Zardoz (1974) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

“Zardoz speaks to you, His chosen ones.” But just what is the film trying to say?

Zardoz, on the surface, is a strange early 70s sci-fi film. It puts actors in goofy get-ups, has outrageous dialogue, and strange performances. But it’s also a film that tries to portray a world devoid of humanity and instill concern in the audience. Almost as much a fantasy film as it is science-fiction, Zardoz will get in your brain.

First Impressions

The first impression from the trailer is “What the hell??” Sean Connery makes some of the best bad films! Floating rock heads that spit guns. James Bond in a red speedo, and a ponytail. Mystical beings with glowing diamonds inserted into their heads. John Boorman has put together a trippy film if it’s anything like this trailer.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.


Sci-Fi Saturdays

Zardoz

Zardoz title card.

The Fiction of The Film

Zardoz sets up a strange and dystopian future society where the world has been divided into two factions, the Brutals, and the Eternals. It is the year 2293, and Arthur Frayn (also known as the god Zardoz) introduces the story as “rich in irony, and most satirical,” and tells the audience he is the puppet master behind the events that will unfold. On a barren plane, a giant stone head descends from the heavens. Nearly naked men on horseback, all wearing masks that look like this idol, cheer and shout for their God, Zardoz. He commands them to kill the brutals and worship the gun! Guns and ammunition spew forth from the stone mouth.

The stone head of Zardoz heads home with a hidden passenger inside. Zed (Sean Connery), a Brutal Exterminator, has stowed away under the piles of grain to find out the secrets behind Zardoz. He discovers dead bodies sealed in plastic, and a man who identifies himself as Arthur Frayn (Niall Buggy). Zed shoots the man, who tumbles out of the mouth to his death. The head lands at a country estate called Vortex 4. Zed investigates the house, which has a mill for grinding grain, and discovers an entirely different world from his.

An Eternal woman, May (Sara Kestelman), discovers him and using mind powers subdues the savage. She and her colleague Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) put his memories on a giant video screen and marvel at the brutality and savagery of this being. May wants to continue to study him, but Consuella fears his influence in their society and prefers he is put to death. The group of Eternals vote and May’s position wins. Zed is put in the position of being a slave for the Eternals, a group of immortals that pass their boredom by playing with other beings. He becomes attached to Friend (John Alderton) who is a pompous Eternal that wants to upset the status quo.

Zardoz

Zardoz, the giant stone headed God from the sky, sets down to replenish the guns of the Brutals.

Friend shares the hierarchy of the Eternal state, which includes elderly individuals, called “renegades,” and disenchanted and catatonic “apathetics” that seem to constantly be in a fugue state, and non-responsive. May’s study of Zed reveals that he is vastly superior to the Eternals, and may be the subject of a selective breeding program by Zardoz–who was put in charge of the Outlands, where the Brutals live, since no one else wanted the job. She helps unlock the memory of the time Zed visited a library where some mysterious person shared a book with him. The book was “The Wizard of Oz,” and that opens Zed’s memories of how Zardoz (wiZard of Oz) has helped him along the way.

A newly reconstituted Arthur Frayn returns and it’s revealed that he helped to elevate Zed to the current status, helping him infiltrate the Vortex in hopes that a superior Brutal would help reset the status quo and bring death and destruction to the stagnant Eternals. Consuella leads a revolution to kill Zed, but his newly remembered history allows him to evade her group’s search. He stands as a liberator for the Eternals, inspiring the apathetics into carnal actions, and bringing death to the renegades. Friend too wants to die, and assists Zed in his revolution.

May provides Zed the knowledge of the Eternals and he uses this to infiltrate their supercomputer of knowledge, called the Tabernacle, which each Eternal has access to from a ring on the finger. He breaks the system, and introduces Brutals into the serene society. They kill and rape, destroying the social structure that many rebelled against. May and some other women set off for the Outlands. Consuella, realizing that hating something long enough has made her attracted to it, runs off with Zed as the Eternal society crumbles. Zed and his new lover make their home in the crashed stone head of Zardoz, raising a child, growing old and finally dying together. The Eternals are now mortal.

All that I was, is gone.” – Zed

Zardoz

The iconic look of Sean Connery as Zed.

History in the Making

Zardoz is an evocative film that presents itself as a science-fiction fantasy, but contains many more layers of meaning than typical sci-fi fare. At first glance, and based on general reviews of the film, Zardoz is a goofy, incredibly difficult to decipher, B-quality film, which inexplicably stars James Bond himself, Sean Connery. It’s as much a fantasy film, citing probably the most famous fantasy movie of all time, The Wizard of Oz. Yet, it was a wholly original work by writer/director John Boorman who decided to create this film when he was unable to get an adaptation of The Lord of the Rings off the ground. Boorman, who’s previous movie Deliverance was an Academy Award nominated film, and who would go on to create the Arthurian epic Excalibur, stated that he “wanted to make a film about the problems of us hurtling at such a rate into the future that our emotions are lagging behind.”

The first things that audiences see are Connery, clad in a red leather speedo and thigh high black boots, with a ponytail and epic moustache, riding his horse through the highlands chasing after a giant flying stone head. This head, which is the personification of their deity Zardoz, spouts quality aphorisms like “the gun is good,” and “the penis is evil.” Humorous sentiments, considering that the gun is often a metaphor for the penis, but also jarring in their immediacy. Boorman is introducing the audience to an entirely new type of culture and world view that doesn’t necessarily make sense on first viewing. Only upon further examination does the film start to coalesce and offer meaning. To this end, the studio even insisted on the prologue, in which the floating head of Arthur Frayn attempts to explain the basic state of the world some 300 years into the future. But it may serve to confuse the first time viewer more than explain.

The Eternals, May and Consuella, ponder what to do with the intruder, Zed.

Genre-fication

As with other epic sci-fi films that set up an entirely new world for audiences, such as David Lynch’s Dune, and even George Lucas’s Star Wars, a bit of introduction is sometimes necessary. But the way that the introduction is handled can be crucial. Star Wars offers a title crawl which doesn’t explain the world, but only the immediate events, summarized so audiences understand what they are about to see. Dune, on the other hand, has a convoluted explanation, in character, similar to Zardoz’s Arthur Frayn. Zardoz feels almost like an experimental film to create a new world that didn’t quite work. However it did focus on a number of elements that would become common tropes in the dystopian future subgenre of sci-fi films, such as immortals and the reversion of the society back to a more primitive state.

Several dystopian and post-apocalyptic films show society having to start over. Films like Snowpiercer, The Road Warrior, and even a more gentle dystopia as shown in The Time Machine. Here in the world of Zardoz, a portion of humanity had achieved its greatest moment, seeking immortality, and these greatest minds grew apart and away from the rest of society. The remaining parts of society devolved into the Brutals, the farmers and villagers, which serve the Eternals. This is the group that Zed works for as an Enforcer. Sort of a top-tier Brutal that acts as policeman, judge, and executioner, thinning the herd.

The Eternals, who are immortal elite of the society, have offset their life from the common folk. They use the labor of the Brutals to grow their crops while others in their society serve as influencers to these “lesser beings,” as Gods. They have grown so bored and jaded that they no longer procreate and forego sleep for a meditation. They have segregated themselves into small villages called Vortexes in which they keep the Brutals out by use of a force field. Boorman has created a microcosm of the societal spectrum in Zardoz, as a way of satirizing it, something that is popular in all genres. This may have inspired such other directors to create satirical sci-fi films such as Idiocracy, Starship Troopers and Robocop, each of which plays with elements of social hierarchy in some fashion.

Zardoz

Friend is prematurely aged for his being complicit in the harming of Eternal society.

Societal Commentary

On the surface, Zardoz is a strange futuristic, dystopian sci-fi/fantasy film. But in reality it’s more of satirical, almost allegorical story about sex, life, death, and the separation of social classes. As Zardoz states in its opening narration, the film is “most satirical,” which is the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues. In this case, it’s the elite classes, the nobility, and the rich that the filmmakers are ridiculing. Boorman sets up the Eternals as a foppish society, in which they seemingly do nothing except bake green bread from the grains harvested by the Brutals which are delivered in the head of the Zardoz idol. As stated before, they have hurtled ahead in their society technically, while their emotions have lagged behind. Without the interconnectedness of the human bonding to tether them, they made decisions that ultimately doomed them as a race.

In many ways, Zardoz is thematically like the 1968 film Barbarella with Jane Fonda. Barbarella, like Zed, is an outsider coming into an idyllic society who destroys parts of it. Her name is even derived from the word barbarian. But unlike Barbarella, whose lusty sex drive is her only weapon, Zed has his sexuality, his cunning, and a gun. Metaphorically, they’re all the same thing. They’re tools that the Eternals have lost in their pursuit of immortality. He frees various immortals from their bonds by releasing their inner sexual desires–something that has been dormant for centuries–or by promising the swift release of death. Death has been unknown to the Eternals. When one dies, they are immediately “reconstituted” by the Tabernacle, and “born again,” which is how Arthur Frayn returns in the 3rd Act.

Additionally the naming of Sean Connery’s character ties in with his mission. In English, Zed is the last letter of the alphabet, and as such, Zed is the end of the Eternals society as they know it. His destructive path was not a random accident either, as he was deliberately created by an Eternal to sow conflict and be strong enough to bring down their society. The destruction of a society from within is a common dystopian theme. Filmmakers, and authors, like to show the intentions of the society, however well meaning, leading to the downfall or detriment of that society. It serves as a warning to the audience that they need to be vigilant about such things in their real life.

Zardoz

Zed is fractured inside the Tabernacle, as he attempts to destroy the computer, and with it, Eternal society.

The Science in The Fiction

The future world of Zardoz is one in which science and innovation has stagnated. The scientists that had devised immortality are now living as renegades, shunned by the younger immortals. And the younger immortals fill their days with wasteful exercises and frivolity, rather than create art or science. All their questions are answered by their hand-held computers, which are worn in a ring, and voice activated. They all interface with a central computer system, called the Tabernacle, that serves as a master control program for their needs. A master server of sorts. It’s probably no coincidence that the word ‘tabernacle’ means a place for worship, as the Eternals have now become gods, so there’s no further use in praying to them. This computer system is the closest thing to their God that they have.

The Eternals of the film have also developed mind powers, or a telekinesis of some type. Science-fiction has a premise that as humans move up the evolutionary ladder, their minds will expand into greater realms and be able to develop psychic abilities. So far, nothing like this has been proven, but it’s a fun staple. Usually the characters have enlarged brains, but in this case, there’s nothing untoward about the Eternals, except for their complete lack of empathy.

Zardoz

Zardoz vs Zed. A brutal stands off with Zed, the so-called messiah.

The Final Frontier

This would not be Sean Connery’s last outing with science-fiction. He would next serve as a lawman on a mining colony of Jupiter in 1981s Outland, play a Grecian King in Time Bandits, and himself become an immortal in the popular Highlander films. His role in Zardoz pales in comparison to these others, and he is better known for his work as James Bond, or his dramatic roles in The Untouchables, The Hunt for Red October, and as Indiana Jones’ father in The Last Crusade. However, there is a certain charm still evident is his portrayal of Zed, the destroyer of civilizations.

Zardoz creates a setting and a world to explore modern problems without calling attention to them overtly. It does what a lot of other science fiction movies attempt, and tries to instruct audiences of today about the risks of continuing down the same roads they travel. By showing a future that may seem optimal on the surface, but rotten and corrupt underneath, the filmmakers hope to enlighten viewers about the dangers of getting what you wish for. Not that anyone wished to see Sean Connery dressed like a space pirate!

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