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15 Fascinating Facts About The Wicker Man

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Though in many ways it was a cinematic oddity, Robin Hardy’s 1973 movie The Wicker Man has captured the imaginations of critics and devoted fans with its representation of life on a remote Scottish island, depictions of pagan rites (with weird animal masks), and a combination of whimsy, musicality, and dread. Christopher Lee’s turn as Lord Summerisle cemented his reputation as one of cinema’s great villains.

The movie has inspired filmmakers and spawned spinoffs, tributes, and an infamous 2006 remake. But The Wicker Man’s road has been rough to say the least. Its makers wanted to offer something new and more substantial in a horror landscape dominated by monsters and busty women, an attempt that was met with incomprehension and outright hostility by the production studios. Fortunately, it has survived in all its strange and fascinating glory. Here are some fun facts about one of cinema’s greatest pagan horror musicals.

1. ITS SCRIPT IS LOOSELY BASED ON DAVID PINNER’S 1967 NOVEL, RITUAL.

Author David Pinner wrote Ritual as a script treatment for another director, but adapted it into a novel after the director declined the project. The Wicker Man screenwriter Anthony Shaffer, producer Peter Snell, and actor Christopher Lee later acquired the rights to the story, which combined elements of mystery and the occult and involved the mysterious death of a teenage girl in a Cornish village. Shaffer, however, decided the novel would not adapt well to the screen and used its basic outline to craft a new story.

2. JAMES GEORGE FRAZER’S THE GOLDEN BOUGH WAS ALSO AN INSPIRATION.

Shaffer and director Robin Hardy—who passed away on July 1, 2016—plumbed Frazer’s seminal work of comparative mythology for ideas, drawing liberally from the different traditions Fraser described then fashioning them into a believable modern pagan religion with ancient roots. Hardy also said he was deeply influenced by The Wicker Image, a 1676 engraving depicting a giant, humanoid, cage-like figure with compartments full of human offerings. 

3. THE STORY IS SET IN THE SPRING, BUT SHOOTING TOOK PLACE MOSTLY IN NOVEMBER.

The pagan romps of The Wicker Man transpire amid spring’s fecundity, but because of studio British Lion’s financial troubles, production was rushed and the film was shot in late fall in Scotland. The art department had to create the illusion of spring by attaching artificial blossoms to bare branches and bringing in fake apple trees, while cast members had to hold ice in their mouths to keep their breath from steaming in the cold air.

4. NONE OF THE MOVIE’S SCENES WERE ACTUALLY SHOT ON AN ISLAND.

The story unfolds on the fictional Scottish island of Summerisle, but filming happened in several coastal locations around the production base in Newton Stewart, Scotland. The film’s opening aerial images were filmed en route to the Isle of Skye and in South Africa, where there were more blossoming trees, while director Hardy was on a commercial shoot.

5. STAR CHRISTOPHER LEE CONSIDERED IT TO BE HIS BEST FILM, AND HIS BEST PERFORMANCE.

Lee, who had been typecast for years as a blood-sucker in Hammer horror films, had sworn off playing Dracula and was looking for more challenging roles. An acquaintance of Shaffer, Lee was involved in the development of the film from the beginning and would later champion it as it struggled to find a commercial foothold. Lee declared The Wicker Man to be “the best film I’ve ever been in, the best part I’ve ever had. And—not that I’m a judge at all—the best performance I’ve ever given.”

6. LEE WAS NOT PAID TO APPEAR IN THE MOVIE.

Apparently Lee’s desire to walk away from Dracula was so great that he reportedly agreed to play the starring role of Lord Summerisle for free.

7. ACTRESS BRITT EKLAND HAD A BUTT DOUBLE.

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Swedish actress Britt Ekland, who plays the innkeeper’s seductive daughter Willow MacGregor, was already known as a sex symbol due to previous roles in The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968) and Get Carter (1971). She agreed to appear topless in The Wicker Man, but refused to let her rear end be shown. Two body doubles, an exotic dancer and an 18-year-old extra, were brought in for Willow’s famous dance in a doorway and to stand in for her backside. Her semi-nudity still caused trouble, though, when she later dated Rod Stewart, who reportedly tried to buy up all of the film’s negatives and destroy them so that no one could look at his naked girlfriend.

Ekland’s butt was not the only thing that was faked. Her dialogue and singing were later dubbed over with the voice of Scottish singer Annie Ross, to Ekland’s dismay, because Ekland could not pull off a passable Scottish accent.

8. THERE ARE MULTIPLE VERSIONS OF THE FILM.

After production was completed, Hardy assembled a 99-minute version of the film based on the original script. But EMI Films, who had bought out British Lion Films during production and whose executive, Michael Deeley, detested the movie, excised a large portion of it, releasing an 87-minute version to theaters. In 1976, Hardy decided to try and reassemble the original film, but was unable to obtain the original negatives from EMI. Hardy was able to reconstitute what he had lost from the full-length version from a copy he had given to Roger Corman, and put together a 95-minute version known as the “Director’s Cut.” This was followed in 2001 by a DVD version close to the 99-minute original, known as the “Extended version,” and finally, after the discovery of a 35mm print in Harvard’s film archives, by the release of Hardy’s “Final Cut” in 2013.

9. THE FILM’S ORIGINAL NEGATIVE MAY LIE UNDER THE M3 HIGHWAY IN ENGLAND.

Stewart’s threats to destroy the footage were unnecessary. EMI executives, foisting off Hardy’s requests for the original footage in 1976, eventually told him that the 368 canisters of film he sought had been used as filler in construction of Britain’s M3 highway, even leading producer Peter Snell to the landfill and pointing to a trove of cans at the bottom of a hole to underscore the point.

10. IT WAS ORIGINALLY RELEASED AS A DOUBLE FEATURE WITH NICOLAS ROEG’S DON’T LOOK NOW.

The Wicker Man-hating executives at EMI saw a chance to unload the film’s theatrical version by appending it to another movie as a B picture. It finally limped into public view in the shadow of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, which was having its second run in London in 1973. The release was particularly insulting to The Wicker Man given that the A/B movie system had practically been abolished by that time.

11. MOST SONGS IN THE SOUNDTRACK ARE BASED ON TRADITIONAL FOLK TUNES.

The film’s songs are one of its most unique features and important enough to the narrative that it could almost be considered a musical. American composer Paul Giovanni arranged the soundtrack based on or inspired by traditional songs and recorded them with folk band Magnet. The lyrics of the opening song “Corn Rigs” are taken from a ballad by 18th-century poet Robert Burns, while the song “Sumer Is Icumen In,” sung during the final burning scene, is a traditional 13th-century song.

12. SERGEANT HOWIE’S STUNNED LOOK AT THE END IS GENUINE.

The stricken look on the face of the sacrificial Sergeant Howie, played by Edward Woodward, as he is brought to the eponymous Wicker Man was real, as Woodward had seen only drawings of the giant prop before. Not only that, but the scene was shot in an incredible rush, as the production was on the run from studio heads who wanted to shut it down. Woodward had no time to learn his lines and had to read them off of giant letters on bed sheets hung from nearby cliffs.

13. A GOAT INSIDE THE WICKER MAN ALSO FOUND THE PREDICAMENT VERY UPSETTING.

Hardy reported that as the crew set the giant on fire and filmed the final scene from below, a goat in one of the man’s compartments above peed on them. Hardy also stressed that the fire was kept under control and was put out soon afterward, and that no animals were harmed while filming the scene.

14. THE STUDIO WANTED A MORE CHEERFUL ENDING.

EMI executives suggested a more “upbeat” ending in which Howie’s life is saved, even suggesting that a torrential rain put out the fire consuming the wicker man. Hardy flatly refused this proposal.

15. IT INSPIRED A SCOTTISH MUSIC AND ARTS FESTIVAL.

The Wicker Man Festival has been held every summer since 2001 in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, near where the film was shot. Unfortunately, the 2016 festival has been canceled due to the tragic death of its co-founder, Jamie Gilroy; it will return again in 2017.

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10 Things to Remember About Memorial Day
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Memorial Day is much more than just a three-day weekend and a chance to get the year's first sunburn. Here's a handy 10-pack of facts to give the holiday some perspective.

1. IT STARTED WITH THE CIVIL WAR.

Memorial Day was a response to the unprecedented carnage of the Civil War, in which some 620,000 soldiers on both sides died. The loss of life and its effect on communities throughout the country led to spontaneous commemorations of the dead:

• In 1864, women from Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, put flowers on the graves of their dead from the just-fought Battle of Gettysburg. The next year, a group of women decorated the graves of soldiers buried in a Vicksburg, Mississippi, cemetery.

• In April 1866, women from Columbus, Mississippi, laid flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers. In the same month, in Carbondale, Illinois, 219 Civil War veterans marched through town in memory of the fallen to Woodlawn Cemetery, where Union hero Major General John A. Logan delivered the principal address. The ceremony gave Carbondale its claim to the first organized, community-wide Memorial Day observance.

• Waterloo, New York began holding an annual community service on May 5, 1866. Although many towns claimed the title, it was Waterloo that won congressional recognition as the "birthplace of Memorial Day."

2. MAJOR GENERAL JOHN A. LOGAN MADE IT OFFICIAL.

General Logan, the speaker at the Carbondale gathering, also was commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans. On May 5, 1868, he issued General Orders No. 11, which set aside May 30, 1868 "for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion."

The orders expressed hope that the observance would be "kept up from year to year while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades."

3. IT WAS FIRST KNOWN AS DECORATION DAY.

The holiday was long known as Decoration Day for the practice of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths, and flags. The name Memorial Day goes back to 1882, but the older name didn't disappear until after World War II. Federal law declared "Memorial Day" the official name in 1967.

4. THE HOLIDAY IS A FRANCHISE.

Calling Memorial Day a "national holiday" is a bit of a misnomer. While there are 10 federal holidays created by Congress—including Memorial Day—they apply only to Federal employees and the District of Columbia. Federal Memorial Day, established in 1888, allowed Civil War veterans, many of whom were drawing a government paycheck, to honor their fallen comrades without being docked a day's pay.

For the rest of us, our holidays were enacted state by state. New York was the first state to designate Memorial Day a legal holiday, in 1873. Most Northern states had followed suit by the 1890s. The states of the former Confederacy were unenthusiastic about a holiday memorializing those who, in General Logan's words, "united to suppress the late rebellion." The South didn't adopt the May 30 Memorial Day until after World War I, by which time its purpose had been broadened to include those who died in all the country's wars.

In 1971, the Monday Holiday Law shifted Memorial Day from May 30 to the last Monday of the month.

5. IT WAS JAMES GARFIELD'S FINEST HOUR—OR MAYBE HOUR-AND-A-HALF.

James Garfield
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On May 30, 1868, President Ulysses S. Grant presided over the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery—which, until 1864, was Confederate General Robert E. Lee's plantation.

Some 5000 people attended on a spring day which, The New York Times reported, was "somewhat too warm for comfort." The principal speaker was James A. Garfield, a Civil War general, Republican congressman from Ohio and future president.

"I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion," Garfield began, and then continued to utter them. "If silence is ever golden, it must be beside the graves of fifteen-thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem the music of which can never be sung." It went on like that for pages and pages.

As the songs, speeches and sermons ended, the participants helped to decorate the graves of the Union and Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery.

6. NOT EVEN THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER CAN AVOID MEDIA SCRUTINY THESE DAYS.

"Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God." That is the inscription on the Tomb of the Unknowns, established at Arlington National Cemetery to inter the remains of the first Unknown Soldier, a World War I fighter, on November 11, 1921. Unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean War subsequently were interred in the tomb on Memorial Day 1958.

An emotional President Ronald Reagan presided over the interment of six bones, the remains of an unidentified Vietnam War soldier, on November 28, 1984. Fourteen years later, those remains were disinterred, no longer unknown. Spurred by an investigation by CBS News, the defense department removed the remains from the Tomb of the Unknowns for DNA testing.

The once-unknown fighter was Air Force pilot Lieutenant Michael Joseph Blassie, whose jet crashed in South Vietnam in 1972. "The CBS investigation suggested that the military review board that had changed the designation on Lt. Blassie's remains to 'unknown' did so under pressure from veterans' groups to honor a casualty from the Vietnam War," The New York Times reported in 1998.

Lieutenant Blassie was reburied near his hometown of St. Louis. His crypt at Arlington remains permanently empty.

7. VIETNAM VETS GO WHOLE HOG.

Rolling Thunder members and motocyclists wait for the 'Blessing of the Bikes' to start at at the Washington National Cathedral, May 26, 2017 in Washington, DC
ANGELA WEISS, AFP/Getty Images

On Memorial Day weekend in 1988, 2500 motorcyclists rode into Washington, D.C. for the first Rolling Thunder rally to draw attention to Vietnam War soldiers still missing in action or prisoners of war. By 2002, the ride had swelled to 300,000 bikers, many of them veterans. There may have been a half-million participants in 2005, in what organizers bluntly call "a demonstration—not a parade."

A national veterans rights group, Rolling Thunder takes its name from the B-52 carpet-bombing runs during the war in Vietnam.

8. MEMORIAL DAY HAS ITS CUSTOMS.

General Orders No. 11 stated that "in this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed," but over time several customs and symbols became associated with the holiday.

• It is customary on Memorial Day to fly the flag at half staff until noon, and then raise it to the top of the staff until sunset.

• Taps, the 24-note bugle call, is played at all military funerals and memorial services. It originated in 1862 when Union General Dan Butterfield "grew tired of the 'lights out' call sounded at the end of each day," according to The Washington Post. Together with the brigade bugler, Butterfield made some changes to the tune.

Not long after, the melody was used at a burial for the first time when a battery commander ordered it played in lieu of the customary three rifle volleys over the grave. The battery was so close to enemy lines, and the commander was worried the shots would spark renewed fighting.

• The World War I poem "In Flanders Fields," by John McCrea, inspired the Memorial Day custom of wearing red artificial poppies. In 1915, a Georgia teacher and volunteer war worker named Moina Michael began a campaign to make the poppy a symbol of tribute to veterans and for "keeping the faith with all who died." The sale of poppies has supported the work of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

9. THERE STILL IS A GRAY MEMORIAL DAY.

Several Southern states continue to set aside a day for honoring the Confederate dead, which is usually called Confederate Memorial Day. It's on the fourth Monday in April in Alabama, April 26 in Georgia, June 3 in Louisiana and Tennessee, the last Monday in April in Mississippi, May 10 in North and South Carolina, January 19 in Texas, and the last Monday in May in Virginia.

10. EACH MEMORIAL DAY IS A LITTLE DIFFERENT.

Ricky Parada sits at the grave of his little brother Cpl. Nicolas D. Paradarodriguez who was killed in Afghanistan, at Section 60 on Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery on May 28, 2012 in Arlington, Virginia
Mark Wilson, Getty Images

No question that Memorial Day is a solemn event. Still, don't feel too guilty about doing something frivolous (like having barbecue) over the weekend. After all, you weren't the one who instituted the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1911. That credit goes to Indianapolis businessman Carl Fisher. The winning driver that day was Ray Harroun, who averaged 74.6 mph and completed the race in 6 hours and 42 minutes.

Gravitas returned on May 30, 1922, when the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated. Supreme Court Chief Justice (and former president) William Howard Taft dedicated the monument before a crowd of 50,000 people, segregated by race, and which included a row of Union and Confederate veterans. Also attending was Lincoln's surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln.

In 2000, Congress established a National Moment of Remembrance, which asks Americans to pause for one minute at 3 p.m. in an act of national unity. The time was chosen because 3 p.m. "is the time when most Americans are enjoying their freedoms on the national holiday."

This post originally appeared in 2008.

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5 Things You Might Not Know About Henry Kissinger
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You probably know Henry Kissinger as a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. Let’s take a look at five things you might not know about the German-born political scientist and diplomat.

1. MAO ZEDONG TRIED TO GIVE HIM "10 MILLION" WOMEN.

In 1973, Henry Kissinger was engaged in a discussion of trade with Mao Zedong when the chairman abruptly changed the subject by saying, “We [China] don't have much. What we have in excess is women. So if you want them we can give a few of those to you, some tens of thousands.”

Kissinger sidestepped this bizarre offer and changed the subject, but Mao later returned to the subject by jokingly asking, “Do you want our Chinese women? We can give you 10 million.”

This time Kissinger diplomatically replied, “It is such a novel proposition. We will have to study it.”

Other Chinese officials in the room pointed out that Mao’s attitudes toward women would cause quite a stir if the press got their hands on these quotes, so Mao apologized to his female interpreter and talked Kissinger into having the comments removed from the records of the meeting.

2. NO, HE'S NOT THE INSPIRATION FOR DR. STRANGELOVE.

Here’s a riddle that’s been bugging film buffs for decades: who was the basis for the title character in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove? For years many observers thought that Kissinger might have inspired Peter Sellers’s memorable performance. Blame it on the accent and the glasses. Even though Kissinger was still a relatively obscure Harvard professor when the film premiered in 1964, the rumor that Kubrick modeled the character on him just wouldn't die.

Kubrick did what he could to dispel this notion before his death, saying, “I think this is slightly unfair to Kissinger ... It was unintentional. Neither Peter nor I had ever seen Kissinger before the film was shot.” Most observers now think that Dr. Strangelove was actually a distorted version of Herman Kahn, an eccentric nuclear strategist for the RAND Corporation.

3. HE WAS QUITE THE LADIES MAN.

Even in his youth, Kissinger didn’t quite fit the bill of a matinee idol, but he has always been a hit with the ladies. A 1972 poll of Playboy bunnies selected Kissinger as the man with whom Hef’s ladies would most like to go out on a date. He also had a string of celebrity girlfriends in his younger days, including Diane Sawyer, Candice Bergen, Jill St. John, Shirley Maclaine, and Liv Ullman, who called Kissinger, “the most interesting man I have ever met.”

Kissinger’s swinging bachelor days are long gone, though. He was married to Ann Fleischer from 1949 to 1964 then married philanthropist Nancy Maginnes in 1974—a union that at one point seemed so improbable that just a year before they tied the knot, Maginnes had called speculation that she and Kissinger would marry “outrageous.”

4. PROTECTING HIM ISN'T ALWAYS EASY.

In 1985 former Secret Service agent Dennis McCarthy released the memoir Protecting the President—The Inside Story of a Secret Service Agent, in which he described being on Kissinger’s security detail as “a real pain.” McCarthy shared a funny anecdote about a 1977 trip to Acapulco with Kissinger and his wife. There were signs warning of sharks in the water, but Nancy wanted to go for a swim. Kissinger then told his security detail to get in the water to guard for sharks.

Personal protection is one thing, but McCarthy and his fellow agents drew the line at fighting off sharks. Instead, they made the reasonable point that if the Kissingers were afraid of sharks, they shouldn’t go swimming. Agent McCarthy did, however, offer a compromise; he told Kissinger, “If the sharks come up on this beach, my agents will fight them.”

5. THE STATE DEPARTMENT NIXED HIS OFFICIAL PORTRAIT.

Official portraits of government luminaries don’t usually become big news, but in 1978 the painting of Kissinger commissioned by the State Department for its gallery made headlines. Boston artist Gardner Cox had previously painted Secretaries of State Dean Acheson and Dean Rusk, so he got the $12,000 commission to paint Kissinger. The finished product didn’t earn rave reviews, though.

Some viewers at the State Department thought the painting lacked Kissinger’s dynamism and made him look “somewhat a dwarf.” Others felt the portrait was “a rogues' gallery thing." The State Department offered to let Cox fix the painting, but he said he didn’t see anything that need changing. He lost the commission but got $700 for his expenses.

Kissinger took the whole episode in stride, though. When Houston artist J. Anthony Wills painted a replacement, Kissinger declared it to be, “an excellent likeness, swelled head and all,” and called the unveiling "one of my most fulfilling moments. Until they do Mount Rushmore."

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