Retro review: Zardoz—the wildest film of the 70s
What is Zardoz?
Filmmaking is a conservative business. Given the amounts of money involved it has to be, with established and recognisable styles offering the money men a better return on their investment than things that rock the boat. Every now and then, though, something slips through this net.
One such film was Zardoz. It was made by director John Boorman. Flush with the success of his previous film, Deliverance, he cashed in all his credit and made one of the wildest, most ambitious films of the 1970s, a decade when ‘wildness’ and ‘ambition’ were not in short supply.
"It’s better to aim for the stars and miss than hit an easy, boring target"
The results met with bewilderment and mockery. It is a film often described as ‘the one where Sean Connery runs around in a red nappy’ (it’s actually a loin cloth if we’re splitting hairs). Even those who like the film must admit it is flawed, perhaps even profoundly so—but as every cult film fan knows, it’s better to aim for the stars and miss than hit an easy, boring target.
And few directors were aiming higher than Boorman. Set in the future, we begin in a wilderness (‘the outlands’), one patrolled by exterminators like Connery’s Zed: they cull the surplus population at the behest of their god, Zardoz, who manifests as a huge floating stone head.
One day, for reasons we learn only later, Zed secrets himself inside Zardoz and kills the funny little man who seems to be its pilot. Without this controller, ‘Zardoz’ returns to base, a sealed community called The Vortex, a place peopled by an effete overclass who probe Zed like an animal at the zoo. They do not realise he has an agenda of his own.
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Why is it a cult classic?
The floating head of Zardoz. Image via John Guy Collick
This basic set up is not new, of course. It’s the old division of Morlocks and Eloi that H.G. Wells used in The Time Machine, a society stratified between a thuggish underclass and a refined and placid caste. But Boorman flavours it with some distinctively 70s sexual politics. The Vortex is a matriarchy and it’s not long before Zed’s brutish charms get the women all a-quiver (and no wonder: Connery is at his hairy best here).
What happens next earned the film its reputation as a head-scratcher. A summary is difficult, in large part because I’m not entirely sure what’s going on and I’m not sure Boorman does either. There are trippy psychedelia, nods to then-popular alternative philosophies and The Wizard of Oz too. But not much actual plot.
The film climaxes with a moment of pure nihilism in which the residents of the Vortex welcome death at the hands of the exterminators, a more murderous replay of the tension Boorman depicted in Deliverance between civilisation and elemental nature.
Image via Loxosceles
Zardoz bombed, of course. Not even the presence of Connery in a red loincloth could tempt a mass audience to part with their money. But almost as predictable as its financial failure was its rebirth as a cult film. Indeed, it might almost be the quintessential cult film, one embraced by its admirers despite (and yes, maybe even because of) the very flaws that stopped it achieving mainstream acceptance.
There are many other ways to enjoy films beyond plot and that’s where Zardoz scores big.
"The sheer boldness of Boorman’s vision is exhilarating"
There are some remarkable visual ideas here, from the giant stone head floating through the outlands to the computer at the heart of the Vortex (suggestively named ‘the tabernacle’). Zed plugs into this computer to find out what’s really going on and while it’s debatable whether or not he actually succeeds, it certainly provides the film’s most abstract moments.
The sheer boldness of Boorman’s vision and his willingness to take risks is exhilarating. His failing—if failing it be—is that he’s too ambitious, stuffing the film with ideas which he doesn’t always develop. But when so many films are bereft of even a single thought, that’s not necessarily a reason to condemn it.
While Zardoz is far from fully coherent, there is much here to respect, admire and even love. It may, ultimately, be a failure, but it’s a really, really interesting one.
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Feature image via Film Forum