'Zardoz' is a pretentious, mythically inspired, cinematic bomb so fundamentally misconceived and executed that it wouldn't be worth viewing except for the fact that it takes on a humorous quality unintended by the film's makers.
Coming off the magnificent 'Deliverance' (1972), a huge critical and popular success, Director John Boorman was given carte blanche for his next project. 'Zardoz' (pronounced 'zard' as in lizard + 'oz' as in Ozzie) was the result. Written, produced, and directed by Boorman, 'Zardoz' is primarily a movie of ideas - inspired by everything from Jung to children's literature to obscure Greek mythology. Unfortunately, Boorman became so enraptured with the allegory that he didn't notice just how silly it all looks on screen.
Boorman is never lacking in imagination, ideas, or visual ingenuity. Sometimes, however, these qualities come at the cost of coherence. Remember all those ghastly Biblical epics of the 1950s? Hilarity was often the result when Judeo/Christian mythology was transferred from printed word to big screen. (What happens is that we actualy SAW how unbelievable these stories are.) The same thing happens with 'Zardoz'. The concept may be a good one, but it falls flat on its face when its actually visualized cinematic-ally. When Boorman succeeds (as in 'Deliverance' and 'The Emerald Forest') it is grand. But, when he fails, as he does here, the result is often funny.
The events of the story take place in the distant year 2293, but little of the typical cinema Sci-fi futurism is to be found. In fact, things seem to have moved backwards, with people riding horses, shooting old-style guns, and living in large Victorian mansions. It's more Middle Ages than Space Age. The world of 'Zardoz' is divided into two distinct worlds: the Outlands, overpopulated by savage brutes (called appropriately the Brutals) and the Vortex, where a select group of wealthy, decadent intellectuals called the Eternals live. The Eternals never grow old, they never engage in sexual activity, they possess psychological powers, and they live in a communitarian society where everyone is equal and everyone contributes equally to it. They rule over the Brutals. The social stability of the Eternals is maintained through a severe form of discipline: if one breaks the rules, he or she is punished by being aged a certain number of years. If someone continues to break the rules he or she is aged to the point of senility and imprisoned in a geriatric home with the other deliberately-aged lawbreakers. The Brutals, on the other hand, live a svage existence. They die, and probably would not survive without the Eternals.
One of the Eternals, Arthur Frayn (Niall Buggy ), a squirmy man with a mustache and goatee tattooed on his face, is in charge of keeping order in the Outlands. Part of his job is forcing the Brutals to farm so that the Eternals can continue to eat. To do this, he flys to their part of the world in (I kid you not) a giant stone carved to look like a human head. (First seen in the film's opening sequence, this giant disembodied flying head is one of the movie's most laughable images and a precursor of the nonsense to come.) Calling himself Zardoz, the ignorant Brutals are convinced that he is their god. He selects some of them to become elite warriors - the Exterminators. Their sole purpose is to kill the surplus Outlanders so they can't take up more resources. (When it comes to procreation, the Brutals are like rabbits.)
Zardoz provides the Brutals with guns, they provide him with grain. This scenario can be taken as an allegory for the social and economic inequality in modern late-capitalist societies and their use of the oppressive tool of religion in maintaining social hegemony. (This is, in fact, how modern late-capitalist societies operate.) On an intellectual level the allegory is certainly engaging, and might have made for an interesting film. But as I've already said, when we actually see scenes such as the one where we hear Frayn bellowing (from inside the giant stone head) vapid statements such as, "The gun is good. The penis is evil.", it fails utterly. (This scene doesn't even make sense - the male Brutals obviously aren't keeping it in their pants!)
One day an exterminator named Zed (Sean Connery) sneaks into the giant flying stone. He discovers that the whole Zardoz-is-God thing is actually an elaborate carny con-job, orchestrated by Frayn. On the way to the Vortex he accidentally kills Frayn, but before he dies, the phoney god tells Zed that he is nothing without him. (Frayn actually plays an even bigger role in Zed's life than the Exterminator imagines.) More on that later. Undaunted, Zed continues on his quest, determined to prove otherwise.
After arriving at the Vortex, the Eternals take him prisoner. Fascinated by this rare encounter with an actual Brutal (and an exterminator at that), they decide to study him like a lab rat. They seem to be especially interested in his ability to gain an erection, something the male Eternals can't do anymore (poor souls) now that they have eternal life and don't need to procreate. In one sequence (which was probably actually meant to be funny) the female scientists shows Zed erotic images on a video screen in an attempt to determine what gets him worked up. The porno fails to excite the virile Exterminator. However he gets a woody for one of the female scientists, the beautiful Consuella (Charlotte Rampling). She is of course horrified.
(Spoiler alert - I usually don't like to spoil the story for those who haven't yet seen a film I'm reviewing, but since this unexpected twist neither helps nor improves the story...) Further Scientific analysis reveals Zed is in actuality the ultimate result of a long-running eugenics experiment devised by Arthur Frayn; his aim was to breed a superman who would penetrate the Vortex and save mankind from its perpetual status quo. Earlier, the women's analysis of Zed's mind revealed that in the ruins of the old world, Arthur Frayn surrepticiously led Zed to the book, 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz', from which Zed learned the origin of the name Zardoz - Zard (as in Wizard) + oz (as in Oz) - bringing him to an awareness of Zardoz's true nature. This fuels in him a desire to undermine the Vortex.
In time, Zed learns even more about this strange new world. The Eternals are overseen and protected from death by the Tabernacle, an artificial intelligence machine. Inevitably, given their immortality, the Eternals have grown bored and become corrupt and decadent. Time's passage is meaningless. As Zed divines the nature of the Vortex and its problems, the Eternals use him to fight their internecine quarrels. Led by Consuella, the Eternals decide it is best to kill Zed and a subversive Eternal named Friend. Zed escapes, aided by a psychic Eternal named May and Friend. Zed enables his fellow Exterminators to invade the Vortex and kill most of the Eternals - who actually welcome death and freedom from their eternal, but dreadfuly boring, existence. "Kill me. Kill me." they plead. He eventualy learns all the Eternals' knowledge and destroys the Tabernacle. Some Eternals escape the Vortex's destruction, heading out to a new life among the Brutals.
Zardoz ends in a wordless sequence of images accompanied by Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. Zed and Consuella, dressed in matching green suits, sit next to each other in the cave-like stone head and age in time lapse photography. A child (presumably theirs) appears and ages as well; at adolescence he stands and leaves his parents, looking back over his shoulder. As the two continue rapidly aging, they hold hands. Eventually they turn into dry skeletons, still holding hands. Above them is seen the outlines in pigment of two open hands in the style of early cave paintings. To the left of the hand paintings hangs Zed's gun, now rusted and useless. I guess what Boorman is saying is that a normal, arduous life which ends in death is preferable to an eternal life without meaning.
Boorman made 'Zardoz' right after 'Deliverance' (1972), an enormous financial success. This must be the reason Twentieth Century Fox green-lighted this effort. I can't think of any other. To his credit, Boorman did manage to attract some major talent on both sides of the camera, including legendary cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth ('2001: A Space Odyssey' (1968)), whose striking visuals are about the only good thing in 'Zardoz'. As for Sean Connery, he had made his last James Bond film in 1971 and was looking for unusual roles which would show that he was more than just an action star. He got one in Zardoz, and it very nearly ended his career. (Fortunately he recovered quite nicely later in the decade with good (if not great) movies such as 'The Man Who Would Be King' (1975) and 'The great Train Robbery' (1979).)
Despite the disclaimer of sorts at the beginning of the film - that 'Zardoz' is meant, at least in part, to be satirical - I have no doubt that Boorman didn't quite intend it to be as funny as it turned out to be. It astounds me that he didn't get the slightest inkling of how patently ridiculous his pet project was becoming. Just looking at Sean Connery is enough to convulse one with laughter. Zed's 'uniform' consists of a red loin cloth that looks more like a diaper and a pair of thigh-high patent leather boots one usually sees only on strippers and Hollywood Blvd. hookers. Even for the early 1970s (the era of bad taste), this fashion statement is over-the-top.
'Zardoz' was obviously meant to take its place alongside that grandest of mystical movies, Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey' (1968). The influence of that masterpiece is obvious; especailly at the end when we see vivid psychedelic imagery. (Come to think of it, people high on psychedelics are the only ones I can imagine taking this nonsense seriously.) Despite Boorman's attempt to create something truly transcendental, his movie is more humorous than mystical. His screenplay tries valiantly to elicit a sense of awe, as in '2001: A Space Odyssey', but his movie still comes out looking more like 'Vampirella' (1968).
In the end, 'Zardoz' is just a pretentious 60s film made a few years too late.
Mark E. DeSnow