Friday 30 January 2015

Brutal eternity... Zardoz (1974)

Looking at the reviews on the IMDB many people still haven’t got this film: it’s most certainly not in the “so bad it’s good” category nor any kind of guilty pleasure that is laughably flawed. Indeed some commentators now rate it one of John Boorman’s best – just this month it made number 5 in Rolling Stones top science fiction films of the seventies.

Good science fiction is never about the gadgets on show, the flimsy clothes or the society of the future – these are just ways of looking at contemporary culture. So it is that Zardoz is about the world of 1973-4, the way it was and the way it could have been heading by 2293. How far away were the intellectual classes from a detached existence happy to arm a select group of “Brutals” in order for them to control the rest outside of their safe enclave? How far will we go to deny the external suffering that wars, famine and disease keeps away from our delusional comfort?

So, ignore the psychedelic sense of humour, the giant flying heads and the strange orange nappies of the Exterminators and focus on the Boorman’s messages about freedom, responsibility and the need to act… now. As the film’s writer, director and producer he surely meant every aspect as they are presented and this film addresses some of the same truths as his previous work, Deliverance.

The film is introduced by the disembodied head of Arthur Frayn  (Niall Buggy) who outlines the story in the manner of a medieval mummer… we are all the constructs he tells us looking straight into the camera: all made by our own Gods.

Brutal by name and nature
320 years after it was made, the World has descended into anarchy with the majority living a life of subsistence, their numbers strictly limited by teams of “exterminators” who rampage across the country slaying all they see in the name of their God, Zardoz. The killers all wear the same outlandish orange garb which might be laughable were it not for the guns and their delight in slaughtering others (imagine that dear 21st century reader?).

Zed in the head...
Zardoz appears to them in the guise of a giant floating stone head, issuing instructions and vast amounts of guns in exchange for receipt of the goods extracted from the murdered farmers. But one of these “Brutals” Zed (Sean Connery) wants to find out more and stows away hidden in some grain, he discovers the interior filled with shrink-wrapped humans being harvested for their natural energies. He spots the strange figure of Frayn who recognises Zed and tries to explain something… But Zed shoots, sending him falling to his doom and sits tight as the floating head continues on its way.

Zed and Zardoz come to ground in the well-kept gardens of what appears to be a paradise, brightly garbed young people mass around, well fed and full of almost childish wonder at the new arrival in their community: the Vortex. Two women lead the investigation Consuella (Charlotte Rampling), who’s instinct is to have Zed exterminated and the more considered May (Sara Kestelman) who wants him examined. Even in paradise there is disagreement…

Sean Connery and Sara Kestelman
Zed is confused and tries to lash out but soon learns that the Eternals have psionic powers that can easily over-power him. He is gifted to an outspoken man called Friend (John Alderton) who begins to tell his new servant of the society he has fallen into.

The people are nearly immortal with some living so long that they simply become Apathetics with no will to do anything other than just wander around whilst others break the rules and get aged as a punishment and there is a colony of such creatures who, dressed in dinner suits, wait in the hope of annihilation.

Trouble in paradise
Friend is on the diffident side of apathetic himself and longs for a change of pace even at the risk of punitive aging. The community vote on the transgressions of one George Saden (Bosco Hogan) who is docked some time for the crime of negativity.

Zed helps Friend with the artefacts
Friend was a, er, friend of Arthur Frayn  who had been charged with managing the Outlands and whom had been conducting his own unknown experiments including, it is later revealed a selective breeding programme involving Zed’s genealogical line. Whilst outside reproduction is forbidden saving these select few, in the land of the Eternals reproduction is no longer needed and sexuality has dwindled, what dangers does the potent Zed bring to the sterile society?

May continues to test Zed’s memory and capabilities and full marks to all concerned for keeping a straight face when all manner of visual stimuli fail to arouse Zed until he focuses his gaze on Consuella…  But then Zed is increasingly looking to be as smart as his captors…
Charlotte Rampling
Zed becomes a political issue and is used by Friend in an attempt to overthrow the existing order. Friend is caught and aged whilst Zed tries to escape only to find that a force field keeps him trapped in the Eternals’ land.

Returning to the community he finds May willing to show him their shared history of how an attempt to protect the last of humanity ended up dooming them to lifeless sterility under the control of an artificial intelligence, the Tabernacle. It gradually becomes clear that Zed is no chance invader but part of a deeper plan by Arthur Frayn to make or break what is left of society…

Dusty verdict: Detailing the plot of Zardoz is pretty pointless (sorry) as the story is so complex and, open ended with multiple interpretations. The actors carry so much of the meaning with Sara Kestelman being especially impressive. I saw her recently at London’s Donmar Warehouse theatre and she has lost none of her ability to express powerfully-deep thought.

Sara and Charlotte
It’s a brave choice for Sean Connery too in only his second post-Bond film and not just for the obvious reasons given Zed’s costume… he has to play a savage who gradually thinks himself into the awareness that he’s a physical and intellectual time-bomb (so only half-Bond then…). He plays well as do John Alderton – also outside of his own light-comic comfort zone and the stunning Miss Rampling (also still at work this time on TV’s Broadchurch) who’s able to convey fear masked with anger and perhaps more, her emotional subtlety the perfect match for Connery’s heroic certainty.

Zed learns the truth...
It’s a film that bears up to repeated viewing with a clever script that explains itself with satisfying twists and turns until the very end when the simple meaning becomes completely and devastatingly clear.

Buy it on DVD from Amazon or MovieMail. I believe a Blu-ray is also in the works...


  1. isn't' this movie about a collectivist matriarchy?

    1. It's a bit broader than that isn't it - yes it is a community with powerful women but also with men pulling the strings? It's society gone wrong not gender-specific leadership. Thanks for reading. Paul

    2. The novelization helps explain this: The price of immortality is sterility - you are your own bloodline. This became impotence - emasculation - leaving the women running the shop by default. Consuela is fine with this, May knows it’s wrong but they’re trapped in it, and Arthur, the Wizard of Oz - Zardoz - has been slowly making a key to that sterile prison… A key with its own ideas of which way to turn. [Meanwhile the HAL 9000 ‘Tabernacle’ is amused by it all; it bears Zed no ill will. Que sera sera.]

  2. Yours is the kindest review of this film I think I’ve ever read. What I liked about it is how Boorman depicts immortality - physical youth but glacial calm. Everything is understated, gestured, eyebrowed. As we mature in our emotions, so they’ve become super-mature.

    Let it be our creed
    Never to exceed
    Regulated speed
    No matter what the need…
    - “1776”

  3. The novelization also shows why the Vortex ultimately failed: Bad design. You may be familiar with Sir Arthur Clarke’s science fiction; his first novel concerned a Vortex (ramped up considerably) and showed what should have been done here: They had far too few people, and the population was unchanging. Six, eight, ten times that number should have been “on file,” waiting their turn, and the death of an Eternal would NOT be immediately “restored,” but go to the back of the line… Thus the population would change, and no one would go “stale.” This artist returns! That one disappears. And so on.