Directed by John Boorman
February 6, 1974 (Los Angeles and New York City)
This is one weird movie and if I had an easy way to describe it, I would put a one or two sentence summary right here, but I do not. It is just bizarre entry in the filmography of Connery and Boorman but so very good.
Zardoz is a trippy move by John Boorman that could only have come about during the 70s or maybe even early 80s. It is a genuinely surreal and odd vision of a future where mankind has been broken into two groups-the immortal “Eternals” and the mortal “Brutals.” The Eternals have, well, eternal life and youth so long as they follow the rules. The Brutals are savage and grow food for the Eternals and worship a giant floating head as their god they call Zardoz.
You feel watching this as if you are viewing a dream. There is an oddness to the shots and characters and general film. We are entering a different world from what we are experiencing at that is accomplished not only by costume and props but also by the way the story is filmed.
Sean Connery plays Zed who is a ponytailed Brutal zipping around in a bright red diaper on horseback. Even if you never saw this film before, there is a good chance you have seen a picture of Connery in costume or heard mention of this rather unusual bit of science fiction garb. It is one of the more unique looks in a science fiction film ever.
Zed’s goal in seeking entrance to the Vortex, home of Zardoz, is vengeance against a false god. His people went from being hunters and gathers and warriors to growing food for their god and it angered Zed and his fellow Brutals. That and an enlightenment through learning among the ruins of the old world has stoked a rage in Zed to destroy this thing he now knows is a lie. You could take this movie at least in part as being about destroying false idols. Or even destroying religion itself.
Connery came to this project in his post Bond reinvention period where he wanted to break from the character and this is about as far from a Bond film as one could get. Boorman had previously wanted to do an adaptation of Lord of the Rings and when that fell apart he wrote this with long time collaborator Bill Stair. Watching this I must assume drugs were involved.
In the beginning of this film, the story is significantly obsessed with sex. It inverts normal thinking and equates sex and reproduction with death and guns and slaughter with life and abundance. This is probably one of the most heavy uses of the word “penis” I have heard outside of a biology film. Some of what was said in the opening voiceover reminds me of the religious texts alluded to in the original Planet of the Apes. I can only assume Boorman and Stair were fans of the then current film series.
Zardoz appears regularly to the Brutals and spews forth guns and bullets in exchange for food and grain from them. Zed’s plan is simple: he sneaks onboard during one of these times buried in an offering of grain to slip into the land of his god. When he pops out of the grain he is surprised by the pilot (?), an Eternal named Arthur Frayn (Niall Buggy) who also serves as the narrator of the film, and shoots him and temporarily kills him. Yes, temporarily. They can resurrect the dead via an artificial intelligence referred to as the Tabernacle.
And after that Zed, riding in the floating stone head, finds himself in the land of the Eternals and is captured by the locals. The Eternals treat him as an oddity while the film still focuses on sex. There is a scene where Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) is discussing arousal and erection with a gathered group of Eternals and they say the link between the two is not completely understood. Consuella attempts to get a woodrow out of Zed by showing arousing imagery on a screen but his soldier only salutes when he looks at Consuella who is teaching the class. Boner alert! This is as close to building an attraction between the characters as they get.
This was just a weird scene. And in a movie filled with weird scenes that says something. Yet the movie is not all about being weird. The weird is a way to tell the story and create an environment. Visually this film is like nothing you will see today. It has striking imagery and manages to convey its otherworldly nature with minimal effects shots. It is like a lucid dream. The world in general has gone over the edge and the Eternals have become stagnant and out of touch as the last remaining bit of advanced civilization.
Zed’s religion teaches him that when they die, and if they have lived doctrinal appropriate lives, they will find themselves in heaven (the Vortex) with eternal life with their god Zardoz. While some of that is bull crap (he realized when finding an old book that Zardoz is drawn from The Wizard of Oz), the portion about the Vortex is true. That is where the Eternals reside. It is an idyllic yet stagnant existence where the criminals (those who exude a negative aura) are punished with years added to their lives with ultimate punishment being aged into senility and not allowed to die. That is messed up. There is a group among the Eternals called Apathetics that simply exist and move around with little interaction with the outside world. They have psychologically withdrawn as their lives have no meaning. As demonstrated at about the midpoint of the film you can do anything you want with them and they will not react and Zed is kind of horrified by this.
Zed makes as close to a friend as he can in one Eternal only ever called Friend (John Alderton). He is a bit subversive and bothered with the essentially meaningless existence that he and the rest of his people live. It is through and in part because of Friend that he learns of and experiences the petty and long simmering issues in that society.
As the story progresses, we learn that Zed was bred by Arthur Frayn of the floating head as part of a eugenics experiment to save humanity from its meaningless existence. Zed is more intelligent and less brutal than expected by the Eternals. By the end of the film Zed and his compatriots are storming the Vortex and killing the Eternals. Their deaths are framed as an act of mercy as it saves them from a meaningless existence.
I admit to being confused by the meaning of the ending. I get that Zed was the creation of a plot to bring death to the community of immortals. Many crave the release but are unable to die because the system they created would not allow it so they needed an outside force to do it for them. I am talking about the final few minutes of the film where Zed and Consuella runoff together as the settlement is being ransacked by Zed’s people and the Eternals are begging to be killed.
They go to a cave and have sex. Consuella is shown pregnant with a pulsating belly. A baby is born and then you watch it grow into adulthood between Zed and Consuella as they slowly age before the child walks off and Zed and Consuella are just skeletons and then dust and then that is it.
Is all that to symbolize the reestablishment of the natural order of things? Or is it just another one of those confusing 70s endings that probably has no real meaning but is meant to make you think there is one? I am not sure but honestly, I am really leaning towards the former. I think if they had not done that the ending would have just fell flat.
Zardoz is a weird and oddball example of 70s cinema. It is a very interesting film from a very good director. Watch it!