Zardoz (1974)

Director/Screenwriter: John Boorman

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By Roderick Heath

The success of Deliverance (1972) turned John Boorman into a major figure on the cinematic landscape and gave him the opportunity to do almost anything he wanted. Almost. He first tried to realise an adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and after the potential expense scuppered that project, Boorman remained excited by the idea of tackling an invented, fantastical world. An idea had come to him for a tale set in a distant future where extreme science fiction ideas could commingle with motifs and atmosphere out of mythology, the realm to which his thoughts were increasingly turning as he contemplated the unease of humanity with itself and the world. The result, Zardoz, has been an extremely divisive work since it was released.

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There’s no doubting that if Boorman had set out to make a film that would dazzle and provoke some and strike others as bewildering and absurd, he could not have done better than what he managed with Zardoz. Aspects of the film, like the mantra “The gun is good, the penis is evil” and the sight of Sean Connery in a red loincloth, have even retained a kind of decontextualized fame, still eternally provocative to the adolescent mindset often pervading the internet. From its very first moments, Zardoz announces its strangeness, its odd humour, and its sly understanding of itself as a postmodern trip through the idea of myth-making. A man’s face hovers in the darkness, drifting closer to the screen, playing the chorus to the tale he himself is author of, protagonist in, and creation for. He is Arthur Frayn (Niall Buggy), made up like a Renaissance actor’s take on an alchemist or a pharaoh, confessing quickly that he, too, is just another made-up character for a tale before asking the audience, “And you, poor creature—who conjured you out of the clay? Is God in show business too?”

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Frayn has many secrets to be unveiled in the course of Zardoz, not least of which is that he is the title character, or at least pretends to be. As in any good myth, the death of a god is the pivotal act. In the postapocalyptic wastes of 2293, Zardoz floats high above the desolate Earth, a giant, floating carving, a fearsome godhead worshipped by the remnant human population known as Brutals. Zardoz preaches a grim testament, encouraging his followers to take up the creed as anointed holy warriors who call themselves Exterminators and wear masks based on Zardoz. These adherents have been charged with killing their fellow humans to wipe the infesting remnant of their species from the face of the world. Zardoz delivers them loads of guns for this purpose. But one of the loyal Exterminators, Zed (Connery), sneaks into the godhead when it lands and discovers it’s actually a kind of hovering aircraft loaded with goods and stores and people in suspended animation, and captained by Frayn. Zed shoots Frayn, who falls from the craft. The Zardoz head lands in an enclosed commune, one of several scattered about the countryside, called the Vortex. Shielded by invisible force fields, the Vortex is an oasis of green and summery pleasantness in the otherwise forsaken land. Zed explores the Vortex and enters one of the houses, a seemingly ordinary country house littered with keepsakes and relics from a forgotten world. He discovers a miraculous crystal on a ring that projects Frayn’s image and links to a supercomputer that answers all of Zed’s questions—except for the truly important ones. Zed is soon discovered and apprehended by the inhabitants of the Vortex, dubbed the Eternals, a collective of humans who have, thanks to advanced science, achieved life stasis, effectively making them immortal. Even Frayn, dead at Zed’s hand, is already being regrown, his foetus suspended in plastic in the laboratories of the Vortex.

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Zed finds himself the object of both curiosity and fear amongst the Eternals, representing as he does everything the Eternals have managed to reject or suborn—death, danger, sexuality, extreme feeling. The imperious Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) wants him quickly disposed of, but inquisitive scientist May (Sara Kestelman) wants to study him and learn what changes have been wrought on ordinary humans by the two centuries of struggle and privation that have passed since the Eternals last deigned to study them. May gets her way when the question is put to a vote, and is given three weeks to study him before he’s terminated.

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Zed soon begins to discover that the Vortex is hardly the model of fraternity and tranquillity the Eternals like to pretend it is. One Eternal, Friend (John Alderton), takes charge of Zed and introduces him to some of the more chilling aspects of life in this hippy commune of the damned. Immortality torments many of the Eternals. Petty acts of rebellion and dissent are common—mostly just to break up the atmosphere of noble boredom—and are punished with forced ageing. Some of the most extreme cases, labelled Renegades, have been doomed to permanent old age and senility. Others, robbed of the natural drives of sex and sleep, which have been replaced by group trances and meditation, have become walking near-catatonics called Apathetics. One Eternal is tried and sentenced to be aged five years after he confesses to loathing everyone and the world around them, and Friend himself is soon also weeded out when he refuses to join the others in a trance. Zed later finds him haggard and grey, banished with the other reprobates.

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The Eternals can’t govern their own life and death cycles because they deliberately erased the knowledge of how to disable the supercomputer that runs the Vortex, referred to as the Tabernacle. The computer controls the processes that regenerate them, and to which they are linked through crystalline devices implanted in their foreheads that also give them strong psychic powers. In return, the Tabernacle has absorbed aspects of all their personalities and has taken on something like a will of its own.

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Zardoz remains one of the most original, bold, and heady of science fiction films, a dense and wilfully eccentric piece of movemaking made in the dying of a moment in popular cinema when a filmmaker could create something like this on a relatively big budget with one of the biggest acting stars in the world. It occasionally feels like a punch aimed right at 2001: A Space Odyssey’s (1968) frigid, Apollonian, faux-deistic crotch; stands as the frantically onanistic, Borges-reading father to The Matrix (1999); makes a little sport of Planet of the Apes (1968) along the way; and grazes territory staked out by TV’s The Prisoner (1967-68). Boorman’s fixations and mature style, bubbling under the surface of his earlier works, broke out in the most vivid and personal fashion. The dark underworlds and beckoning islets of eternity and paradises begging to be gate-crashed glimpsed in Point Blank (1967), Hell in the Pacific, and Deliverance here became Boorman’s focal points, looking forward to the oddball mythopoeic stuff of The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), Excalibur (1981), and The Emerald Forest (1984). Whilst themes of apocalyptic adaptation and cordoned-off lifestyle management concurred with a host of works in the same period and point forward to many more, Zardoz is more purposefully abstracted and spreads its roots farther and more deeply. Boorman tackles many an essential scifi concern and field of intellectual battle, from the underpinnings of religion to the purpose of free will and the battle between brute impulses and higher intelligence, and studying them with fierce concentration until all merge and blur, revealed as facets of the same Ouroboroslike concern of death and life entwined.

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Zed’s role is analogous with the corn gods of pagan Europe, making the film something of a riposte to the sarcastic use of the old religion in The Wicker Man (1973), as Boorman’s fascination with pantheistic ideas and practices began to dominate his thinking. Not for nothing does Zed emerge from corn inside Frayn’s craft. Death and rebirth as constant cycle is taken as the inescapable fact of existence in Zardoz, a fact the Eternals, whose yearning towards transcendence of time has become a self-crucifying joke, deny. In this fashion, Zed is introduced as the death urge incarnate, but his person bespeaks the crude virility of an eternal frontier, fostered apparently by Frayn in the guise of Zardoz as a warden culling the last of a benighted species. But more is going on than any one character understands, even Frayn, who has recently taken to teaching the Brutals how to farm and using the Exterminators to capture, enslave, and manage others for this end. The nominal purpose for this was to provide extra food for the increasing number of Apathetics and Renegades in the Vortex, but Frayn’s deeper game is uncovered as May looks closely at Zed’s physique and genetic structure. She learns, with no small amount of unease as well as yearning, that Frayn had deliberately fostered Zed’s birth with selective breeding during his excursions into the wilds. Zed is the product of that breeding, a stable third-generation mutant, a new stage in evolution with perfect memory recall and other talents who only requires correct stimulus to bound past the Eternals in an evolutionary sense. But the power of the Tabernacle must be overcome if Zed can deliver what so many of the Eternals really want—death. Meanwhile, Consuella whips up a jihad after she catches May and Zed together in an embrace, inciting the other like-minded Eternals who want to fend off the doom Zed might bring. Zed’s fellow Exterminators wait patiently beyond the border force field for the chance to move in.

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For all its teeming, trippy images conjured by a genuine cinematic talent, Zardoz’s essentials have much in common with a brand of sparely illustrated, pseudo-naïf, idea-driven scifi very common on the page, but usually confined to TV. Boorman, armed with a solid budget and a formidable battery of technical collaborators, including cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, was able to film with the sweep, colour, and class usually withheld from this brand. Boorman’s signal influences manifest throughout. Fellini is there in the use of masks and the atavistic evocations reminiscent of Satyricon (1969). Orson Welles registers in the final confrontation between Zed and the Tabernacle with a hall of mirrors sequence a la The Lady From Shanghai (1946), whilst other aspects are reminiscent of Welles’ similarly out-of-time take on Macbeth (1948). Like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1969), Zardoz finds new context for the hirsute machismo loose on Daliesque plains that defined Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western in a surrealist frieze, with Connery’s Zed cast as a gunslinger Neanderthal kicking in the door of the temple and ushering in a posthuman age.

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Perhaps it’s a sign of Boorman’s essential Englishness that even as he seems to be exacerbating science fiction’s tendencies towards portentous self-seriousness he’s also making a glorified sex comedy movie, a Carry On film with pleasant delusions of grandeur. Certainly it’s a cinephile’s joke that echoes throughout Zardoz, as it reveals roots in that evergreen work of popular mythology, The Wizard of Oz (1939), Boorman mocking himself as magic lantern artiste via Frayn’s facetious sorcery and showmanship. Boorman also confessed to making the film when he was using hallucinogenic drugs, the kind of admission that seems too perfect in the face of the film’s liquidinous textures and distorting visuals redolent of the psychedelic style at its ripest in feature film. Yet Zardoz is entirely coherent on a narrative level, if also unusually structured, delaying significant revelations and honouring many classic mythical texts with an in medias res gambit.

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Right from the opening shots of the floating head descending on the flocking Exterminators, Zardoz strikes and sustains a feeling of having been plucked out of any readily accessible reality and plunged into a zone far in the future or way back in the past, something out of shared Jungian dream-memory. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is crossbred with L. Frank Baum’s intelligibly childlike and most assuredly American popular fairy tales, whose title gives the clue to the nature of the false god he dares to meet and then kill. This proves one of Frayn’s mirthful but focused ploys, as he lures Zed into the experiential realm of reading and learning, only then to hand him the bitterness of disillusion through a copy of Baum’s book, revealing not just the source of the name Zardoz, but also Frayn’s method in posing as a god, offering the punch line to a tragically funny gag. The quality of political allegory Baum worked in his tale, warning everyone to beware seemingly awesome leaders with big voices, is reproduced and amplified by Boorman whilst also exploring the familiar scifi notion that technology looked at by someone without understanding would seem like magic. Frayn stirs the urge to rebel in Zed by forcing him and the other Exterminators to betray their creed before leading him through a series of tests and provocations designed to awaken the intellectual gifts Frayn’s breeding efforts instilled in them. The sting of betrayal Zed carries with him even as he progresses through levels of being and understanding, from near-animal to superman, continues to define him, counterbalancing the torment of the Eternals, who have attempted to make themselves gods and found themselves instead permanently tethered to their own mortal impotence. “Another dead end,” Friend reports to Zed when recalling their attempts to explore deep space. The chief scientist who led the mission to create the Vortex is now a withered and ancient being balanced perpetually on the edge of easeful death but never able to fall off.

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Zardoz’s associations skid every which way, commenting as much on the fate of the counterculture intelligentsia of the 1970s as it does on scifi concepts, lampooning the era’s utopian impulses and the evergreen human longing for a panacea against mortality, and a dark-tinted emotional autobiography from its writer-director, an extended jeremiad against attempts to deny the darker side of human nature and against that eternal target of British artists, the class system. Some of Zardoz’s impulses, like the geriatric renegades being forced to dodder around a ballroom floor in ruffled formal dress in a gruesome caricature of a retirement home at Christmas time, have the quality of surreal but recognisable musing on contemporary denial of mortality. There’s also the allusive sense Boorman was trying to grasp of the nature of nostalgia, planted in a waning memory of a different age of parents and grandparents and his own youth in a hermetic suburban environment he described as “comfortably smug.” The final shot of Zed and Consuella evokes the same flavour, at once mimicking a Renaissance artwork and a late-Victorian wedding photo, marking them out as both holy family and ghostly forebears. Boorman depicts the Eternals as a mob of immortal yet morally and emotionally phthisic Bloomsbury Set rejects acting out a genre transcription of a D. H. Lawrence parable and Zed roped in as a Webley-wielding Mellors to boff and beat some life into these stiffs. It might even be fair to call Zardoz a variation on H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine told from the Morlock point of view: what use these Eloi anyway? A crucial flashback reveals the ranks of Eternals who have retained their sense of identity and purpose were all the youngest members of the commune, children of the scientists who created the Vortex and the Tabernacle: with less reference to the old way of life, the younger ones were able to adapt more readily.

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Of course, one reason Zardoz still has to fight for its place at the table is the way it puts sexuality front and centre: scifi is one genre where the Id and Eros are usually channelled into solidly delineated forms, but Zardoz, as well as exemplifying a certain blithe, very ’70s approach to nudity, is deeply concerned with the place of sex in human identity and its future and as the essence of the life urge wound inextricably with death. Boorman’s defiantly eroticised approach manifests also in his sexualisation of his lead actor. This culminates in a hilarious and erotically potent moment when Connery is presented swathed in bridal dress and veil as the geriatrics smuggle him past the marauding Eternals, and later, when the great phallic monster becomes whore to a bevy of seed-seeking, would-be witch queens and lady madonnas. Zed’s sweat is an elixir that stirs the Apathetics to life and group snogging. The Eternals are gelded in their immortal state, but still fascinated by Zed’s sexuality, as his memories constantly refer back to adventures in rape and rutting out in the wilds. When Consuella tries to provoke erotic reactions in Zed with pornographic images, she finds he’s more aroused by her immediate person. S&M motifs bubble up as Zed becomes Friend’s ponyboy and finds himself uninterested in the wealth of utterly blasé sex objects presented by the Apathetics. Consuella is one part Vestal priestess guarding a forbidden zone from all but a touch of the divine, one part snooty princess in need of a good rogering as she proclaims sexuality the force that “so degraded woman and so betrayed men,” and glares icily at Zed’s erection. She accidentally breaks her own cage and finds she has transformed herself into her enemy. When she finds Zed under her knife, a claiming of potency that ironically destroys the very point of what she was fighting for, she stirs the newly enlightened Zed to quote Nietzsche’s famous epigram about the fate of those who fight monsters too long.

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Connery supports Zardoz on his shoulders in the same way Charlton Heston used to prop up historical epics, with the film in part simply transposing the dichotomous mystique of James Bond as both ultimate lover and ultimate killer, the pure primitive man wrapped in the complete civilised man, and throwing the twinned image into heightened contrast. Connery, happily tossing away the wig that dogged his later turns as the spy yet still possessed of formidable physical presence, gives one of his best performances, conceding to Boorman’s exploitation of him as both irrepressible in his masculinity and also the constant subversion and mockery of it. Zed is, alternately, a shy beast, a natural titan, a flailing thing, and, finally, a human being or better. Connery’s presence also fills in a Lee Marvin-shaped hole in Boorman’s vision, as Zed recalls Walker of Point Blank, a similarly primeval power who nonetheless constantly finds himself battered and bewildered by the forces of civilisation (although I can’t help but wonder if Boorman might even have liked to cast a black actor in the role; put Jim Brown or the like in the part and imagine the fur that would’ve flown). Zed speaks wistfully of losing his innocence when his mind was activated, and finally finds himself notably impotent in one way by the end, when he can no longer use his gun: intelligence has given him morality, but removed pure will. Consuella’s war against Zed conceals her own powerful desire for him with a hunger that transcends not merely the social demarcations after she describes May’s interest in him as bestiality, but also the powerful death wish that has overcome the other Eternals, and at the very moment when she has the chance to kill Zed finds instant, transfiguring accord with him (another recurring Boorman motif, the couple that falls in love at the drop of a hat). Rampling’s lethal jade gaze was never better-suited to a role.

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Boorman’s answer to Kubrick’s stargate trip is an equally magisterial, but even more deeply strange and gaudily colourful sequence in which Zed agrees to impregnate May and her cadre of like-minded women in the Vortex so they can carry away the next generation of humanity and repopulate the world; in exchange, they agree to use a teaching technique employing touch, psychic induction, and the crystals that allow them to tap the Tabernacle’s resources. Insemination of womb is rhymed to insemination of mind, illustrated in projections cast upon rutting bodies and naked frames and philosophies and poesy dropping from lips, an inheritance of intellect entwined with the flesh. Boorman attempts nothing less than an affirmation of the virility of one in terms of the other, an attempt to punch through the mind-spirit-body schism that has often defined and afflicted the western mindset. Here, too, Boorman’s influence also makes itself plainest, aspects of his creativity echoing through later works by filmmakers as diverse as Derek Jarman, Peter Greenaway, Ben Wheatley, Terrence Malick, Terence Davies, and particularly, Terry Gilliam, all of whom would try in diverse ways to explore similarly the perpetually uneasy relationship between the immediacy of experience and the inescapability of physical being and the inheritance of culture, teasing the edges of abstraction in the process. Meanwhile, the anointed messiah figure has found a new life in many a more soothing setting, from Star Wars (1977) to Superman (1978) to The Matrix and the Marvel superhero roster, mostly robbed not just of sexuality, but of simple connection to other human beings.

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Zed arrives near the end of his journey and takes on the Tabernacle, which torments him with the fragments of the people who form part of its makeup and, finally, Zed’s own doppelganger, which he kills in symbolic defeat of the machine. Zed emerges from the battle with authentic psychic power. Confronted by the Eternals whipped into a frenzy that has turned self-consuming as they smash the cultural inheritance they’re supposed to be protecting, Zed is able to shunt them from his path and telekinetically repair the statues they’ve vandalised—the capstone for Zed’s shift from destroyer to restorer. Zed and Consuella flee to the wilds and mate in the felled Zardoz head whilst the Eternals finally meet their fates at the hands of invading Exterminators, who are all too happy to answer their gleeful demands for death in an orgy of killing, including the newly restored Frayn and Friend, revealed as collaborators in the project of creating a force strong enough to break the Vortex.

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The film’s coda is at once peculiarly funny and deeply sad as Boorman summarises the last/first family’s future in a fixed shot lapping through time, Zed and Consuella ageing and withering as their son is born, grows, and leaves them. Their biological function fulfilled, they remain until they are only a pair of ragged skeletons holding hands. One of Boorman’s major points here is one that we’re never easy with, particularly in this day and age, and yet can never deny—that we are all momentary vessels of life and that individual identities ultimately mean much less than what we pass on. The very last image zeroes in on Zed and Consuella’s hand prints on the wall of the cavern where they made their life, juxtaposed by Zed’s gun. Humanity arose from Stone Age to Space Age and back, and now a new pivot has taken place. All that’s ever left of anyone is the shape of their hand, outlined by paint on the stone.

  • John M spoke:
    29th/07/2016 to 4:29 pm

    Thanks for that analysis, Ferdy. I saw Zardoz back in the 70s, in my twenties. I can’t say I understood it then, but your essay brought back some memories. I thought it was strange, but enjoyed watching Charlotte Rampling. There was probably too much going in the story and setting on for my youthful brain to absorb. I seem also to remember a movement from Beethoven’s 7th symphony as part of the musical score?

  • Roderick spoke:
    29th/07/2016 to 11:12 pm

    Hi John. Your memory serves you well as to the Beethoven used on the soundtrack. And yes, Charlotte Rampling is always worth watching.

  • J.M. spoke:
    30th/07/2016 to 3:13 am

    Excellent discussion, as usual. I was wondering when you’d get around to this film, and hope you will have something to say about the superficially less strange, but also deeply idiosyncratic, EXCALIBUR.

    Probably worth noting that the concluding images of ZARDOZ are (rather brilliantly) repurposed from Buster Keaton’s film COLLEGE.

  • Roderick spoke:
    30th/07/2016 to 6:32 am

    “Probably worth noting that the concluding images of ZARDOZ are (rather brilliantly) repurposed from Buster Keaton’s film COLLEGE.”

    What an interesting observation, J.M. As for Excalibur, Marilyn did that quite a while ago now:

    http://www.ferdyonfilms.com/2007/excalibur-1981/183/

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