I have seen John Boorman’s baffling film Zardoz three times this year. I’m still not really sure why, but the film is such a curiosity it demands to be seen. My most recent viewing was of the excellent Arrow Video blu-ray which I bought for the simple reason that I seem to buy everything they release. As beautiful as the Arrow Video blu-ray is, it still didn’t really clarify for me what the hell was going on in this film. The simplest explanation for Zardoz is that someone ate a large bag of shrooms and wondered what The Wizard Of Oz would have been like if it had more guns, more sex and less munchkins.
There was considerable talent involved in the making of Zardoz. It was John Boorman’s follow up to the hugely successful Deliverance. Sean Connery, keen to distance himself from being typecast after James Bond, chose this role to follow up his excellent performance in Sidney Lumet’s The Offence (and I guess achieved that aim). Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, renowned for his groundbreaking work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, was coming off an Oscar win for Cabaret.
It’s always going to be hard to sell Zardoz as anything other than a goofy curiosity from the second that you see a ponytailed Sean Connery wearing a red diaper and thigh high leather boots. While this bizarre costume choice is probably the most widely known detail of Zardoz, there are definitely a lot of interesting ideas contained within the film.
We are brought into the world of Zardoz with a rather bizarre monologue delivered by a disembodied floating head complete with facial hair drawn on in magic marker. This baffling opening immediately introduces the titular character (“I am Arthur Frayn and I am Zardoz”), who then starts to outline the premise (“I have lived three hundred years and I long to die, but death is no longer possible. I am immortal.”), before rambling on about how it’s not real and maybe the audience aren’t either (“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?”).
Set in the year 2293 following some sort of apocalypse, we are introduced to an earth where humanity has been divided into the Eternals and the Brutals. The Eternals live in The Vortex, which appears to be the large grounds of a mansion and the surrounding village. The Eternals (as the name implies) have eternal life, protected by the Tabernacle which is some kind of artificial intelligence. Impotent and unable to die, the society has collapsed into boredom and decay, to the extent that some Eternals (the Apathetics) have fallen into some kind of catatonia. Not really surprising given that the most exciting activity in the community seems to be the baking and eating of some kind of green bread.
When an Eternal dies, they are immediately brought back to life in what appears to be the same body. Subsequently, the legal system in The Vortex, seemingly based around a jury vote from everyone, delivers a punishment of the addition of age to the guilty party. Those who have transgressed too much (the Renegades) are rendered senile and exiled (in formal wear) to what appears to be a cross between a ballroom and a retirement village.
The Brutals live in the wasteland farming for the Immortals and seemingly endlessly terrorised by the Exterminators. The Exterminators are tasked by The Immortals, under the direction of Zardoz, with controlling the population of the Brutals, apparently through a regime of raping and killing. This is clarified in a manifesto delivered by a giant floating stone head “The Penis is evil! The Penis shoots seeds and makes new life to poison the Earth with a plague of men, as once it was. But the Gun shoots death and purifies the Earth of the filth of Brutals. Go forth, and kill! Zardoz has spoken”. Just prior to said giant flying stone head spewing out a pile of guns to the awaiting Exterminators.
Our purported hero Zed (Sean Connery) is an Exterminator who we see riding horses along a beach with other Exterminators similarly dressed in red nappies happily shooting and raping a group of terrified Brutals. One day he hitches a ride in Zardoz’s giant floating stone head and ends up in The Vortex. The two Immortals who find him used their psychic abilities to overcome him and then there is some discussion as to whether Zed should be killed or kept to study. Zed is then kept for study, but it soon becomes apparent that he is more intelligent than the other Brutals as a result of intervention by Zardoz.
This is the basic set up of the film, but as bewildering as this may sound the film is so much weirder. From the “scientific” study of making Zed watch female mud wrestling videos to Sean Connery wearing a wedding dress as a disguise to conversations like this:
Consuella: In hunting you, I have become you. I’ve destroyed what I set out to defend.
Zed: “He who fights too long against dragons, becomes a dragon himself.”… Nietzsche.
Zardoz is an incredibly unique experience. The kind of film where you say “they don’t make films like that anymore”, before quickly realising that no one ever made a film like this before or after.
The Arrow Video release is probably as exceptional version of this film as you can expect to see. The 4K restoration looks great and there are some fascinating extras, including a commentary with John Boorman, a series of new interviews and an excellent “appreciation” by Ben Wheatley. This is a film that everyone should see at least (and probably only) once, if only to see Sean Connery in a wedding dress.