1974’s “Zardoz”, written, produced and directed by John Boorman (“Deliverance” “Excalibur” “Exorcist II: The Heretic”) is, without a doubt, one of the single weirdest pieces of cinema sci-fi fans are likely to see. The movie first came on my personal radar at the tender age of 8, when I read about it in the pages of “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine. I remember the images of the giant stone-head floating over the Irish countryside, and of a killer Sean Connery in a loincloth (?!). I never saw it theatrically, but those images stayed in my brain for years. I finally saw the film on cable during my bachelor days, and its utter oddness stayed with me ever since. Last night, I broke out my beloved new digital projector and gave it another try…
The movie’s opening narration by the story’s ‘god’ (Niall Buggy) sets the tone. “Arthur Frayn” (aka Zardoz) is an effete overseer, seen floating against a black background, wearing an inked-mustache & beard. He tells us, “I am Arthur Frayn, and I am Zardoz. I have lived three hundred years, and I long to die. But death is no longer possible. I am immortal. I present now my story, full of mystery and intrigue – rich in irony, and most satirical. It is set deep in a possible future, so none of these events have yet occurred, but they may. Be warned, lest you end as I. In this tale, I am a fake god by occupation, and a magician, by inclination. Merlin is my hero! I am the puppet master. I manipulate many of the characters and events you will see. But I am invented too, for your entertainment…and amusement. And you, poor creatures, who conjured you out of the clay? Is God in show business too?”
In short, don’t take any of the following too seriously, forgive any blasphemies, and just let the satire play out. All of it is told with tongue firmly in cheek. It’s also very adult as well (lots of nudity, rape and violence), so be warned.
It’s the year 2293, and this is most definitely not the 23rd century seen in Star Trek.
After the opening narration by Zardoz himself, we see several horseback “Brutals” roaming the green hills of Ireland in white body paint, red Borat-styled ‘mankinis’ and dual-sided masks made in the angered image of their god, “Zardoz.” The giant stone-head, complete with booming voice, occasionally drops into the Brutals’ zone from the Vortex (the land of the “Eternals”). This hovering stone head resupplies the Brutals with fresh food and guns, to keep their breeding in check.
One of the mustachioed, ponytailed Brutals, Zed (Sean Connery), somehow sneaks aboard the giant stone head before it returns to the forbidden Vortex, a land unreachable to the Brutals because of an invisible forcefield. Most of the Brutals assume the Vortex is the afterlife, but thinking-ape Zed has other ideas.
Zed: The character is, of course, named after the other name for the value zero, or nothingness. Appropriate for a character who later comes to symbolize the great nothingness of death itself.
Aboard the stone head, Zed sees various nude, living bodies — all wrapped in plastic, like unused department store mannequins. Zed then hears a noise, and turns to see the ‘narrator’ Arthur Frayn standing in the stone head’s open mouth. The foppish Frayn is about to tell Zed the secrets of his universe–until Zed instinctively shoots him. Frayn then falls to his presumed death. The stone head leaves the Brutals’ zone and reaches the land of the Eternals, which looks like a quaint, rural village of the 19th century, but with evidence of advanced technology strewn here and there. Upon landing, Zed cautiously departs the stone head.
Wandering into one of the seemingly deserted homes, Zed finds a holograph-projecting ring that coordinates resources and information among the various zones within the Vortex. The ring is linked to the Eternal’s sum total of knowledge, so it is able to answer Zed’s questions. However, most of the ring’s answers only further confuse Zed’s simple ’screw it or eat it’ thinking. Before too long, Zed is captured by the Eternals, whom he learns have great mental powers of coercion (not too unlike the “Talosians” of Star Trek).
Note: When Zed summons the supply lists of the various ‘zones’, we see that the English language has further devolved since our time, with “apples” spelled as “applz” and “salt” spelled as “solt.” It’s an intriguing glimpse into this universe.
Zed’s telepathic interrogation takes place in a chamber surrounded by transparent panels lined with nude bodies displayed in water-soaked stasis. At the center of the chamber, freckle-faced Eternal interrogator May (Sarah Kestelman) finds the mental workings of Zed to be terribly fascinating, unlike fellow Eternal Consuella (Charlotte Rampling), who’d prefer to have the raping, murderous creature Zed disposed of. Zed seems utterly indifferent to his pending fate, either way. Later, we see the “monster” used as a live demonstration on the evil of the male penis. Consuella bombards Zed with a variety of erotica in an attempt to get a rise of him. None of the images of female breasts and lesbian kissing seem to do the trick (no one assumed that ol’ Zed might just be gay?) until Consuella herself locks eyes with Zed and bingo…Zed’s compass points due north. Thus begins the slow-burning, ‘Pussy Galore/Bond’-style courtship between the frigid Consuella and Zed.
Zed is soon made the manservant/beast-of-burden to the foppish Eternal named “Friend” (John Alderton) who treats Zed somewhat like a prized new horse he’s breaking in… cruelly perhaps, but not without some admiration. Friend casually refers to the primitive Zed as “Monster” and forces him to pull his chariot as they deliver fresh-baked loaves of green bread to other zones within the Vortex. This life of servitude gives Zed a deep glimpse into the atrophy and decay of life within the Vortex; the Eternals may never die, but they’re not entirely alive, either…
One of the stops along the bread delivery route is the zone of the Apathetics. These Apathetics are Eternals who have lapsed into a kind of walking catatonia, barely aware of their own need to eat and breathe, let alone anything else. Friend gives his pet “Monster” permission to have his way with one of the local girls, as Zed savagely gropes her, but her blank expression and utter lack of response turns him off just as quickly. As a Brutal, Zed is used to raping women for procreation, but raping an Apathetic is akin to necrophilia, so he stops. Zed and Friend then continue their bread run to the other zones…
Their next stop is to feed the “Renegades,” a house of aged exiles who live in exile for their various transgressions, mainly disharmonious thinking apart from the Eternals’ consensus. The Renegades are artificially aged as part of their ‘punishment,’ but being Eternals they’re unable to die, thus, they are doomed to live forever in various stages of aging and dementia. Among the aged Renegades is the original Eternal scientist who first unlocked the secret of immortality itself. Now he’s nothing more than a husk of a man sentenced to spend eternity at death’s door.
Over breakfast, Zed is forced to serve the Eternals, who regard the tamed savage as little more than a useful pet, but Zed’s very presence (not to mention his raw sexuality) sends the Eternals into a tizzy; many of the men and women are fascinated by him, but Consuella regards him as a serpent in their Eden. Friend begins to talk like a revolutionary when he complains about the decayed state of their immortal lives, suggesting that Zed could deliver that one thing they need more than anything … death. For his dissent, Friend is prematurely aged, dressed in a tuxedo and exiled to join the Renegades.
During further interrogation by the Eternals, Zed is revealed to be much more intelligent than he’s let on. Zed is a direct result of careful selective breeding conducted by “Zardoz” himself, the Eternal ‘god’ named Arthur Frayn. Frayn has played a hand in shaping Zed’s education by stimulating his innate interest in reading the books of an ancient library. Frayn even introduces Zed to the very book that gave Arthur Frayn his identity; L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz”… the title of which is corrupted into the titular name Zardoz. The stone head is, in fact, based on the mask worn by the wizard in the book. Like Dorothy, Zed has been given a peek behind the curtain. It was also Frayn who managed to successfully smuggle Zed into the stone head for his journey into the Vortex, though Zed was unable to remember that act (thus, he shot Arthur before he had a chance to explain himself).
As the Eternals artificially age Friend, he ‘marries’ Zed (a mustachioed Sean Connery in a lacy bridal gown… this must be seen to be believed) in a ceremony designed to somehow allow Zed access into the Tabernacle, where Zed learns the location of The Crystal, which contains the sum total of the Eternals’ knowledge.
A reconstituted Arthur Frayn appears to Zed in the Tabernacle, where he tells his crafted, intelligent pet Brutal that the Crystal contains both “everything and nothing.” Angered at the deception and lifelong manipulation by this false god, Zed seeks the deeper meaning of the Crystal, peering deeper and deeper into it, before he trans-dimensionally enters the device.
Once inside the ‘core’ of the Crystal, Zed sees his own violent nature, represented as himself wearing his dual-faced ‘killer mask.’ Zed then leaves the Crytal and reenters the Tabernacle, where May and the other Eternals are forming an angry mob to kill the Brutal who has defiled their holy site.
May holds a pistol at Zed, who convinces her to disarm, as an increasingly aged Friend looks on. Soon, a full blown revolution within the Vortex is under way as the boundaries between the Zones collapse, and the social order of the Eternals is destroyed, with Zed leading the charge. Even the Apathetics are awakened from their stupor when they share in Zed’s oh-so-manly essence, which they transmit to each other through kissing (more on that later).
As the forcefield boundary between the Vortex and the mortal world is collapsed, the violent Brutals rush into the Vortex zones, finally delivering that one valued commodity so desperately desired by the bored, atrophied Eternals– death. One by one, the grateful Eternals are shot by the Brutals and given release from their futile, useless, unfathomably dull immortalities.
What should be a scene of violent bloodshed and carnage is instead framed as a great release; the Eternals are finally given the precious death they’ve always wanted, but for which they were never allowed to openly ask. The underlying lesson learned from the Eternals is that life only has meaning so long as it is finite. Some of the Eternals, including May, choose to begin new mortal lives with the Brutals, restoring the natural cycle of life-and-death while sharing their own enlightenment with the savage Brutals.
The final scenes show Consuella and Zed deciding to start a family in a deep cave, where they have a son who grows to manhood as his parents age, wither and die. Zed and Consuella are last seen as a pair of loving, long-dead skeletons, still holding hands as an Adam and Eve of this new world.
If ever a wiz there was Zardoz.
“Zardoz” is many things, but above all else it is deeply British. Boorman’s story has roots in the H.G. Wells’ future-dystopia fantasy “The Time Machine”, as the Brutals and Eternals loosely mirror Wells’ Morlocks and Eloi. The war-painted Brutals, riding on horseback on green Irish hillsides, are reminiscent of ancient Scottish uprisings against the English, as romanticized in 1995’s “Braveheart.” Even the casting of Scot Sean Connery could be seen as bolstering this notion.
Speaking of things British, there is also a heavy dash of Monty Python-style satire, such as the uniquely British religious ribbings. The British have a nimble touch for sly blasphemy (see; “Life of Brian” “The Holy Grail”).
Romance may be utterly dead in the movie’s 23rd century, but sex is everywhere. It’s H.G. Wells’ vision of ‘free love’ coming to pass, though perhaps not exactly the way the sci-fi pioneer first imagined. Sex within the film is treated more clinically than erotically, yet there are some progressive ideas in the film (especially in context of the time). Same-sex kissing, for example, is done very matter-of-factly (though without any romantic emotion beyond animalistic impulse). The kissing is little more than a means of transmission to spread Zed’s ‘essence’ among the Apathetics, male-to-male and female-to-female.
A blurring of gender norms is seen in the film as well. The sight of a thick-mustached Sean Connery in a lacy bridal gown, for example. In fact, if it weren’t for the brutal and truly ugly rapes seen in the film, the sexuality in “Zardoz” was quite avant garde for 1974. One could argue it beat “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”’s pioneering attempts at mainstreaming gender-fluidity by one year. Again, the early 1970s weren’t exactly progressive times for LGBTQ cinema.
I also take a few points off the film for its total lack of diverse casting.
The cinematography was done by the talented Geoffrey Unsworth, who also filmed “Superman: The Movie” (1978) as well as “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). Many of the images in “Zardoz” are quite effective; the giant, flying stone head is achieved mainly with a clever foreground miniature that feels both weighty and utterly immense (despite a couple of visible wires during flight). The scene of Zed inside of the crystal, set in an eerie, darkened, funhouse-style hall of mirrors, has been echoed in later films such as “Something Wicked This Way Comes” (1983) and “Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi” (2017).
Ultimately “Zardoz” is not easily quantifiable as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Enjoyment of this movie is more a matter of one’s personal tolerances. If you’re into linear stories with more traditional characters, “Zardoz” may not be your cuppa, but if you’re up to try something deeply unconventional, you might enjoy it. My tastes run somewhere in the middle. Some days I’m really into the film, and other days I’d rather insert long sewing needles into my eyes than rewatch it. For this recent viewing, I was able to appreciate many elements of the film, yet I’d be less-than-honest if I said there weren’t still moments that tested my patience.
That said, there is still one aspect of the film is undeniable; given major movie studios’ current aversion to riskier subject matter, it is highly unlikely you will ever again see a major studio like Fox (let alone Disney or Paramount) shell out major money for an R-rated fantasy where the main character (played by James Bond himself) runs around in a bright red mankini raping and shooting people. It simply would not happen today. “Zardoz” is an immortal relic to a more brave and experimental time in mainstream studio-funded filmmaking that is unlikely to ever return. Whether one gets the movie’s groove or not, it’s sometimes hard to believe that it exits at all.
COVID-19 Safe Viewing
“Zardoz” is available for streaming (for the brave) on Hulu, as well as rental streaming on YouTube and Prime Video for $3.99 (US) and can also be purchased on Blu-Ray/DVD (via contact-free shipping) on Amazon.com. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are around 177,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, there’s no vaccine or even effective treatment for COVID-19 as of yet. Yes, some businesses are reopening, but the overall situation is far from safe. So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible. The Immortals of the 23rd century might want death, but we of the 21st don’t.
Take care and be safe!