Filmmaker John Boorman is an acquired taste, much like his fellow Brit Ken Russell. Both directors came of age in the 1960s where they cut their teeth in documentaries and television. The difference came in their obsessions; Russell strove to make psychedelic passion plays dealing with sexuality and spirituality. Boorman liked to investigate nature and its connection to man’s savagery. Both directors’ predilections amplified exponentially in the 1980s when Russell would go full force with some of his most personal pieces, and Boorman would struggle to get his vision produced on a big budget scale, faltering more often than he succeeded.
At a major crossroads in the 1970s following a successful pair of Lee Marvin films and then the quintessential cautionary survival tale Deliverance, Boorman was in pre-production for Lord of the Rings (yes, it’s been kicking around that long – even longer, actually) when he instead shifted his efforts to fully producing and directing his own script, a sci-fi fantasy epic set in the future named Zardoz. Upon release, reviews were mixed with critics like Time’s Jay Cocks’ praising the “visually bounteous” film, while Roger Ebert saw it as, “a trip into a future that seems ruled by perpetually stoned set decorators… The movie is an exercise in self-indulgence (if often an interesting one) by Boorman.”
I wish I could find it as pleasurable or oddly exciting as either of these two. I grew up with Zardoz’s relegation to midnight showings at art and revival houses, as my friends would just have to flash stills of Sean Connery in his outrageous banana hugger to elicit snickers and eye rolls. How far Connery had fallen just two movies out from his final Bond appearance.
To say Zardoz doesn’t hold up is an understatement. My opinion is it didn’t hold up initially in 1974. But back then, it was campy fun. Today, it’s barely enjoyable, just dragged out, drugged-out 70s excess.
The story is set in a post-apocalyptic world where there are two factions of humanity, the Eternals, who live a decadent but aimless life, and the lower caste Brutals, who fight and kill at the behest of their masters. Flying over and surveying all, is the huge rock facial sculpture known as Zardoz; a God that the Brutals bow down and serve without question. The Brutals employ the Brutal Exterminators, men in double gunbelts across their bare chests and snuggy red diapers that simply kill other men and provide “meat” for the Eternals.
Chief among these Exterminators is Zed, (Sean Connery) who takes great bloodlust in shooting everyone and thing that moves with rather rustic looking hand guns. Zed sneaks inside the mouth of the flying Zardoz rock head and reveals himself long enough to kill the rock’s pilot, Arthur Fray, who calls himself the real “Zardoz.” When the flying head touches down in Eternals land (known as the Vortex), the wan and impotent residents (basically sexless – men and women dress the same ) use mind-control to overtake Zed and make him a slave who tends to the production and distribution of produce and grains for the elite.
Two Eternal women who seem to be higher caste leaders (Charlotte Rampling and Sara Kestelman) argue over what to do with manly, hairy, long-braided Zed. May (Kestelman) wants to “experiment” (read “sleep”) with him, while Consuella (Rampling) wants him destroyed. Sex, and therefore procreation, has in fact become needless, as the Eternals have discovered immortality. When someone within the Eternals commits a crime, they are sentenced to months or years of “aging.” Finally, those who are the oldest end up in a kind of big band/swing-era rest home.
The longer Zed remains, the more the Eternals become used to him, as he begins to show the different women Eternals the joy of sex. But the rift between Consuela and May widens, and Consuela probes his mind and memories to learn he had been trained and tutored by the now expired Arthur Frayn, with more knowledge bestowed upon him through a secret library than any other Brutal. In flashback, we realize Zed had discovered a book that rendered the entirety of Zardoz’s existence a corrupted myth. He reads The Wizard of Oz, and with his hands over the cover, mask the “Wi” and “of” to reveal (gasp!) “zardOz!” It was this information that motivated Zed to hide in the traveling head and kill Freyn, for his use of an empty idol to manipulate the Brutals a la “Oz.”
More groping, raping and violence comes to the Vortex, as Zed allows some of his Brutal brethren access to this Utopia, so that all may enjoy its pleasures. Finally, Zed and Consuela consummate their unbridled passion.
The entire fantasy is a hot mess, but not nearly as fun as it sounds. So much exposition and effete characters giving us subtext and history, especially plotting that we have since seen several times over, that the final revelations are trite and predictable. Logan’s Run and even Sleeper covered this material much more effectively and with greater skill. And Connery, as hilarious and surprising a visage as he presents, with cheek exposed swaddlings, his long braid flapping behind him, is a complete enigma; an empty vessel that furthers the plot only as a thick-headed set piece.
Boorman would go on to fulfill a wildly diverse filmography; from the abominable Exorcist II to the blindingly armored Excalibur, both embarrassingly vapid and bloated offerings. He has since caromed from critically acclaimed Hope and Glory and the audience pleasing Where the Heart Is, to the misguided Beyond Rangoon. But the director has shown something of a late-in-life Renaissance as 2001’s The Tailor of Panama, 2004’s In My Country and 2014’s Queen and Country have been critical darlings.
And so we are left with the enigmatic Zardoz that will hardly gain any further notoriety beyond groans and smirks. In fact, the name itself conjures up similarities to fantasy sci-fi satire Barbarella or the confused Myra Breckenridge, all films whose overrated status deserves finally to be put to rest.
Twilight Time has released this silly saga on Blu-ray, so you no longer need to blame bad prints on the film’s inferior quality. Everything’s right there to accurately put the blame squarely on Boorman’s shoulders. That is, if you can stay awake.
Zardoz is available through Screen Archives’ Twilight Time label as a Limited Edition Blu-ray.