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Zardoz

***
1974

‘…it’s lofty, ambitious, and has sparky moments of clarity that make it a noble failure…’

Maybe I’m getting old, but John Boorman’s celebrated misfire Zardoz no longer appears to be the complete fiasco that I previously believed it to be. It was seeing one of the minor characters in sitcom Community dressed in Zed’s full battle-gear that inspired me to take a fresh look at this 1973 folly, and while it’s not per se a masterpiece, it’s lofty, ambitious, and has sparky moments of clarity that make it a noble failure. Of course, Boorman would indulge his full Arthurian bent in 1981’s Excalibur, but a little knowledge of Grail quests certainly helps decipher the strange goings on here.

‘A John Boorman film set in the year 2293…’ reads a helpful opening credit, and you’ll need all the help you can get as Zardoz unfolds. The world has gone to hell, and society is split into Brutals, Eternals, Renegades, Apathetics, and Exterminators. Zed (Sean Connery) is one of the latter group, and stows away inside one of the giant stone heads that wander the Irish countryside spewing out rifles and delivering lectures on the evil of penises. Lost already? We haven’t started. Zed emerges from a pile of grain, does a nimble forward roll and shoots an Eternal; man slays false god, and we’re not even ten minutes in to Boorman’s impenetrable tract. The Eternal’s are wowed by Zed’s hairy physique and brusque manners; he’s the barbarian they’ve been waiting for to shake things up and create some kind of societal change. Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) tries to piques Zed’s interest with some mud-wrestling footage, but he’s more interested in her. And so his quest begins, with telekinesis, dressing up in a bride’s wedding gown, and all manners of kooky side-missions on the way to a bloodbath ending.

The punch-line, that the structure of this future society is somehow ripped from the pages of Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, is delivered half-way through, but it’s debatable whether that solution is presented just for Zed’s benefit as part of a larger manipulation. Things get a bit swamped in loopy post 2001 visuals, and the action doesn’t satisfy when it finally arrives. But that’s kind of in line with Boorman’s point; neither he nor Connery wanted to present a big-man-instant-justice scenario that audiences craved; instead they form a truly bizarre, off kilter world of stately homes, giant bubbles, dinner parties and absurd future costumes.

But despite the obvious pretentions, Boorman is onto something with his unique and personal vision of the future. Society has stratified, guns are the opiate of the masses in many countries, and moving between classes is something of a quest. Zed’s seduction and rejection by his betters actually makes a certain kind of sense in an Orwellian manner, even if Orwell didn’t jazz up his work with such artsy or elaborate trappings. Boorman’s fantasy may be amusingly dated, but those looking to learn from the example of Zed will find that Zed’s not quite dead, baby, and his legacy lives on with tolerant sci-fi fans forever…

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    • Same here…and yet I think many of us saw this when we were too young to get the ideas that Boorman was trying to express. Looks a bit better today…

  1. I recall wondering if Zardoz belonged in theatre of absurd, or was artsy sci fi, or cringy dark comedy.that prompted someone to make a little blue pill for men. I decided it was a space opera prototype that I would have named Romancing the Death Stone… chuckles!

    • That would probably be just as good a title for this film! Absurd, arty, cringy; if you looked up Zardoz in a dictionary, that’s what you would find! Such a mad film, but gets better with age; when I was a teenager, this was one big shrug for me…

  2. One of the all time great “weird” films. Once you get past the briefness of Connery’s briefs. 🙂
    Bormann also did a great version of the Duelists with Kietel and the better Carradine. Been meaning to revisit both these films, but there’s just sooooo much to catch up on.

    • That would be Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, but yes, that’s an awesome film, and on point in a way that Zardoz isn’t. Must review The Duellists, remember it as being terrific…and yes, these Daisy Duke red shorts are a spectacle…

  3. Just to send your mind into another otherworldly spiral, the Connery costume was actually mimicked at a fancy dress party I attended, so it clearly had its fans. Plenty to say but not much clarity in saying it was my recollection of the actual movie and if you want a star to add heft to an oddity you can’t do better than Connery. Thankfully, since Connery was in a “pet project” mood the next picture he lent his box office power to was The Man Who Would Be King.

    • It’s clear that the role was written for Burt Reynolds, and would have been a different film if he hadn’t ‘got sick’; I’d imagine reading the script might have set him off. But yes, it’s a cult film about cults, and Connery certainly brings more to the party than just body hair…what kind of parties do you go to? Very revealing aside…

  4. I can be pretty weird as you know, and well this film certainly seems to fit that weirdness🤔🤔 I don’t believe I’ve ever seen this, but eh who knows might give it a go in a few years, when my boss finally gave me that sabbitical so I can complete my entire to watch list 😂

    • No-one in this film has a look for the ages. But I remembered it as a swamp of bad ideas, and if you ignore the mad costumes, it’s quite a striking story with big ideas to offer. Hated it when I was younger.

  5. I enjoyed your review. It’s mind-boggling that this film was ever made – I suppose Sean Connery fresh from Bond could get almost any project green-lit. But I’m glad it was. The semi-symbiotic relationships between the different groups somehow reminds me of the Eloi–Morlock relationship in HG Wells’s The Time Machine.

    • It’s a spectacular mis-fire, but the ideas involved haven’t been discredited in the way that the costumes and production design have. The Time Machine is a good comparison; we might laugh at the costumes, but the idea of societal stratification hits home today. I just didn’t get it when I was a teenager, but I get it now. Thanks for the comment!

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