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…