Edward Woodward did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Sergeant Howie in The Wicker Man.
Edward Woodward plays the police officer and is our entry point into the strange island which is the setting of the film. There is a brief introduction on the mainland where we witness Woodward dutifully perform his duties as a Catholic in church before going off to perform his duties as a police officer after receiving a letter noting the disappearance of a girl. Woodward's performance is pivotal in establishing the tone of the film given that he is on such another wavelength than the rest of the actors as the islanders. The ensemble of the islanders, except Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle, as these odd "simple" folk where they are have this unsettling sinister joviality. Woodward is a complete separation from every else by presenting the complete outsider that is Howie, although this is not quite the more usual leading horror performance more on that later. Woodward though offers the right representation of a normality as he first arrives to the island and begins his investigation.
Woodward offers a strict reality with his performance and with that he assures that Howie has that separation of from the islanders. Woodward does something very important which is that he does not inflict his performance with any unnecessary style or needless mannerisms which in turn only amplifies the rest of the ensemble. Woodward at the core of his performance establishes the reflection of traditional society against the strange society of the islanders. When he first arrives Woodward is excellent by portraying the genuine reaction that would come from being accosted by such odd passive aggression right for the moment he merely asks for help to reach the shore from his plane. Woodward helps to convey the unpleasantness of this place by so earnestly portraying the sheer disbelief in Howie that would most likely would be the reaction of any person to the islanders seeming lack of concern for the life of the missing girl.
That is not all there is to Woodward's performance, as again this is not just the normal protagonist of a horror film as the sane man trying to figure things out. It's a bit different. Although Woodward does a proper representation of normalcy Howie brings more to the island than that. Howie is a strict law officer and a strict Christian in addition to that which Woodward utilized to be a powerful element in his performance. As noted intense actors go Edward Woodward truly needs to be named far more often than he is, as he's one of the very best at it. Woodward utilizes this intensity brilliantly here as he fashions it within his performance so naturally. Woodward utilizes it so well in revealing exactly Howie's state on the island. On one end the strict way Woodward presents himself, very to the point and with a directness is fitting to a law officer. Woodward extends this further though in portraying also the this as a part of his own beliefs. The Christian values in Howie, Woodward upholds through a depiction of a tense undeniable conviction.
Woodward presents Howie well as a truly righteous man at the very least in his own eyes, and often plays the part as the man attempting to bring some sort of justice in what seems to be a Godless island. In that sense Woodward cut through every scene like a razor in the way he so incisively proceeds with Howie's investigation. Woodward never makes it merely the investigation though, even though that aspect Woodward emphasis most strongly that also offers Howie's most sympathetic attitude. There is not a single scene where Woodward is not captivating to watch because of how he handles every scene. It's amazing in the way that Woodward realizes this very idea of kind of a proper societal oversight in the film. Woodward in a way makes Howie both seem absolutely in command yet wholly out of his element all the same. In every moment of the investigation, as he questions the whereabouts of the girl, Woodward's performance makes Howie the irreproachable detective who will discover whatever mystery that island holds.
Woodward plays with that conviction towards solving the case also in his conviction towards his own faith. Woodward is terrific in portraying this disdain Howie has towards the villagers would seem to relish in all behaviors that Howie finds morally reprehensible. Woodward takes this further than merely a possible puritanical attitude towards their more lax views on open sexuality, as he shows this disdain churning to disgust as he comes to know that the islanders are pagans. The severity of the reaction Woodward conveys shows this not to be merely Howie hating a religion that is not his own, rather he contributes this sense of disbelief that in his modern times such a community could even exist that reject his own beliefs. Woodward does have that intensity of the zealot but this does not make Howie as distant as the villagers to the viewer. This again because Woodward does layer this to further convey the notion that there is something seriously wrong with the villagers, particularly in the classroom scene where Howie admonishes their psychotic lack of empathy in the school children due to seemingly having no concern whatsoever for their own classmate. Woodward makes Howie's cause a righteous one, even if Howie can be rather self-righteous.
The island though slowly reveals itself to be even more sinister than just the general rudeness of its denizens as they seem to be building towards their annual festival which may entail human sacrifice. Woodward excels in portraying the frustrations in dealing with the antagonist locals own disdain for his beliefs particularly Lord Summerisle. What's so good about Woodward's work though is the way reveals that every time Howie's resolve is hit, Woodward expresses this building back towards his confidence that he in the right. He does this rather quickly, but Woodward importantly shows that it still must be done. The most severe test before the climax comes when the landlord's daughter of the inn he's staying at attempts to seduce him. Woodward again does reveal the difficulty in his resolve as Howie almost succumbs to the advances, though he's able to stop himself. I love though how Woodward again presents the resolve having returned summed best by his oh so proper delivery of Howie's explanation of his rejection to the woman. Now before tackling the climax of the performance, which is a quite thing all in itself. This performance up until that point is an outstanding piece work. He makes Howie understood as a man, but he also helps to create that terrible sense of isolation that is so pervasive in the film through this. He is so unlike the other performances, yet again though Howie is a particular sort of man Woodward still makes him an honest one. This makes the horror of the film all the more unsettling particularly as he arrives to the finale where he discovers that someone is going to be sacrificed unfortunately, it's him.
Woodward is simply amazing for every second of the final scene. In the early part of the scene as Woodward shows the effort in Howie as he is trying to come to grips with what is happening, and almost in a certain disbelief in if the villagers really are serious. This changes severely when he sees the wicker man in full view. Woodward's reaction realizes the terror by the sheer terror he expresses in the moment. It horrifying as he makes the fear real. Woodward never loses the fear for the rest of the scene and is harrowing as he grants the situation a genuine gravity. Woodward does not become one note, which would almost be warranted, nevertheless Woodward makes the most of what remains. Woodward depicts the painful attempt to basically gain his resolve once again as he pleads with the islanders trying to explain that the sacrifice will be meaningless. When this does not work though I love the vicious anger, alluding to perhaps a justice in the end, he directs right at Lord Summerisle by stating that the Lord will be next to fill the burning man. No reprieve is granted and Woodward again is unforgettable. Woodward makes the terror so vivid in his disturbing yet heartbreaking final anguish. As he reveals this proper mess of fear, hatred but also just an attempt at solace as he holds onto his own faith one last time.