Director: John Boorman
Screenplay: John Boorman
Cast: Sean Connery (as Zed); Charlotte Rampling (as Consuella); Sara Kestelman (as May); John Alderton (as Friend); Sally Anne Newton (as Avalow)
Synopsis: In 2293, the world as we know it has long vanished. Mankind is divided between those that are the have-alls, including immortality, who stay in their own society and everyone else, the Brutals. Some of the Brutals are partially controlled by a god named Zardoz to be Exterminators, who follow the decree of "the gun is good, the penis is evil" and kill off their fellow Brutal. One such exterminator called Zed (Connery) however manages to get into the Immortal's homeland, and whilst Immortals Consuella (Rampling) and May (Kestelman) argue whether he should be studied or disposed of, Zed himself may be the giver of death to the Immortals as well.
Zardoz as a film, if one wants to get past Connery wearing red bikini briefs, has so many ideas vying for attention in only a hundred minutes or so that it does overwhelm the viewer with a lot to take in. As a narrative it's a lot more concise than its reputation suggests, but there's a lot that's absence in the synopsis above of what Zed witnesses and is part of, some of which has only a few minutes of time to be brought up causing one to be continually barraged with concepts. Boorman, unable to adapt The Lord of the Rings novels but having success with Deliverance (1972), had the moment in his career that thankfully still happens today when producers give a director carte blanche to make whatever film they want. Even if it's a little unconventional or flat-out strange, no one has thankfully learnt from the mistakes of the past. They're a divisive subgenre, but from Richard Kelly's Southland Tale (2006) to Steven Spielberg's 1941 (1979), they're some of the most interesting entries in a director's CV, where for every mistake that might be there, every overlong and indulgent aspect, there's plenty of ideas being thrown out and plenty of inspiration to burn.
Zardoz is about the perils of class, of the community authority over individualism, masculinity against femininity only to suddenly put the macho Connery in a wedding dress and skewer the gender politics. For me as well there's a surprising mood of this representing the sixties counter culture dying slowly and excruciatingly as well, turning into a repressed and emotionally numbed society in the Immortals, melancholic to the point some have become like somnambulists cast away into the outskirts. These sorts of films flummox one in terms of their politics. Case in point for an example, it would be understandably seen that Zardoz is misogynistic as the macho former James Bond overpowers a land ruled by women and men who can't even grow a beard like him, one having to make do with drawing it on and thus proving a felt tip pen still exists in the future. But then there's, again, the image of Connery in a wedding dress. Gender seems useless to the Immortals anyway where they're utterly asexual, no sexuality be it hetero or gay, where its explicitly stated the men cannot have erections anymore. The macho barbarian meanwhile develops humility, wisdom and kills his old self metaphorically in a hall of mirror sequence. Like other films like this overstuffed with ideas the creators, while creating something that's give the producer a heart attack about trying to sell, manage between every muddy or half-finished idea to create plenty to be interested of in this conflict in their prickliness.
It helps that there intentional humour in Zardoz as well, a willingness to find absurdity in itself as well as purport serious ideas. Like Nicol Williamson as Merlin in Excalibur (1981), John Boorman can appreciate a magnificently succulent piece of ham, be it Niall Buggy as Arthur Frayn opening the film with a monologue from his felt tip marked mouth suggesting the audience are puppets like him, to John Alderton with his odd high voiced intonations as Friend, eventually doomed to be alongside the Renegades, those who still cannot die but are punished for thought crimes through rapid aging and senility. Connery himself despite his original costume, which is more ridiculous for the ammo belts and ponytail than the bikini briefs, is the anchor that stops the film from becoming silly, not continually asking questions about the world around him but the usually silent witness to the strange behaviour of the Immortals. While the shadow of the Bond films, not long before Zardoz, makes Connery's casting even stranger and unpredictable, the result is less an embarrassment but an odd and curious sight from a decade of cinema where this sort of unpredictability was more common.
Sadly the film does betray itself to gassy philosophy and Connery trying to fight (wobble through?) the mentioned hall of mirrors, which is the only part of the film where it lives up to its notoriety. It suffers in these parts from the vagueness that exists in modern spiritualism outside the cinema even today, where ten words are used instead of only one. Barring this, Zardoz acquits itself to sci-fi and fantasy ideas which, ironically, are still pertinent now.
A low budget film shot near to his actual house in Ireland, Boorman could've easily made a film entirely of its time, one in look that would've dated badly even if that sort of aesthetic appealed to me anyway. This isn't the case however as the aesthetic is instead one of its best aspects, beautifully put together. It's a mashing of mashing of naturalism in the outdoor environments infused with available buildings, cottages and barns, and poppy acid infused costumes and colours from the sci-fi films from this era. Everything that is of its time - from Connery's bikini briefs to the candy coloured peasant garb of the Immortals - is intentionally exaggerated and within the confines of a visual template that's very carefully considered. It's a colourful film, but not just in terms of its more unconventional sets but also natural colour in general, from a struggle taking place in a sewing room full of multiple colours of thread to the strange sight of green bread being broken at a dinner table.
When you do get to the aforementioned unconventional sets, they're something to behold. Images of amoeba and primitive life printed on the back of an interrogation room Zed is being questioned in. Nude bodies of Immortals, preserved in glass tanks like living wallpaper, being re-grown and cultivated. An archive of the Tate Galley's paintings and corridors of statues of what Friend tells Zed were god and goddesses who died of boredom. No matter how indulgent and erratic these passion projects can be, production design is rarely terrible for them and Boorman has shown a great deal of artistic inspiration in the films I've seen of his, shown here especially. Even if you still find Zardoz gobbledegook, all the content visually is used to carry on the ideas rather than leave them behind. A testament of this is the sequence where Zed is taught an entire world of knowledge, a mix of languages and references spoken aloud as in a meticulous way various images are superimposed on actresses' and Connery's bodies like tattoos. It's an exceptional moment, poetry and mathematics intertwining into a tapestry but uses it to tell a story or mood, one of many moments where the campiness can be pushed back and the serious artistic premise of the film does shine through.
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
The only real disappointment one might find in Zardoz is that it's quite conventional and concise in its themes if you strip away all the arty language. It's not a film that enters into unconventional plot structure or fully evokes the mood of an esoteric film like those made by Alejandro Jodorowsky. As a result, contrary to what some might think, Zardoz is one of the more "normal" films I've covered on the blog, where when you stripped the flourishes away it's Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1931) and L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) skewered into a strange direction.
What does get it on the list are ultimately the flourishes that even back in the seventies, before I was born, would cause people to scratch their heads, a giant floating head moulded from Boorman's head but looking like Karl Marx the first amongst them, gliding along with an airless grace in the clouds. A young Charlotte Rampling musing about the male erection as a naked Connery is shown erotic images to induce one. The Renegades, elderly and senile men and women, in a perpetual party in dinner suits and night gowns rampaging around a dilapidated hotel. The madness of the end, where there's chaos, orgies and eventually a mass genocide welcomed by the victims wanting to die. That the films still manages to be utterly serious and profound makes these moments even more strange and qualifiable for the Abstract List.
Revisiting Zardoz is significant because I saw the film when I was young. Like director Ben Wheatley on the extras of the new Arrow Video release, I encountered Zardoz on television. God knows when but in hindsight, I wonder whether this was the film responsible for turning me onto the oddball cinematic tastes I have now. I could recount, while not the whole monologue, the line "the gun is good, the penis is evil" perfectly in my head for decades, and the final image, of a time lapsed metaphor for life to death, was burnt into my memory for that length of time. What stands out seeing the film again after all this time is that, weren't it not for the moment the dialogue becomes more esoteric and New Age by the end, Zardoz is quite a sombre story which has a lot more going for it that being an utter disaster. Whilst not as poetic as Brave New World is depicting someone in an alien, oppressive environment, what you get is a film that's on the cusp of campiness but that can be taken seriously.