The opening weekend of July 2016 saw the deaths of two significant figures in the history of British genre cinema – director Robin Hardy, and producer Euan Lloyd.
Hardy became a hugely respected figure thanks to his 1973 masterpiece, The Wicker Man (1973). That film, the jewel of the minor sub-genre identified as ‘folk horror’, featured Christopher Lee in what was reportedly his favourite role. Millions of words have been used to eulogise The Wicker Man, and so I would like to shift attention onto its ignored (and occasionally maligned) follow up, The Wicker Tree (2011).
Hardy wrote the screenplay based on his novel entitled Cowboys for Christ. It is a thematic sequel to the earlier film, involving a Christian pop group attempting to convert pagans in Scotland.
It is understandable as to why the film was met with disappointment. Its production values occasionally reveal the (relatively) low budget (though there are also plenty of beautifully shot sequences), such as a shot against a green screen cameo by Christopher Lee. Also, the plot is convoluted in comparison with The Wicker Man.
But for those interested in cult and exploitation movies, and films that defy mainstream convention, there are many pleasures to be had when watching The Wicker Tree. Its central premise is extremely witty. Not only are the Christian evangelists seduced and ultimately destroyed by the heathen Scots, but there is also a subversive backstory, where the attractive blonde female singer has a past of which she is ashamed, of a time when she was a Britney Spears/Jessica Simpson-esque singer, famous for a track called ‘Trailer Trash Love’.
The film can best be described as a glorious mess, and its tone and style resembles the later Ken Russell movies, such as Lair of the White Worm (1988).
The day after Hardy’s passing, it was announced that Euan Lloyd had died at the age of 92. Lloyd produced several high profile but critically reviled actions films in the mid 1970s to the mid ‘80s. Paper Tiger (Ken Annakin, 1975), The Wild Geese (Andrew V. McLaglen, 1978), The Sea Wolves (Andrew V. McLaglen, 1980), Who Dares Wins (Ian Sharp, 1982), and Wild Geese II (Peter Hunt, 1985), represent British cinema of a different time – muscular, epic, and extremely macho, featuring mostly middle aged stars. They are too high budget to be thought of as pure exploitation movies, but they have the single minded focus of the best exploitation films; sharp action sequences, overt political commentary, and aimed at specific niche audiences (in this case heterosexual men, with little concession to any other demographic). Combined with Lloyd’s earlier trilogy of British co-produced westerns (Shalako [Edward Dmytryk, 1968], Catlow [Sam Wanamaker, 1971], and The Man Called Noon [Peter Collinson, 1973]), they form a vital body of British genre output.
The two best are The Wild Geese and Who Dares Wins, which were both critically snubbed for their political leanings, and attracted accusations of racism and other phobias. The Wild Geese is actually a far more nuanced piece of work than criticism of it suggests, and appeals to a more centrist political outlook. It is a sentimental film, which undoubtedly makes extremely simplistic appeals for racial tolerance. But the action is brutal in places, and technically extremely impressive – as one would expect given much of its crew were regulars on the 007 franchise. In my mind, it is more effective than The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare, two films it tries to emulate for scale and mood.
Who Dares Wins is inspired by the Iranian embassy siege in London in 1980. Lewis Collins plays an SAS officer going undercover among a far left terrorist group who want to detonate an atomic bomb on a Scottish airbase to show the devastation the nuclear threat is capable of. It is a right wing, possibly fascist, masterpiece. Like Rambo: First Blood Part II (George P. Cosmatos, 1985), the film is a hard, gleaming, fascist spectacle, which extols physical strength and military violence. It climaxes with the SAS storming a building and dismissing the terrorists with little effort or resistance.
It is an easy film to dismiss because of its politics (if you are of any kind of liberal persuasion), but if you can allow yourself to go with the story, it can be enjoyed as a hard, truly adult (in that it expects the audience to be confronted with viewpoints it might not share), film experience.
The Wicker Man has had a profound influence on international horror, and resulted in a Hollywood remake. Lloyd’s films utilised faded big name American directors and ageing global star name actors. The Wild Geese in particular was a success in Europe, subsequently influencing a cycle of Italian war films (such as the Lewis Collins starring Codename: Wild Geese, [Antonio Margheriti, 1984]). But whereas Hardy’s The Wicker Man will stand the test of time, Lloyd’s output will be lucky to receive the same plaudits given how out of step they are with modern sensibilities. However, both filmmakers have produced important and significant moments in British cinema history, their films have transcended national boundaries and achieved a global impact.