvest.
By 1973, Christopher Lee had appeared in numerous Hammer Horror films, Dracula and Frankenstein’s curse included, and was looking for more interesting roles that would keep him from being typecast as freaks. He first became involved in The wicker man when he met the film’s screenwriter, Anthony Schaffer, who had set out to write a clever horror film that relied on atmosphere rather than gore. Schaffer wrote the role of Lord Summerisle specifically for Lee. However, The wicker man had such a low budget that he couldn’t afford the actor’s usual fare. Lee liked The wicker man so much so that he offered to appear without compensation so it could still be produced, hoping his name would attract people to the film.
In a making-of documentary included in the home video release of The wicker man, Christopher Lee says being in the film was a labor of love. He notes that The wicker man was his favorite movie he had starred in because he was smarter than most horror movies; it was actually something substantial. The wicker man focuses on the idea of sacrifice, as well as the conflict between the practices of paganism and the modern practices of Christianity. These themes are far more philosophical than those of most monster movies of the time. There are no otherworldly spirits or supernatural forces present in The wicker man; all the horror comes from the sectarian community led by the charming Lord Summerisle, who only seek to serve his people, whatever the cost.
Despite The wicker man‘s subversive folklore, it was not an immediate success. Due to a change in management at British Lion Films, the film suffered a disastrous editing and distribution process. Much of his original footage, as well as the original cut of The wicker man, was lost, and Lee says his continuity isn’t as effective as a result. Still, Lee’s interest paid off, as The wicker man has since become one of the most famous films in the horror genre. A number of modern horror films, including kill list, Apostleand Midsommar (not to mention 2006 Wicker Man remake with Nicolas Cage), are strongly influenced by The wicker manthe folk horror aesthetic as well as the emphasis on cult sacrifice. None of these fantastic horror films would exist without Christopher Lee’s love for The wicker man encouraging him to work for free.
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