ON BLU-RAY: NOW, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 105 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In the year 2293, the human population is divided into the immortal Eternals and the mortal Brutals. The Brutals live in a wasteland, growing food for the Eternals, who live apart inside the Vortex, leading a luxurious existence on the grounds of a country estate. Eternal Arthur Frayn rules the Brutals in a flying stone head called Zardoz, giving them weapons, preaching that killing is good and procreation evil, and in charge of Brutal Exterminators who keep the Brutals in check. Exterminator Zed temporarily kills Arthur and arrives in the Vortex, where the Eternals have grown bored and are losing aspects of their humanity like sexuality and ambition. Consuella wants him destroyed immediately, but May wants him kept alive for further study….
John Boorman’s bonkers science fiction fantasy seems to be mostly regarded as a classic bad film, which is entirely understandable considering its oddness. I would change that to a great flawed film. It’s not quite a great movie, and there are things in it that just don’t work or are so goofy that they undermine the seriousness of Boorman’s intent, but you have to admire its nerve and ambition, and if you can get on its unique wavelength [which is undeniably a hard thing to do for many] it’s very entertaining as long as you don’t expect something like Star Wars. The many concepts it deals with, from immortality, to genetic manipulation, to artificial intelligence, to psychic power [you name it, it’s in here somewhere] are actually tried and tested subjects very familiar to science fiction, and the influences of The Time Machine and Planet Of The Apes are quite obvious, but are all rolled into one to form quite a unique result. The main problem is that Boorman ends up not appearing to know what to do with all of his ideas, and, while the messages are clear, many things still remain somewhat obscure. This was the third time I’d seen Zardoz [though the previous time was over fifteen years ago], and it did make a bit more sense to me this time round, but the film still went off the rails around two thirds of the way through, as if writer/director Boorman was on drugs when he wrote the final third of his screenplay and even directed this part of the film. The movie still always seems to be trying to say important things about its subjects, but only Boorman probably knows what they all are [though I guess you could take some hallucinogenic substance while watching and all may become clear].
This film actually came about because Boorman had been given carte blanche to make what he wanted after the huge success of Deliverance and, failing to set up a film of The Lord Of The Rings, conjured up a fantasy tale of his own, partly inspired by reading After Many A Summer, Aldous Huxley’s examination of American culture, especially its narcissism, superficiality, and obsession with youth, as a child. Richard Harris turned the part of Zed down and Burt Reynolds had to bow out due to illness before Sean Connnery was cast. Made with quite a low budget, even requiring that Connery drive himself to work every day, Zardoz was filmed on location in the Aardmore Mountains in Ireland and partly near Boorman’s country house. Irish Travellers were mostly used as extras. The government initially refused to allow the production team to import the guns for the movie into Ireland because of terrorist attacks occurring at the time. A baboon attacked his double, a man in a baboon costume, so the real animal couldn’t be used at all, while Boorman ended up with wadding embedded in his forehead when he was shot with a blank bullet for his cameo. 20th Century Fox executives insisted that Boorman shoot the film’s introduction sequence to help viewers understand it, though the picture still received poor notices and box office before soon becoming a cult favourite. In France, some Communist newspapers thought that the design of Zardoz was based on Karl Marx. Boorman replied that it was actually based on a cast of his own head and even had to sign a letter stating this, though the rumour has persisted to this day, probably understandable considering Zardoz’s strong anti-capitalist message.
The film’s studio-required opening of a disembodied head introducing the story doesn’t really clarify anything – in fact it actually makes things more confusing considering it features a character who ends up in the film dead – but never mind, we immediately get into quite a visually striking, if rather amusing, scene, with pretty good optical work, where the huge stone head Zardoz preaches “the gun is good, the penis is evil” and loads of guns and ammunition shoot out of its mouth to land in front of loads of Brutals. However, one Brutal, Zed, who is seen rising out of the ground gun first in an image seen, with slight variation, in other Boorman movies, has stowed away inside Zardoz, and shoots the guy inside [yes, the Wizard Of Oz parallels are obvious and the book is even explicitly referred to later] before flying into the Vortex, a lovely farm and country estate which is protected from its surroundings by a forcefield. Zed’s arrival causes a stir amongst the immortal inhabitants of the Vortex, in particular two women who have differing ideas of what to do with him. As Zed is kept as a prisoner, a slave, and a research subject, the film shows him in his previous role as a Brutal, massacring lots of people and even raping women, and you don’t get many major studio science fiction films with such an unsympathetic character at their core!
Zardoz is quite verbose for much of its length, and Boorman structures his story so that rather too much of it is taken up with, and explained by, lengthy flashbacks, but the Vortex is an interesting place to be in. The Eternals, despite cataloguing Earth’s treasures, have become lazy [no one seems bothered when Zed innocently sticks his finger through one of Van Gogh’s masterpieces], impotent, and even sexless as Boorman shows how immortality has rendered reproduction pointless, but amongst the Eternals are two sub-groups – the Renegades, rebel Eternals who have been punished by being aged, and the Apathetics, who are in a catatonic state because it’s the only way they can cope with their immortality. The fun really begins when the different groups begin to spill over into each other, though Boorman can’t resist using the elderly appearance of the Renegades to make them look grotesque. Nor can he can’t resist depicting almost every young female member of the cast topless, which undeniably sweetens the deal for male viewers. For its first hour, Boorman does seem to maintain a small amount of sense to his picture, or at least seems to be in some sort of control of his film and its story, despite the many silly aspects which range from telepathic communion which seems to consist of people stretching out their arms and wobbling their hands, to the Eternals studying erectile tissue function by flashing up sexy images, Zed only getting an erection by looking at Charlotte Rampling [quite understandable]. The fact that Boorman takes much of this very seriously just makes it funnier, though, considering one character near the end says “it’s all a joke”, perhaps Zardoz is meant to be some kind of weird comedy but Boorman just doesn’t really know how to pull it off.
Zardoz does eventually go rather bananas in a sea of kaleidoscopic images and things reflected in people in some truly stunning shots courtesy of cinematographer Geoffery Unsworth, before a peculiar, rather Biblical coda which hints that one of our assumptions about the setting of this film could actually be very wrong. Unsworth really is one of the heroes of this film, his beautifully bleak, almost colourless panoramas of Ireland’s countryside giving way to gorgeous bright colours and often lots of airy soft focus once Zed is inside the Vortex. One shot, of two reflections in a crystal ball side by side, one of Zed, one of Consuella in the distance, is so impressive I had to rewind the Blu-ray several times to look at it again. The set designers seem to have been stoned for some of the time though the costumes, aside from those of the Brutals, are disappointingly generic, stuff you’ve seen several times elsewhere. Boorman obviously wrote his screenplay so that varied special effects wouldn’t be required, though it still looks like every optical printer in Britain was used for the film. The film’s absurd aspects are outweighed somewhat by the dealing with some serious issues that are even more timely now than in 1974, like the blind committing of mass violence in the name of religion, or the divide between rich and poor becoming ever wider, though perhaps the film’s greatest warning is of a future devoid of underwear. Zardoz is certainly not all gobbledygook – it looks at heady, important subjects that affect us all like the fear of aging – and even manages to have things like the internet before there was any internet. It’s just that Boorman seems to eventually lose himself in it all and almost ends up making himself look like a fool even if he most definitely isn’t!
Connery, despite wearing a revealing red spandex nappy, and Boorman obviously not being bothered if you can see his tattoo or not, carries off the difficult part of Zed extremely well, doing a fine job of mostly reacting in a slightly bemused manner to all around him while still projecting a primitive rawness. The film can be seen as one of several Connery films of the period looking at the cracks in masculinity, like The Man Who Would Be King, The Offence and Robin And Marion. Rampling has in some ways a harder role because her character’s transformation is very abrupt but she almost makes it convincing. David Munrow’s score is mostly required to either play odd arrangements of the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Century or provide some electronic noises every now and again, but this just adds to the eccentricity of the project. Sometimes very clever, sometimes rather stupid, but still a film to marvel [as well as think and chuckle] at, Zardoz is still one of the highpoints of the science fiction genre from a decade where, more than in any other, filmmakers could just go out and make what they wanted.
Arrow’s 4k restoration of Zardoz is very impressive and really shows off the striking look of the film, with contrast layering worthy of the presentation of a movie from 2015. Their Blu-ray set loses the film expert commentary of the Region A Twilight Time release but retains Boorman’s good, and very honest, talk track and adds a whole load of interesting interviews dealing with all aspects of the production. Ben Wheatley as always is a joy to hear when he talks about films he loves. Overall this is another definitive Arrow release.
* New 4K digital restoration by Twentieth Century Fox, supervised and approved by John Boorman
* High Definition [1080p] Blu-ray presentation
* Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
* Audio commentary with writer-producer-director John Boorman
* Brand new interviews with Boorman, actor Sara Kestelman, production designer Anthony Pratt, special effects creator Gerry Johnston, camera operator Peter MacDonald, assistant director Simon Relph, hair stylist Colin Jamison, production manager Seamus Byrne, and assistant editor Alan Jones Newly filmed appreciation with director Ben Wheately [Kill List, Sightseers, A Field in England]
* Theatrical trailer
* Radio spots
* Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin
* Collector’s booklet containing new writing on the film by Julian Upton and Adrian Smith, plus archive interviews, illustrated with original production stills