John Boorman’s Zardoz is virtually the definition of a cult movie. If not quite reviled by critics, it was at least ridiculed. Meanwhile, cinema-goers were indifferent. The passing years have lodged the film in the (not quite popular) wider consciousness as the “one where Sean Connery wears a nappy”. But it’s reputation as a film to seek out, for all its flaws, has grown. It’s a film brimming with ideas; charitably, one might even suggest there’s a surplus (it’s not often that such a charge can be levelled at a movie and Boorman certainly reflected that this was the case; “So, you could say there were maybe too many ideas in this picture”).
But the film is also consistently arresting visually, the product of an analogue approach to effects and a post-psychedelic grasp of narrative. Even its greatest fans would likely agree that Zardoz doesn’t entirely work. There is a preponderance of expository dialogue at the expense of narrative progression. But even this concentration on intellectual inquiry and philosophical discourse yields more than it squanders.
Zardoz has a relatively simple SF backbone; oppressed masses rise up against the ruling elite. It’s one that has borne a number of Marxist readings, but Boorman’s smorgasbord approach to content tends to preclude a single defining take. It has been roundly labelled pretentious, and there is a certain truth to the claim that its grasp outstretches its reach. But to dismiss it with such language is to underappreciate the breadth of its ambition and intelligence. Ultimately, Zardoz may come up short in terms of profundity but it satisfies on a different level. For all that it is a mess of ideas that could have done with refining, there is an impressive and coherent vision that permeates every frame.
Boorman referred to it as an “allegory for the haves and have-nots”, but his framework draws in distracted meditations on immortality, sex, death, sleep, baser instincts and the nature of reality itself. In respect of the latter, the director invites us to view what we are seeing as a fiction from the outset. Arthur Frayne’s prologue was added by the director when test screenings roundly pronounced bafflement. It’s not surprising that Frayne’s additional layer (of fourth-wall breaking) only added to the confusion, but it is a useful preface to some of the less tangible themes in the film, not least the conceit of a religion inspired by The Wizard of Oz (one can’t help but think of a 20th century religion founded by a science fiction author in connection with this).
The script actually sets up the conflicting forces quite economically; we join the story as Zed, one of the Exterminators who enforces order on his fellow Brutes in the outlands of the world, climbs aboard the giant flying head of Zardoz, their god. He shoots dead the occupant, Arthur Frayne, and travels back to the Vortex (or, rather, Vortex Four) where the elite of humanity, the Eternals, live protected from the devolved outsiders. The rest of the film is taken up with Zed’s interaction with this community; we discover it as he does. But the narrative is tricky and elliptical along the way, shifting into flashbacks or stopping to provide lectures on the workings of this group and history that led mankind to this point. Zed claims that he wants the truth (or is it revenge?) and Boorman has more than enough material to let revelations drip steadily into the story. The ultimate truth, however, concerns not just why he does what he does but why anybody does what they do, and it is at this point that Boorman demurs.
But, in allowing a simple “us and them” premise (seen also in everything from The Time Machine to Planet of the Apes), Boorman has licence to drape all manner of strangeness over it to give it form. Just referring to “floating giant heads” (and it remains a highly potent image, however bizarre, in part because the open-mouthed aggression suggests gargoyles and similar grotesquerie adorning familiar religious architecture) in a matter-of-fact way would elicit sideways glances from anyone unfamiliar with the film; it’s the succession of unchecked conceptualisation and imagery that makes this so unique.
I mentioned Planet of the Apes, released seven years earlier, which (more successfully, it has to be said) settles on its core idea and explores it rigorously, eking out every possibility for its dramatic potential. Both films see a protagonist (both anti-heroes at that) happen upon an unfamiliar world where they are looked down upon as a primitive savage by an elite (“Oh, you can’t equate their feelings with ours”). But, in fact, they possess insights lacking in their purported superiors. Both films also meld a vision of a post-apocalyptic future where (our) modern technology has been abandoned but its ghosts haunt the landscape. Where Zardoz diverges is in Boorman’s disinterest in sticking to the linear. Both films establish lines of philosophical discussion, but Apes picks at each one for drama while Zardoz is content to take the form of a fractured mediation.
So where did Zardoz come from? Boorman isn’t particularly insightful on his DVD commentary, except to say that it came from The Wizard of Oz. It may be that his ill-fated adaptation of The Lord of the Rings fed into his desire to make a film within a wholly-invented world. And, no doubt, he would have filmed his version of Tolkien in Ireland (where Zardoz was shot). Both exhibit a sensibility of a medieval world, albeit Tolkien’s shire is an idyll and Boorman’s outlands are the consequence of deprivation and disaster (in contrast, the Eternals have adopted a certain pastoral self-sufficiency up to a point, albeit at the price of indolence and apathy that requires the Brutes to provide additional food).
Boorman: A very indulgent and personal film, this. I included only things I like myself.
This was the director’s comment on references to Blake, Elliot and Beethoven. But as far as setting out to make a film with a message (in any kind of polemicised fashion), this is largely absent. It’s a film designed to provoke ideas and debates, not to provide answers. This may be why one viewer can interpret is as anti-utopian and another as pro-Marxist. In terms of the director’s running themes, the portrayal of masculinity within the “natural” environment could be seen to be addressed even more directly than in his previous picture, Deliverance. Boorman had also directed two Lee Marvin films (Point Blank and Hell in the Pacific) not long before, both of which (naturally, as they star Marvin) explored the male psyche almost as a prelude to the ill-equipped (physically and emotionally) protagonists of Deliverance. One might regard that film as a critique of the coddled lifestyle of middle-class America, but it would be a mistake to run with that toward viewing it as a call to arms and the survivalist mentality (no doubt many such proponents have it on the DVD shelf, however).
Zardoz takes the idea of an increasingly remote, disengaged and dependent society to its extreme (zenith, or nadir, if you will). It’s one that requires waking up by gun-toting, barbaric rapists. There is certainly a theme of the natural order running through the film, but Boorman appears to be purposefully using extremes to suggest that a more balanced line between them is advisable and necessary in order to progress (May leads a group of Eternals off into the outlands, while Zed returns to this world having assimilated the positive aspects of higher understanding; he avows not to kill).
Indeed, the director is unrepentant for distilling his meditative raving into a “simple notion”, that the core of what is important is the “love between a man and a woman”. He concludes, “However, I happen to believe it”. I don’t think Boorman’s being exclusionary here, he’s just resolving his lines of thought concerning sex and death and the reason for life itself. Wisely, he isn’t so glib as to come out and state this in the film. At an earlier point Zed addresses Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) and says, “You have given me what no other gave; love. If I live, we will live together”. But Boorman doesn’t give this moment any additional emphasis to let you know this was his point. Rather, he leaves us with the time-lapse shot of Zed and Consuella aging and having children and dying; the message is purely visual.
Generally, I’d be resistant to a film making a big display of addressing deep and meaningful ideas and falling back on the bleeding obvious as a conclusion, but I think one of the reasons Zardoz doesn’t provoke such a response is that it refuses to sentimentalise its ideas. Nor does it attempt to manipulate the viewer into an emotional attachment. The closest Boorman gets is by using Beethoven’s 7th, which shortcuts us towards a sense of thematic heft and import (the symphony has been used in a welter of films of course, from Photographing Fairies to Knowing to The Fall to The King’s Speech, often as a means of underlying inescapable mortality). Ironically, for a film that puts so much emphasis on discussions of existence, nature and order, its impact ultimately rests on how it imaginatively settles in the mind. It is not because we identify with the characters or themes especially, but because the world created takes hold.
I’m sceptical of any “eggs in one basket” interpretation of Zardoz but it is the kind of film that welcomes the overlaying of different (sometimes divergent) theories. The “haves and have-nots” premise invites a Marxist appraisal, but more redolent is the theme of religious manipulation as a means of control (particularly since it pushes us to the point where the film can no longer any direct answers). I’ve seen Zardoz referred to as reflecting dialectical materialism. I can’t profess to being schooled in Marxist theory, but as I understand it this posits that history is the product of class struggles (thesis, anti-thesis, assimilated into synthesis; essentially Zed at the end). The world within the Vortex appears to enact a kind of communist collective for the elite (there is a convincing thread, responding to the suggestion that the film is anti-utopian, in the imdb comments section on Zardoz that expands on this), one propped up on the toil of the Brutals; when it comes crashing down, a new order is created. But, if the film lends itself to such an interpretation, it’s not one that could be considered too uncommon to science fiction. And Boorman’s disinterest in the oppressed masses (we only see them in flashbacks) rather belies a case for such intent.
More pertinent in respect dialectical materialism is that it puts the material world first, before thought (thus supplanting Hegel, who had the same basic idea but the other way round). In Zardoz, the emphasis on the material world as all there is appears to be a defining principle. Boorman starts off by denouncing religion and proceeds to show us a world without God, or any consideration of an afterlife. So bound by the physical world are the Eternals that, when the bodies die, new ones are created to house their minds (the exact means of this transference is unclear, but since we see crystals implanted into the “third eye” of Eternals, it is likely that “consciousness” resides within the Tabernacle; “The eternal Tabernacle simply rebuilds me”). What the Eternals lack is attachment to their physicality, not connection with their enduring soul (for which there appears to be no room in this story). And so, salvation comes through reconnection with governing forces of the natural (material) world; the re-discovery of sex and the releasing mechanism of death. As the elder renegade comments, “We challenged the natural order. The Vortex is an offence against nature”.
It is curious that the film is at its most psychedelic (and thus, beyond the material) when Zed is pulled into the crystal that is the Tabernacle (“You are within me”) but it resists further exploration; after all, the physical construct has triggered a metaphysical experience. The wisdom of the crystal survives (conjuring notions of an Atlantean diaspora), as May leads survivors east with it in her possession.
Arthur Frayn is entirely confident of literal truth of this guided, bio-chemical reality. After all, he designed an entire belief system and genetically engineered its devotees as the usurpers of his community. So the implication that his understanding is limited comes as an intriguing postscript.
Arthur Frayn: You see, our death-wish was devious, and deep. As Zardoz, Zed, I was able to choose your forefathers! It was careful genetic breeding that produced this mutant – this slave who could free his masters! And Friend was my accomplice! Don’t you remember the man in the library, Zed? It was I who led you to the ‘Wizard of Oz’ book! Ha-hah, it was I who gave you access to the Stone! It was I! I bred you! I led you!
Zed: And I have looked into the face of the force that put the idea in your mind. You are bred, and led, yourself.
Friend: Arthur! We’ve all been used!
Arthur Freyn: And re-used.
Friend: And abused!
Arthur Freyn: And amused!
Boorman comments, “Here I concede the notion that there might be a higher force”. He is non-committal on what this might be. The elder renegade whom Zed gifts death to (“A good death”) is convinced that Zed is an agent of nature (“She made you”) so perhaps the higher force here is some sort of Gaian consciousness. Certainly, Zed’s process of enlightenment involves recognition of the limits of his awareness.
Zed: I see nothing except my own perplexity. Knowledge is not enough.
But one might also pull into the mix the strings of the puppet master. It was, after all, Boorman who put the idea into Arthur Frayn’s mind.
Arthur Frayn: Merlin is *my* hero! I am the puppet master. I manipulate many of the characters and events you will see. But *I* am invented, too, for your entertainment – and amusement. And you, poor creatures, who conjured *you* out of the clay? Is God in show business too?
Arguably, Arthur’s introduction makes this explicit; God, John Boorman, is in show business. Ultimately, I suspect Boorman would shy away from claiming this as the whole truth, as it would be an admission that everything he wishes to explore in the film is on the level of a frivolous doodle. Boorman only overtly draws attention to the artifice of the film here and when Connery fires his gun at the camera a scene later (a Bond commentary?) Frayn also espouses a view not wholly delivered by the film (“rich in irony, and most satirical”; well, perhaps, a bit, but not in a wholly coherent form).
Arthur’s head (his beard consisting of nothing more than black marker pen) floats about the screen at the opening, like that of his creation Zardoz, because he is a creation of God, John Boorman (and Arthur, like the Son of God, is killed and resurrected – or maybe just like Lazarus). Perhaps this process reaches completion with Boorman, in turn, the creation of a higher force?
Boorman is sketchy on what brought this world into existence. We are told that the creators of the Vortex took all they could “and made an oasis here”.
Avalow: We few, the rich, the powerful, the clever, cut ourselves off to guard the knowledge and treasures of civilisation. As the world plunged into a dark age.
It is quite clear that the Vortex is not borne from some utopian ideal, rather it came from fear and the desire to preserve privilege (be it the result of wealth, intelligence or position). Avalow notes that they “hardened out hearts against the suffering outside”; if devastation through war is not intimidated, at very least the breakdown of society through economic disaster and starvation is a safe bet.
The presentation of the Vortex as a corruptive and negative influence is pretty much given. Boorman does nothing to posit an upside (albeit, they have knowledge) and its greatest proponent (Consuella) is shown to be wrong when Zed overcomes her with the full force of his manly chest rug. It’s easy to picture Boorman, enraptured by the beautiful hills of Wicklow, issuing a paean to the natural order of things. Zed is extolled as the bearer of justice, an angel of death who “brings hate and anger into the Vortex to infect us all”. From a place of higher understanding he is able to decree, “This place is against life. It must die”.
But the function of Zed in the story attracts a number of readings. As noted, Zed is established as a savage force of nature. He lives by the gun, enjoys killing and raping. This is not viewed as a positive, but as a necessary catalyst of change, by the narrative. He recalls that he has “seen men rape an old cripple woman in a wet ditch”. As the film progresses, so does Zed’s empathy; by the end he is transformed. As this bringer of change, “you are the one, the liberator”. Neo in The Matrix, basically, but less affable and nerdy.
If the religion is rejected at the outset, religious overtones are found throughout. Perhaps the strongest of these is Zed as Adam, except he needs no Eve to tempt him. The serpent (already in the garden, Arthur Frayn) attracts him to Eden (the Vortex) but Adam simultaneously represents the apple (who passes, by osmosis, or sweat, the recovery of sexual awareness and desire to the Eternals). A couple going at it in a garden describe how they killed, and “then we felt desire”. It’s fairly rudimentary stuff, but visualised in such a heightened manner that it very nearly works. It is curious, and possibly inconsistent, that having been presented with the spark of lust (and therefore attraction to the life force) so many of the Eternals still want to be killed (those who do not go with May, essentially) but Boorman might argue that one of the two equal and opposite impulses had to win out.
There is copious (mostly female) semi-nudity throughout the film, as befits the state of “innocence” within the garden. And, whilst garments are worn, there is little distinction between gender (hence the memorable sight of John Alderton in stockings and a skirt). Zed’s Adam is not punished, however; his reverse journey sees him elevated by the knowledge within the garden (okay, I can see the analogy losing steam now).
And there are other parallels to be drawn. It’s difficult not to see in the Eternals a level of commentary on New Age (crystals abound) and hippy (inter-gender apparel, peace, if not love) romanticism. Or, is the Vortex a representation of the increasingly isolated British Empire, the desire for control and plunder eventually causing its destruction? Then, there are strong parallels between the superior detachment of the Eternals and the Greek gods (minus the carnality)
Zardoz: The gun is good. The penis is evil.
Zardoz instructs a straightforward inversion of the values of creation versus destruction (“Kill the brutals who multiply and are legion”) that is inclined to ultimately result in questioning and revolt. Some of this feels a bit on-the-nose in terms of the history of religious manipulation (the rifles pouring from the mouth of Zardoz) but, again, it is the film’s self-belief that sweeps along the less varnished elements.
However, we see that Zed’s rebellion (although initiated directly by Frayn when he leads the Executioner through the library to Baum’s book) results from a digression from the values that he held true. The needs of the Vortex for food (to support the Apathetics and Renegades), which were not explicitly part of Frayn’s plan, provoked Zed (“Zardoz betrayed us”). He and Consuella represent oppositional forces in ethos (brute force versus mental order) but both are awakened. Arguably, hers is suggestive of succumbing to patriarchal authority (Boorman notes on the DVD commentary that the Vortex is essentially matriarchal), and she is awakened by him subsequent to his attempted rape. She also, explicitly, becomes as he is through her determination to destroy him (Boorman’s decision to have Zed quote Nietzsche is heavy-handed) That such aspects don’t wrestle Zardoz into the quagmire of sexual violence found in a number of early ‘70s mainstream movies probably relates as much to identification as it does to the desire to directly address these themes within the narrative. Zed never becomes the classical hero, he is merely a force of change (it’s interesting that the Wachowski’s attempted to pull back from Neo as a “pure hero” in the Matrix sequels, with mixed results).
To an extent, all the characters in the film resist traditional identification beyond archetypes. Arthur and Friend are tricksters/magicians, Avalow, Mae and Consuella are various combinations of seer. high priestess and empress.
The setting of Zardoz is 2293 (which means, if Arthur has lived 300 years, he was born in 1993 or thereabouts, and the event of establishing the Vortex presumably occurred in the early 2000s). Boorman has talked about the appeal and logic behind the retention of identifying factors from the past within future visions (this approach to the post-modern landscape would find its most feted adherent in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner).
In the outlands, the ruins of buildings are found along with rusting 20th century transport. Within the Vortex, traditionally styled farm buildings (at first sight, an idyllic hippy commune) conceal futuristic technology whilst vast inflated plastic structures nestle atop them. Boorman utilises elements that had appeared in recent films, television and literature, from the post-apocalyptic future of John Christopher’s The Tripods to the mish-mash of strange technology with the idiosyncratic architecture of Portmeirion (and beach ball Rover-guard; plastic was very futuristic back then, you know, and the Rover performs a similar function in the Village to the Vortex’s Periphery Field) in Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner TV series.
In this vein, the library sequence, with its visual marriage of elements of past and future and presentation of learning as an occult practice, is perhaps the most wholly satisfying in the film. We follow a breadcrumb trail (Zed finds it, learns to read) and it is gradual revealed what happened there. In his commentary, Boorman notes the handprints left on the cave wall long after Zed and Consuella’s bones have turned to dust, observing that the first cave paintings were exactly that. It is a pointer to a cyclic civilisation, perhaps, one of rise and fall and rise, so perhaps Boorman is ultimately non-committal over whether this new order is a good thing; it may just be a “way of” thing.
One of Boorman’s pet themes is the false promise of immortality, which proves to be a curse rather than a blessing. Quite aside from the loss of sexual appetite and function, and the further descent into immobile apathy, the most dominant response is identified as boredom. This is related to us through John Alderton’s Friend, whose responses to other characters and his environment are probably closest to our own. He has a appreciably bitter sense of humour regarding his situation and sees Zed as, if nothing else, a respite from the dullness.
Friend: Let’s keep it. Anything to reduce the boredom.
Of course, we discover that his position of idle distaste with the Vortex masks a true intent to bring down the system. Does Second Level Meditation represent an “access all areas” card in respect of the mind of another? Is that why Friend resists joining them? If that’s the case, one wonders that he could have kept up his deceit for so long, as surely involvement would have been expected regularly from him.
Friend: I will not be one mind with you.
Inevitably, there are rather large gaps between some of the ideas Boorman wants to cover and how successfully they are woven into the film.
The Tabernacle: Sleep was necessary for man when his waking and unconscious lives were separated. As he achieved total consciousness sleep became obsolete and second level meditation took its place. Sleep was closely connected with death.
Presumably “total consciousness” came through the crystalline influence brought to bear by the Tabernacle; certainly, the absence the loss of the unconscious leading to wakefulness has the air of logic to it. The connection between sleep and death (absence of wakeful awareness) is less convincing, however.
Apathetic Woman: It’s a miracle! We’re apathetic!
Nowhere is the film’s straight-faced take on this weird and wonderful world more inviting of ridicule than the discourses on the loss of, and investigation into the reasons behind, sexual function. One wonders if a Freudian take wouldn’t consider that the teaching that the penis as evil results from the repressed wish of the Eternals that it wasn’t so. Boorman readily admits on his commentary that there are scenes in the film that will be laughable if the viewer does not enter into the spirit of the piece. Certainly, there are moments when you half expect Woody Allen to wander in from the set of Sleeper.
Boorman also appears to be quite happy to throw in a stiffy joke (Friend and friends fall about when Zed shows how aroused he is by Consuella) which the Eternals clearly get, but has them bafflingly baffled by the nature of stimulation. If their computer index motorcars I’m sure the necessary information exists on file somewhere. The problem here is that the scene essentially exists for the punchline, rather than because it makes logical sense. To be fair, though, Boorman is right; shaggy Sean getting the ladies hot and flustered is a good card to play, even at the expense of verisimilitude.
As mentioned, Boorman’s take on immortality is unapologetically that it is a bad thing; he has nothing to say about any upside. Consuella might profess that the semblance of order is maintained, but one reading would be that she was filled with carnal desire for Zed as soon as he arrived (and so was perversely consumed with destroying him). Boorman is quite successful in selling the idea of death as a desirable release from stultification and decrepitude. The slaughter of the climax, as something to be celebrated by those being slaughtered, is, to put it mildly, an inversion of the norm. Death is the great liberator, although (again) you half expect the request “Kill me too!” to result provoke Python-esque indecision from the Exterminator.
May: You are mentally and physically vastly superior to me or anyone else here.
Zed himself is a curious character. The camera never sides with him in, even though we are taken on our journey in his company. There are overtones of a Flowers for Algernon-esque growth in Zed’s understanding and awareness as the film progresses (he even perceives the future death of Avalow), but we are as disinclined to identify him when he has seen the error of his ways as when his actions were reprehensible. However, we can see what he represents. The theme of unnatural evolution is clearly central. If all parts do not progress then progress is an illusion. At the conclusion, Zed has assimilated all parts and is able to move on.
It’s worth considering where Connery was at this point in his career. In his biography of Connery, Christopher Bray has little to say about the film apart from analysing it as a reflection of the actor’s Bond persona. He calls it a standard issue fascist future, a “countrified take on A Clockwork Orange”. But what he does hit upon, and validly so, is how Zardoz was “responsible for discovering the magus figure” in the actor, one he would thence go on to repeat for the rest of his career. Despite Zed’s taciturn, cold persona this feels like the iconic Connery we would go on to see again and again. I’d preface that by saying I think the actor’s previous starring role (The Offence) is one of his greatest performances, but it’s a different beast to the comfort zone he would tend to inhabit in subsequent years.
Boorman has said that Connery took the role because he was finding it difficult to get work post-Bond. He was hoping to get a production of Macbeth off the ground (beaten to the punch by Polanski) and showed interest in Richard Burton biopic that wasn’t to be. He received £200k for the role, his lowest fee since Dr. No and a fifth of the film’s budget. It’s curious that the also moustachioed Burt Reynolds (of Deliverance) was the director’s first choice (he couldn’t do the film). Unlike Bray, I think Reynolds could probably have pulled the role off (it might have sent him on a different career trajectory, however). As it is, there are few actors who could have appeared with a porn ‘tache, pony tail and nowt but red pants and maintained dignity. Connery does, because the role is all about unbridled masculinity. We believe in Zed’s hatred of the Vortex (“You stink of despair. Fight back!”, “This place is built on lies and suffering”) and in his change in viewpoint (“All that I was is gone”). Apparently, the actor took much persuading to don a bridal gown (I can’t recall another film featuring this star in a dress!)
Of the rest of the cast, Charlotte Rampling was arguably in her “break-out” year, with this and The Night Porter. John Alderton brings a much-needed warmth and lightness of touch to Friend. His best-known role came about five years earlier as the teacher in Please Sir!, and he would remain a constant presence on TV over the next 20 years, mostly in sitcoms. He would have few significant film roles. Niall Buggy (Arthur Frayne) is probably most recognised now for playing alcoholic BBC presenter Henry Sellers in an episode of Father Ted. Sara Kestleman (May) would appear irregularly in film and TV, remaining mainly a stage presence while Sally Anne Newton’s credits for the same are even fewer.
The biggest star of the film, though, is its unique visual sensibility. It’s the reason, even more than the lurchingly dense script, that it has endured for four decades. The hands-on, practical, in-camera approach makes Boorman’s world at once tangible and surreal. It’s all about juxtaposition. Director of Photography George Unsworth had previously most notably worked on Kubrick’s 2001 and his soft, impressionist images delighted the director. Techniques of rear projection and front projection are employed throughout. While they root the film very much in the post-‘60s pop world, the choices underlie the idea of unseen seamless technology. Footage of tiny sea creatures are used to suggest DNA, while a sensory barrage of imagery evokes spy movie brainwashing scenes from films of the previous decade (notably The Ipcress File). Naked extras adorn the walls of rooms, trapped behind ever-present plastic, imbuing a sense of passive carnality.
The last half-hour, prior to the climactic cull, is succession of giddy, trip-tastic madness. Zed first transfers his seed (from his evil penis) as a troop of semi-naked women lie with him. All the while, curious front projection masks this activity; images include everything from computer read-outs to classical paintings. Then, in Zed’s scenes of attainment of knowledge (which Boorman recognises go on for too long), back projection is employed. Zed faces a cacophony of the Eternals he has encountered, before facing and shooting “himself”, killing off his old persona. This device, of facing and subduing the evil within, is a readily recognisable trope, from Number Six’s discovery of the identity of Number One in Fall Out, the final episode of The Prisoner, to Luke Skywalker’s encounter within the Dagobah tree in The Empire Strikes Back. Narrative takes a backseat to sensory overload, encouraging a subjective response from the viewer.
John Boorman appears readily aware of the virtues and flaws of Zardoz, unsure if he was daring or foolish in his choices but rightly proud of his ambition. Zardoz saw him directing a film with a free hand (if low budget) at probably his most bankable moment. Deliverance was an enormous hit. Zardoz, in contrast, was a much-maligned failure. He would go on to stumble again with what many would see as his career nadir, Exorcist II: The Heretic, four years later. His fortunes would re-galvanise in the ’80s, first with his triumphant take on Arthurian legend, Excalibur, and then his awards-courted autobiographical WWII tale Hope and Glory. His career after these has been as patchy ever, although both The General and Le Carré adaptation The Tailor of Panama saw something of a return to form. Unfortunately, his last couple of pictures were under-seen. But, in his eightieth year, he is still planning new projects.
Zardoz is a curious beast of a film, and beast is the operative word. It revels in its excesses, both thematically and visually, and runs the risk of all sorts of undesirable adjectives (pretentious, ridiculous). Arguably, Boorman’s kitchen sink approach to including in all manner of themes and ideas that fascinate him, and stirring them into a strange, semi-digestible brew, lacks discipline. It has the effect of obscuring his initial, and most compelling, inspiration (a religion based upon The Wizard of Oz, who is, as Zed notes, “an old man who frightened people with a loud voice and a big mask”). As a result, it is frequently mired under the weight of scene-after -scene of exposition and discourse. And yet, Zardoz remains compelling, inspired and hypnotically strange.