“When I see the film now, I’m astonished at my hubris in making this extraordinary farrago.”–John Boorman in his 2001 director’s commentary for Zardoz
DIRECTED BY: John Boorman
FEATURING: Sean Connery, Charlotte Rampling, John Alderton, Sara Kestleman, Niall Buggy
PLOT: Zed is an Enforcer, a warrior and slaver who pillages the countryside and takes commands from Zardoz, a floating stone head, in a distant barbaric future. One day Zed sneaks into the head and is carried away with it to Vortex 4, a land filled with technologically advanced people who never seem to age. Zed is a curiosity to them and becomes both a slave and an object of scientific study, but his presence disrupts their society in profound ways.
- Zardoz was John Boorman’s first film after being nominated for an Oscar for Deliverance. Boorman had been trying to get an adaptation of “The Lord of the Rings” off the ground, but the project fell through.
- This was Sean Connery’s second role after completing his run as James Bond with Diamonds Are Forever in 1971 (although he would return to the role for a one off in 1983’s Never Say Never Again).
- Burt Reynolds was originally slated to play Zed but fell ill.
- According to Boorman the film’s budget was one million dollars, $200,000 of which went to Connery’s salary.
- Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth also lensed 2001: A Space Odyssey, among many other films.
- Boorman later co-wrote a novelization of the film.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Try as he might to fill his film with unforgettable visions of giant floating stone heads vomiting firearms and of humanity’s entire cultural heritage projected onto the half-nude bodies of immortal hippies, the one image that adorns almost every review of Boorman’s Zardoz is a simple one: Sean Connery standing in the desert, pistol in hand, ponytail insouciantly thrown over one shoulder, dressed in thigh high leather boots and a red diaper with matching suspenders.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This sci-fi spectacle starts with serious ideas and weighty themes,
Original trailer for Zardoz
but gets weighed down under an avalanche of self-indulgent dialogue, a confused script, low-budget psychedelics, and consistently bizarre directorial choices. Fill a talented young director’s head full of anticipation of adapting Tolkien, then pull that opportunity out from under him but instead give him Sean Connery and carte blanche to make whatever film he wants, and the result, apparently, is Zardoz. (Oh, and LSD might have had something to do with it, too).
COMMENTS: Zardoz is introduced by a floating head weaving through a void, slowly approaching us while enunciating with almost parodical Shakespearean precision. He announces that the tale he is about to relate is “full of mystery and intrigue, rich in irony, and most satirical.” (When imagining him speaking these lines, consider that he rolls the “r” in “richly” ostentatiously, as if auditioning for the role of harlequin at a Renaissance Faire). He goes on to explain that, although in this tale he is “the puppet master” who manipulates the characters in the story, he too is “invented for your entertainment and amusement.” Eyes widening and voice lowering, he ends by addressing us directly: “And you, poor creatures, who conjured you out of the clay?” Smirking and chuckling: “Is God in show business too?” By this time, his head has filled enough of the frame to reveal that his goatee and mustachio have been painted on with a magic marker.
Welcome to the world of Zardoz. Soon, a giant stone head will be explaining that “the gun is good, the penis is evil,” Sean Connery will tramp about utopia in a red jockstrap with a confused expression on his face, and immortals will age half of a reluctant member’s face by humming and waving their fingers at him because he refuses to enter second level meditation with them. Zardoz is a movie that deliberately evokes high culture, with its soundtrack consisting of variations on Beethoven’s “Allegretto,” citations to Greek mythology, rooms full of classical statuary, and a Nietzsche-quoting protagonist who has to literally kill God, not once, but twice. And yet the film seems to realize, and at times even relish, its own ridiculousness: its hard to say that a movie that puts James Bond in a wedding dress has no sense of humor. And of course there’s that floating-head prologue reminding us of the movie’s satirical intent, and Friend’s dying words: “it was all a joke.” Zardoz wants to have it both ways, to be simultaneously a profound movie about ideas and a campy absurdist goof. And the funny thing is, to a large extent, it succeeds—at least as entertainment, and by listing strongly to the “absurdist goof” side of the spectrum.
Zardoz begins with an appealing “hard science fiction” feel to it. In an age of giant mainframes and science fiction’s presumption that supercomputers would grow increasing massive as they became more powerful, Boorman foresees the development of micro-storage, with all the world’s knowledge being stored in light patterns trapped inside a crystal about the size of a clenched fist. The future society is well-drawn—class based, with ignorant Brutals in the Outlands bred like racehorses and manipulated by effete Eternals living in luxury in the Vortex behind invisible walls—even if some of the details of their daily lives seem silly. The society seems to be largely matriarchal—at least, females May and Consuela seem to be the prime drivers of the political action. There’s a strong temptation to read a political allegory, with the young Eternals and their Age of Aquarius meditation rituals representing a flower power generation come to power and corrupted just like their forebears. The central idea, that immortality would be a curse, is intriguing and romantic; the Eternals resemble Greek gods, which resonates well with the picture’s ambitions to become a religious allegory. The inhuman sexlessness of the Eternals is creepy, too high a price to pay for immortality. Penetration, associated with virile Zed, is a continual theme. “The Penis shoots Seeds, and makes new Life to poison the Earth with a plague of men,” warns the stone Zardoz. “No Brutal has ever penetrated a vortex,” marvels May. “You have penetrated me… Come into my center,” says the Tabernacle, sounding uncomfortably like HAL 9000 trying to talk dirty.
Any of these seeds of ideas might have made for a thoughtful sci-fi feature if followed through to the end, but the movie’s too stoned to keep its mind on one thing before wandering off to the next cool concept. Consider the film’s climax, where Zed is trapped inside the hall of mirrors in the crystal Tabernacle (whose determination to destroy him manifests itself as the cast performing interpretative dances while moaning like ghosts in a Halloween haunted house). How will Zed defeat the omnipotent machine? A masked image of him in his previous incarnation as an Eliminator appears in a mirror, and he shoots it, symbolically killing his past identity and thereby being reborn as the messiah who brings death to the land. So the story has been about Zed’s spiritual actualization, overcoming his own Brutality, all along. Wait, what the…?
The movie contains so many odd digressions—more “WTF?” moments per minute than perhaps any other widely distributed film of the 1970s—that everyone will have their personal favorite. Perhaps its the moment when, for no ascertainable reason, Friend starts speaking backwards. Perhaps its the moment when Sean Connery puts on a wedding dress. Perhaps its when the Eternals try to induce an erection in Zed—purely in the interest of science, you understand—by showing him softcore porn on a big screen TV, including two gals mud wrestling, while the crowd stares in rapt amazement at Connery’s crotch. Perhaps its the bathetic finale when Zed and Consuela morph into doctor’s office display skeletons holding hands. It could be any of several lines of geeky purple dialogue, all delivered with deadpan sincerity: “We will touch-teach you, and you will give us your seed.” (Zardoz’s “the penis is evil” speech is an obvious choice here).
It could be the sight of pistol-packing Sean Connery running about the desert and tumbling down hills in that saggy red diaper. Without a doubt, Connery is a huge asset to the film’s camp value. Being a movie star, he doesn’t disappear into the role. We’re always conscious of the fact that that’s James Bond up there on the screen exposing his pale hairy torso and tossing an Apathetic lass into a bale of hay with rape on his mind. When Zed looks confused—as he should, being a stranger in a strange land—we can’t help but imagine that Connery’s projecting that befuddlement by thinking to himself, “What the hell am I doing here running around in my Underoos?” Sean does get off one great, sly moment, when he looks down to matter-of-factly admire his own erection, then calmly glances back up to lock eyes with an uncomfortable Charlotte Rampling. But generally, his restrained, unemotional performance is the stuff of schadenfreude: we’re happy to see this larger-than-life figure brought down to such a ridiculous level.
Another clear asset is the visuals. Boorman has never lacked for a great cinematic sense, and he and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth have produced a great looking film. The special effects are impressive and interesting, even when they’re more than a bit ridiculous in the context of the story. The great floating stone head of Zardoz is unforgettable, more so when it unexpectedly opens its mouth and belches forth guns and ammo. Many of the scenes in the Vortex rely on projecting a second image directly on another surface. We see flashbacks of Zed’s life as a Brutal cast on a trapezoidal screen in the background while he lies on a massage table in the foreground: naked female mannequins stuck to what appear to be saran wrap walls decorate the sides of the building. At one crucial point, images are projected directly on topless bodies: mathematical formulas, Da Vinci frescoes, a musical score. While the hall of mirrors finale in the Tabernacle is quite silly, you won’t be tempted to shut your eyes to the trippy visuals, either. The vistas, many shot in the misty hills of Wicklow, Ireland, are often stunning, and when hordes of mounted Exterminators ride over the rise, the scene presages the grandiose martial imagery Boorman would conjure seven years later in his excellent Arthurian epic Excalibur. (The character of Arthur Frayn/Zardoz is also an embryonic sketch for Nicol Williamson’s Merlin, and in fact it seems that everything Boorman had hoped to seriously achieve in Zardoz was actually realized in the later film).
Is Zardoz an unintentional comedy, or was it always intended as a sly counterculture satire? Or, did Boorman come to realize that his bloated epic was doing pratfalls over its own clumsy feet, and add a few intentional jokes and ironies in an attempt to salvage the film’s reputation and pass it off as a self-aware comedy? Boorman’s slightly embarrassed DVD commentary suggests the third option, as does the fact that he added the floating-head prologue suggesting that the film shouldn’t be taken entirely in earnest in response to the befuddlement of early test audiences. At any rate, it hardly matters. Whether you think you’re laughing with Zardoz or at Zardoz, the point is that you’re laughing, and laughing with amazement.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…lushly photographed piece of twaddle… a glittering cultural trash pile, and probably the most gloriously fatuous movie since The Oscar—although the passages between the laughs droop.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (contemporaneous)
“…a genuinely quirky movie, a trip into a future that seems ruled by perpetually stoned set decorators… Every once in a while, a movie like [this] comes along; a movie you’ve got to see so that you, too, can be in the dark about it.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)
“Hoity-toity and self-important to the point of supreme silliness, Zardoz is an odd artifact of a time in Hollywood when moviemaking and drug-taking often intertwined, to the benefit of no one but bad movie fans like us.”–John Wilson, The Official Razzie Movie Guide
IMDB LINK: Zardoz (1974)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Zardoz Online – Welcome to the Vortex – Contains many Zardoz stills, quotes from pressbooks, and other digital memorabilia, though the site hasn’t been updated in years
zardozthemovie: ZARDOZ: Out of the Vortex – A (low traffic) Yahoo group devoted to Zardoz
Zardoz B-movie review – Humorous review from badmovies.org, with plenty of stills, a clip, soundbites, and a long discussion thread
Zardoz – Television Tropes and Idioms – A list of pop-culture idioms cited in Zardoz from the popular tvtropes site
History and the death wish: Zardoz as open form – Academic essay by Fredric Jameson in Jump Cut No. 3 (1974) attempts (and fails) to find meaning in Zardoz
“Book of Eli” Reboots “Zardoz” – Annalee Newitz claims (half-seriously?) that 2010’s Denzel Washington feature The Book of Eli is essentially an inferior remake of Zardoz
DVD INFO: The affordable 20th Century Fox release (buy) is presented in anamorphic widescreen. Extras include the trailer, multiple radio spots, and most importantly a commentary from Boorman, which is rather sparse and which fails to address the “deeper meanings” that many fans see in the film.
The film can also be rented on Amazon’s Video-on-Demand service (rent). Zardoz is not on Blu-ray at the time of this writing, but given the continued interest in the film and its impressive visuals it would not be at all shocking to see it released in the near future.
(This movie was nominated for review by “Felix,” who said it “seemed to be an old post-apocalyptic James Bond just because Sean Connery is the main character of the film and he has a gun with him… this movie is great!” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)