Believe it or not, friends and movie-going public, there was a time in the film industry when just having a financial success, no matter what the subject matter or tone, was enough to give a filmmaker absolute carte blanche to make whatever kind of movie they wanted as a follow-up. Kind of a, “He did it once; let’s see if he can do it again with whatever the hell’s cookin’ in his fevered mind.” But probably less self-aware than that. Anyway, after the surprise success of the incredibly disturbing naturist film Deliverance (you know, the one where hillbillies make Ned Beatty squeal like a pig), British director John Boorman was given $1.5 million to make whatever kind of movie he wanted. The result was a true auterurist epic, a film which Boorman produced, wrote, and directed. This is, of course, the 1974 sci-fi flick Zardoz, and it’s the f**king weirdest.
Made in a period in movies when just being dark and strange were enough to constitute most science fiction (it was called pre-Star Wars), Zardoz is perhaps the bleakest vision of the future I’ve ever seen in a movie. More depressing than any post-apocalyptic movie, Zardoz begins with firearms spewing out of a giant stone head and ends with our main characters growing old and becoming skeletons. Real laugh riot, this. Boorman got Sean Connery to work very cheaply for this because the actor was having a hard time finding post-James Bond roles. For better or worse, this certainly wasn’t a James Bond-ish role and it allowed Connery to vary his career a bit. That we had to see him saunter around in a red diaper, thigh-highs, and a Gimli hairdo for him to do it is just our good fortune.
The film begins with a floaty-head man (Niall Buggy) telling us he is Arthur Frayn, but that he also is Zardoz. He’s very pleased with himself because, essentially, he’s set himself up as a god. So, that’s fun. Then we get what is probably the most iconic scene of the movie: the giant stone head of Zardoz that floats around and looks menacing and reaches a group of men wearing about as much as Chewbacca, all on horseback and all wearing facsimiles of Zardoz’s head as masks. Zardoz tells them the following “The gun is good. The penis is evil. Go forth and kill,” after which a veritable tidal wave of weapons and ammunition comes pouring out of the stone deity’s mouth and the men all begin chanting Zardoz’s name and the word “kill.” Then, Sean Connery turns to the camera and shoots us. If Boorman was aiming to shock with the film’s opening, he certainly succeeded.
From there, we cut to black and then to Zardoz flying in the sky, heading back to where it comes from. Connery’s character, Zed, gets up from beneath a pile of grain and points his pistol around until he sees Frayn and fires, eventually knocking the man who would be Zardoz out into the nothingness. After landing in the calm farmlands that is home to the Eternals (those like Frayn), Zed sees buildings in which heaps of human artifacts reside. He meets other Eternals like Consuella (Charlotte Rampling), May (Sara Kestleman), and eventually Friend (John Alderton). They are concerned at how Zed, a Brutal Exterminator, made his way into “the Vortex.” Friend thinks it’s hilarious that Zed is there and begins using the Monster for menial tasks, keeping him in a cage like monkeys.
Through lots of weird mind-probing in the restorative prism called The Tabernacle, we learn the following: there was some kind of nuclear, world-ending war; humans either evolved and became nigh-immortal telepaths called Eternals or they remained base Brutals. At some point, the Eternals decided to use the Brutals to get food so they could just be lazy and bourgeois, so they invented Zardoz to get certain people (the Exterminators) to kill breeders and steal the food. Zed stowed away on Zardoz to get revenge on his “god” because he happened upon a library, learned to read (through Frayn’s influence), and found The Wizard of Oz, from which Frayn got the idea for Zardoz. Knowing his god was a lie, Zed plotted revenge, but forgot about it upon entering the Vortex. Frayn purposely used Zed for this because he, like most of the Eternals who live in a very petty and boring society of perfect people, longed for the sweet release of death. Uplifting, right?
The plot to Zardoz is so complicated and it’s parsed out in such a strange way that even after you watch it you’re not entirely sure what happened. Neither half of the world looks particularly enjoyable. The Brutals get murdered for wanting to procreate, the Exterminators can’t ever procreate lest they incur the wrath of Zardoz, and the Eternals don’t want to procreate because they’re too used to having just a handful of them around. The Eternals even self-govern using the computer in the Tabernacle. It keeps them young and brings them back to life, but if they get too subversive, it ages them and makes them senile so they can’t do any harm. Charming.
Boorman clearly had issues he was working out, but I will say that the film looks creepy and ’70s awesome. Shot entirely near where he lived in Ireland, Boorman was able to make the green, craggy, and foggy landscape truly work to his advantage, and since a lot of Ireland is still just open space, he had a lot of room to work. There are parts of this that were clearly inspired by Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey and has the all-around impression of the disaffected post-Vietnam movies of the time, only with the added sci-fi allegory message.
The dialogue in this movie is really, really, hilariously silly. Everybody talks in such baroque and melodramatic fashion that what they say gets lost in the sci-fi parable gobbledygook. Take “I love to see them running. I love the moments of their deaths – when I am one with Zardoz.” for example. Jeepers, right? Or how about when Zed, the savage murderer quotes philosophy. Consuella attempts to murder Zed but stops. She says “In hunting you, I have become you. I’ve destroyed what I set out to defend,” to which Zed replies, “‘He who fights too long against dragons, becomes a dragon himself.’ … Nietzsche.” It’s very hokey and ham-fisted, but the movie wouldn’t be the same without it.
Ultimately, though, Boorman wasn’t trying to do anything subtle; he was trying to make a movie that was a message for the time. The Tabernacle is the god to the Eternals, the Eternals became the god to the Brutals and urged them to kill to maintain their own boring society. In the end, the only thing they all had to look forward to was death, or like Zed and Consuella, living together, having a family, growing old, and dying peacefully in a cave whilst war rages on outside. Science fiction has the ability to make very bold statements using the starkest of imagery and this definitely does that. Is Zardoz the best version of that idea? Certainly not. Is it silly in places and unabashedly bonkers in others? Of course it is. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t successful. Peace and Love, man.