Only in the 70s: Zardoz (1974)
IF THERE were ever a film for which Only in the 70s was made, it’s Zardoz. I think it’s only right to call Zardoz a masterpiece. I would say it’s a truly brilliant film… but, maybe, ‘film’ is the wrong word. It’s an experience. Zardoz is the brainchild of John Boorman: He wrote, directed and produced this and it seems worryingly like the closest thing we will ever get to understanding how his brain works. It is an intriguing watch for the James Bond fans out there as it is Connery’s second post-Bond role. It’s also intriguing for the Connery fan out there because well…
So what is Zardoz about? How long do you have? In a future post-apocalypse Earth in the year 2293, the human population is divided into the immortal ‘Eternals’ and mortal ‘Brutals’. The Brutals live in a wasteland, growing food for the Eternals, who live apart in ‘the Vortex’, leading a luxurious but aimless existence on the grounds of a country estate. The connection between the two groups is through Brutal Exterminators, who kill and terrorize other Brutals at the orders of a huge flying stone head called Zardoz, which supplies them with weapons in exchange for the food they collect. Zed (Connery), a Brutal Exterminator, hides aboard Zardoz during one trip, temporarily “killing” its Eternal operator-creator Arthur Frayn (Niall Buggy).
Arriving in the Vortex, Zed meets two Eternals — Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) and May (Sara Kestelman). Overcoming him with psychic powers, they make him a prisoner and menial worker within their community. Consuella wants Zed destroyed immediately; others, led by May and a subversive Eternal named Friend (John Alderton), insist on keeping him alive for further study.
This is the synopsis as supplied by Wikipedia. I’m impressed that whoever wrote this was able to recollect all this because the one criticism I have of Zardoz is that it is impenetrably surreal. But being a literal story was never the point. It is a film about something more than it is a film about anything or in which anything actually happens. It has a point to make, I think
It’s a film about life, as much as anything is, presenting a so-called utopic society in which no one has sex because they either believe it to be immoral or just are too lazy to anymore. Their utopia reminds me of a great Jarvis Cocker lyric: “And wouldn’t it be nice for all the world to live in peace, and no one ever gets ill or dies of boredom at the very least.” The film’s most meaningful and moving moment actually comes in the last few seconds as we see Zed and Consuella inside their cave, still and emotionless as they age, their child is born, he ages, they all die. The typical ‘nuclear family’ is created and everyone dies typically and unexcitingly. What happens is natural in its climax and movingly so. The Eternals die far more brutally but then how else can an immortal die?
This film is great to look at. Roger Ebert described it as ‘a trip into a future that seems ruled by perpetually stoned set decorators’. I would have it no other way. From the giant floating head of Zardoz through the pastoral vision of the Eternals, everything about this film seems considered and measured in a way that few other films do. Its visual style is hard to describe because it is barely consistent, it shifts to the whim of its director and cinematographer but it is rarely poorly considered and never uninteresting.
Everything about the film makes it feel like a fever dream but one that is oddly hypnotic. It shifts between scenes like someone getting bored and flicking a few pages ahead. It’s hard to watch it without feeling a bit madder than when you began or at least like you’ve taken a small amount of psychotropic substances but in such an engaging way. It’s very easy just to watch it and take in none of the story in that no one seems interested in actually telling one but there is a truly beguiling quality to watching such madness unfold.
A great boon to this film is the actors. Connery is at his confused, bruised, broken masculine best and Charlotte Rampling is great in everything, even Blow Up and I really fucking hate Blow Up. It helps that when you’re being guided through such a jarringly alien world to have great guides, and the actors provide that. They ground every single ridiculous idea in something approaching humanity, giving the whole venture a certain melancholy nobility that befits it. I will warn you, however, there is a strong chance you will hate this film.
It is, to some, a beautiful masterpiece. To equal amounts, a piece of pretentious bullshit. There is no avoiding this, and even those who love it probably admit that, yeah, it is quite pretentious. But its true wonder is how unafraid it is of being pretentious. This is a film made by Boorman because, after Deliverance, he could do whatever he wanted. Literally whatever he wanted. And he did. This is a film free of compromise. It is a pure, unfiltered vision of what happens when a man is given carte blanche to pursue his vision.
It can end up jagged and broken, it can end up clean and unexciting, it can end up somewhere in between, but the results are always unique to that person’s experience. Film is a medium that requires attention from the audience and the makers. But attention and skill isn’t enough; a masterpiece has never been made without love and you can tell that, more than anyone, Boorman loves Zardoz. He might drive us insane trying to work out what’s happening, he might want to, but it’s a good insanity; a good, noble, one. It’s done with love for the craft, care for the audience and an uncynical sincerity to it. To be driven mad by Zardoz, Tis a consummation. Devoutly to be wished.