Zardoz is a difficult thing to get a read on. It could be a surreal exploration of the meaning of life. It could be a meditation on the Nietzschean ideal of the Will to Power. It could be a muddled piece of exploitative trash. A tough call. And to be honest I don’t think I disagree with any of these interpretations. In fact there are several more that could be added to the list. And that is what makes this film so intriguing.
Is it an artistic masterpiece or is it a ridiculous piece of crap? It straddles the line between the two so well it is hard to know the difference. It is fair to say that I fall on the side of artistic masterpiece but with full understanding that this is flawed to say the least. If you continue to read this feature the one overarching theme you will notice that I will always fall on the side of the flawed masterpiece. I will always side with the interesting failure over hum-drum pseudo-perfection. There are many films (and books and TV and etc.) that technically do nothing wrong, the stories are solid, the execution is exactly how its supposed to be, there is nothing you can really point to to say this is bad. But they can also be boring and soulless. By the numbers, no chances taken. I say go full out and try something new and extravagant and weird and against the norm and if you are going to fail…fail spectacularly.
Zardoz fails spectacularly. Or it succeeds spectacularly. Like I said It is hard to get a read on.
Now if you were to Google Zardoz the first this you will probably encounter is Sean Connery in a red diaper, knee-high boots and double bandoliers across a carpet of chest hair. and your reaction will probably be something along the lines of, “what the hell is that?” And that I must say is the correct reaction. But keep in mind that this will be the least of the WTF moments you will have. If you watch the film you will encounter a giant floating head that vomits guns and a discussion on what makes a penis hard. There will be people entering a prism and psychic attacks. And rape. There is an inordinate amount of rape that everyone seems to be okay with. But honestly it all makes sense in a weird sort of way.
Okay, okay I feel like I’m not doing justice to the film and just confusing things. Let’s just talk about the plot.
What It Is
It is a post-apocalyptic Earth (of course it is, this is 70s scifi) and the world is separated into the immortal Eternals and the mortal Brutals. The Eternals live in the Vortex, a sealed off sanctuary where they lead a life of leisure and aimlessness. The Brutals in contrast live in a wasteland ruled over by a giant, floating stone head called Zardoz who dishes out wisdom like, “the gun is good, the penis is bad” and distributes weapons for the more aggressive Exterminators to go on vicious killing sprees.
One of the Exterminators, Zed (Sean Connery) hides in the stone head and seemingly kills its operator. When the head eventually flys back to the Vortex where it originates Zed is taken in by the population and treated as a welcome curiosity. The Eternals we find are listless and apathetic, an immortal life has robbed them of all motivation. Some, actually called Apathetics, have simply stopped doing anything and stand around in a catatonic state. They are also psychic. But again it’s the 70s, everyone was psychic.
Zed eventually is befriended by two Eternals, Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) and the aptly named Friend (John Alderton), who find he is more intelligent than they thought. Turns out that he is result of long-running eugenics experiments devised by Arthur Frayn – the man who controls the Zardoz flying head – in order breed a superman who will eventually invade the Vortex and bring the Eternals the sweet embrace of death. Frayn had been encouraging Zed to read and eventually led him to a copy of the Wizard of Oz (Zardoz, get it?) revealing to Zed that there has been an elaborate manipulation and enraging him to the point of wanting to break into the Vortex and deliver to the Eternals the sweet embrace of death. So that worked out.
Zed does actually figure out how to make the Eternal mortal but can’t actually bring himself to kill them. Not a problem because the Brutals enter the Vortex and do that for him.
Zed and Consuella escape, fall in love and have a time-lapse life until they are skeletons holding hands. The End.
Believe it or not the film is much. much weirder than that synopsis would indicate.
“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..”
Why You Must See It
Keep in mind this isn’t just some random weirdness made in the 70s when random weirdness was aloud to be made and released to an unsuspecting public. This is a film by John Boorman.
Boorman is a distinguished and respected director and is rightly lauded by his peers; the man has been nominated for multiple Oscars and is regarded as a genius. In fact he made this film right after making Deliverance. So yeah, no slouch here.
And it does look great. Some of the visuals are haunting and bizarre. The floating head bit is brilliant. Despite what you might think at first there is method to this madness. All the strange visuals and crazy dialogue and bizarre situations are really trying to get us to think about what it really means to be alive. Does immortality lead to decadence or apathy? And does hedonism lead to violence or apathy? Is human nature something to transcend or something to embrace? Is it okay to dominate people for their “own good” or should you let them develop on their own regardless if you think it is unhealthy or damaging. Overall what does it mean really to be human?
Boorman deliberately makes all of the answers unclear. There is no hero. Connery is the manly man who brings change and we are meant to identify with him, but his character is so brutal and unpleasant that we automatically withdraw from him. But we can’t identify with the enlightened ones either, boring and selfish and full of self loathing. What is he saying about the future? That we either become apathetic tyrants or nihilistic bruits? Or is this some cautionary tale to take the middle path? If nothing else it makes you think.
This is a unique and experimental film. It is a brilliant masterpiece or a brilliant failure. Either way its worth watching.
I first saw this film, as with many films on this list, on late night TV. I remember being fascinated by it not sure if I liked it or not. And I remember as the movie ended and the credits rolled I got a phone call from a friend of mine. “Are you watching TV right now?” he asked. I told him I was and he said, “Did you watch the floating head thing? What the hell was that?” (Keep in mind that this was a time a very few channels and there was a good possibility that whatever you were watching at the time you could be sure most other people were watching it as well). Well we talked and talked that night and analyzed this thing for hours and in the end we never really knew what to make of it. But it was a good talk. I admit that my opinion of the film is colored by that conversation and the ideas it brought with it. So maybe I’m a bit biased.
That is not to say my opinion hasn’t changed over the years. For instance the first time I saw this film I thought the Wizard of Oz reveal at the end was just brilliant, in hindsight I now realize it is a bit heavy-handed and cliche. Also, I don’t remember batting an eye at the casual misogyny at the time but now it is cringe-worthy. And the Arthur Frayn disembodied head intro I remember thinking was trippy and cool, but now I think is a bit of useless fluff that actually takes away from the overall feel of the film.
But for all its flaws this is a film that is trying something new. It might not succeed all the time but you know, A for effort and all that. In the end this is a experimental, eccentric and visionary film that, while not always achieving what it intends, is definitely worth your time to see. Feel free to give me a call after you do and we can discuss.
originally published May 12, 2015