“Beyond 1984, Beyond 2004, Beyond Love, Beyond Death!”
It’s the year 2293 and Zed, leader of a band of pony-tailed red-diaper–wearing mutants known as The Exterminators, has become concerned that his god, Zardoz, no longer wishes him to kill the sports-coat-wearing Brutals, but rather teach them to farm instead. To learn why his god has betrayed the gospel of the gun and returned to the evil ways of the penis, Zed stows away inside Zardoz’s giant floating stone head and travels beyond the invisible barriers to a land full of telekinetic bohemians known as the Eternals. (See, if I reviewed stuff like Pixar movies on this site, I would never EVER get to write sentences like that.) Zed is immediately captured and condemned to death before he can pollute the Eternal’s utopia with his savagery, however, the sentence is delayed for a few weeks so that he can be studied. Over the following days Zed’s presence does indeed disrupt the docile society of the Vortex as he doggedly pursues the secrets of Zardoz, the origin of The Eternals, and ultimately, the reason for his very own existence. As the Vortex erupts into civil war and The Exterminators breach the barrier, The Eternals begin to understand that Zed’s arrival may not have been an accident, but rather the machinations of a higher power so that Zed might bring The Eternals the one thing they have longed for the most, death.
There’s three huge problems with the above synopsis of Zardoz. The first is that it leaves out about 95% of the movie. The second is that it just barely makes sense. The third and worst problem is that if you were to actually start adding in the missing 95% of the movie, it would probably stop making any sense at all.
You don’t have to take my word for it, just watch the thing. The film opens with a monologue given by a disembodied head which identifies itself as Arthur Frayne, aka the puppet master, aka Zardoz. Arthur, who for some unknown reason sports a moustache and goatee drawn on his face with a magic marker, questions the audience’s concept of reality and free will and wonders "Is God in show business, too?" From there the movie transitions into a shot of the giant floating stone head of Zardoz lecturing a bunch of men in diapers about the evils of the male reproductive organ before vomiting hundreds of guns on them. As the head of Zardoz floats off, we cut to its interior where our hero Zed emerges in meaningful slow motion from a pile of wheat. He stares at a bunch of Real Girl dolls wrapped in cellophane until he spots Arthur Frayne, for all intents and purposes his god, whom he immediately shoots dead. The head descends to a rustic mill where Zed discovers plants in baggies, green bread, and charts depicting the evolution of mankind with a question mark at the end. Zed eventually wanders outside the mill where he sees some pastel wearing hippies, a topless woman on a horse, and what is without a doubt the world’s most freckled human being who glares at him until he collapses in a heap. See what I mean? At this point, we’re only about ten minutes into the movie, and thanks to the way the narrative is unfolding, there’s simply no way to know what’s going on. There’s mystery and then there’s madness. After that, there is Zardoz.
Now, none of this is really the fault of John Boorman, who wrote the story. After the movie is over and you have time to think about it (if you have the desire and the strength), you’ll discover the basic plotline of Zardoz actually presents a pretty straight forward tale about a secular-hippy-baby boomer attempt at creating a utopia drawn out to its logical bad conclusion. (Yes, I’m assuming any secular-hippy-baby boomer attempt at creating a utopia will end badly. Don’t you?) Instead, the problem lies with John Boorman, who also directed the film. What the heck was that particular John Boorman thinking? (Or taking!?!) You would think, after making a number of excellent small films like Point Blank (remade by Mel Gibson as Payback) and just coming off the surprise hit Deliverance, that Boorman was poised to unleash a cinematic blockbuster. But armed with only one million dollars ($200,000 of which went to a self-proclaimed underpaid Sean Connery), a bunch of nutty English actors, and complete freedom from studio interference, what Boorman instead attempted to create was something far more insidious. Boorman tried to make a piece of art.
It’s the only feasible explanation for some of the things you see in Zardoz. (Okay, drugs are also a distinct possibility, but we’re trying to give Boorman the benefit of the doubt here.) Along with the stuff already mentioned, this movie also includes such visions as a room where the glass walls and ceilings are lined with live contorted nudes and baby dolls. ART! There’s another room full of hippies dressed in Logan’s Run hand-me-downs viewing a power point presentation on the workings of the male sexual organ. Not satisfied with the lecture, they try to get the bestial uncivilized Sean Connery to provide a live demonstration by showing him a video of two women mud wrestling. ART! You have the same group seated around a circular dining table silently voting on Zed’s impending execution by vogueing. They follow this up by making jazz hands at a hippy named Friend while the man screams maniacally, “I will not go to second level with you!” ART! You get a scene of people standing in a darkened room speaking in tongues (the foreign language kind) while slides of random images are projected onto their semi-nude bodies. ART! There’s even a scene involving Sean Connery wearing a wedding dress. ARRRRT!!! Or drugs. Definitely could be drugs.
Still, before we write Zardoz off as just another early 70s LSD trip gone horribly wrong, maybe we should explore the art option just a wee bit further. In the introduction to his book Art In The Seventies, Edward Lucie-Smith writes “The art objects produced in the 70s have to be looked at in a variety of ways… perhaps the most fruitful of all, is to classify works of art, not in terms of style, but in terms of the ideas and feelings they are trying to communicate. Essentially, this leads to the thought that the work of art is not absolute, but has a fluidity of meaning and even of value which is related to the fluidity of the social context within which we find it… A fruitful ambiguity is in fact one of the great strengths of the art of [the 70s].” Or to put another way, by the time the 70s were in full swing, it was getting to be next to impossible to figure out exactly what artists were trying to say with any given piece of art. To that effect, we saw the rise of that bane of art students everywhere, the “artist’s statement”.
Matt Siber, writing for the art department of Columbia College Chicago, gives as good an explanation as any as to what that is. “An artist’s statement is a short written piece accompanying your artwork that describes what you do as an artist. Artist’s statements are used to help communicate the artist’s ideas, concepts and motivations to the viewer… As visual artists we rely on our art to communicate our ideas, but visual art communicates much differently than written language. By this token, it is not expected that the artist’s statement explain every detail and nuance of the artwork. If it did, we wouldn’t need the artwork. Instead, it should provide insight into the artist’s concept and motivation behind making the work.” In short, an artist’s statement is a hint. When you’re standing in front of a piece of art and wondering what the heck was going through that guy’s mind when he made it, you can read the artist’s statement and possibly get a clue. Sometimes. On the commentary track provided with the DVD, John Boorman relates how he tacked on the monologue delivered by the head of Arthur Frayne (which is basically the equivalent of an artist’s statement) to the beginning of Zardoz after test audiences didn’t quite understand what the film was about. “It didn’t work” a bemused sounding Boorman quips. Even he seems to realize the movie is just too much of a mess.
If I had to take a guess, (which is about all you can do with this movie) I would suggest the main reason for this (assuming it wasn’t drugs) appears to be the serious disconnect between the way the movie was filmed and the ideas it was trying to communicate. You see, Zardoz was shot in that hallucinatory avant-garde visual style which permeated counter culture films of the late 60s and early 70s. Unfortunately, the typical audience for that style of film was composed mostly of young secular-hippy-baby boomers, the very people whom Zardoz paints as well intentioned, but ultimately misguided, idiots. You can just imagine that crowd filing in, ready to grok on some trippy visuals, and getting instead a treatise on the notion that their ideals, if given free reign, would only lead to an effeminate, impotent, barren society. Probably worst of all, especially to the more secular members of the audience, was Boorman’s solution to the problem his movie presented. As the ending of Zardoz suggests, the ultimate salvation of mankind does not lie in eternal youth, non-gender specific relationships, clothing-optional bohemian communal living, uber-pacifism, vegetarianism, blah blah blah, etcetera, ad nauseum. Instead, Boorman reaches the shocking conclusion that if mankind is to have any real future, it will lie in restoring the one thing which had been totally exorcised from the “enlightened” society of the Eternals; the natural proclivity for human beings to form a traditional heterosexual family focused on cranking out children.
You can almost hear the cries of “anathema” ringing out from auditoriums across the nation, can’t you? One can imagine that for the secular artsy crowd, this idea amounted to something of a heresy. After all, Boorman was one of them, a secular humanist to the core who believed religion to be a myth and found the Catholic Church in particular to be “a very repressive force, very stultifying.” So how could he possibly be putting forth an idea that sounds suspiciously like something released in 2003 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger? “The Church's teaching on marriage and on the complementarity of the sexes reiterates a truth that is evident to right reason and recognized as such by all the major cultures of the world. Marriage is not just any relationship between human beings. It was established by the Creator with its own nature, essential properties and purpose. No ideology can erase from the human spirit the certainty that marriage exists solely between a man and a woman, who by mutual personal gift, proper and exclusive to themselves, tend toward the communion of their persons. In this way, they mutually perfect each other, in order to cooperate with God in the procreation and upbringing of new human lives.” Now why would a non-Christian like Boorman promote something remotely resembling this idea taken from the precepts of natural law?
Well, as Pope John Paul II, an actor before he entered the priesthood, wrote in his 1999 Letter to Artists, “In producing a work, artists express themselves to the point where their work becomes a unique disclosure of their own being, of what they are and of how they are what they are.” So, if Boorman really was trying to make art with Zardoz (and not just on drugs) then, basically, he just couldn’t help himself. Boorman admits as much in the commentary when he relates “I was somewhat criticized here for having as a conclusion the notion of attraction and love between a man and a woman. It perhaps seems rather a simple notion in the face of all these other ideas, however… I happen to believe it to be the case.” Now perhaps Boorman’s acceptance of this notion is just one of those odd convergences where an atheist comes to accept on his own something Christianity has taught all along. Or possibly its some stray bit of deeply ingrained philosophy left over from the days his non-Catholic parents forced him to go to Catholic school. But maybe, just maybe, it’s a truth he just couldn’t find a way to talk himself out of no matter how much it angered his pals. As the Catechism notes, “The natural law is immutable and permanent throughout the variations of history; it subsists under the flux of ideas and customs and supports their progress. The rules that express it remain substantially valid. Even when it is rejected in its very principles, it cannot be destroyed or removed from the heart of man. It always rises again in the life of individuals and societies".”
For whichever reason is the correct one (and I actually don’t think it’s drugs in this case), what we ultimately have with Zardoz is a card carrying secular-hippy-baby boomer attempting to make a movie which visually appeals to his peers, but at its core has a message repulsive to them. There’s no way they were gonna make it a success. Regrettably, especially for Zardoz’s ticket sales, the mainstream audience who might actually agree with and appreciate that message… well, they probably tuned out the second Sean Connery showed up in a diaper. If only there were an audience which could revel in both the weirdness and the message… waaaait a minute!
I promised Xena, the nice reader who requested this review, that I would reveal my secret to surviving a movie like Zardoz. Elementary, my dear Xena. Art school. After enduring week after week of listening to artist’s statements containing sentences like “My piece invokes the inherent irony present in the application of plastic art forms thereby allowing me to conceptualize and explore the expressive potential within the realistic representation of a bowl of fruit.” watching Zardoz is a walk in the park.
Kudos!! My hat is off to you. You are The Master of All Thing B-Movie, and we are not worthy. My pet triffids prostrate themselves in homage.
This art-school induced immunity to gibberish might be related to having high schoolers debate important issues, no? Sounds like your pastor knows a unique qualification when he sees it.
this is one of the best movie reviews of all time! Hilarious and bizarre but genuinely thoughtful and intriguing too; a real feat.
I also hate artist statements. I've written a few myself, and I hate those too. These days, if I'm going to say something about a painting, it'll just be about technique or some inconsequential anecdote. But if a work of art needs a statement, the work is probably a failure, in the way I judge art anyhow.
Anyway, kudos again on this masterpiece of review.
Xena, glad it was worth the wait. As for my art school days helping me out in the RE classes, I wouldn't doubt it. At the very least it's made me pretty much immune to anything the kids can throw out for shock value. After you've spent a semester or two working next to a guy who made art out of baby dolls and razor blades, a few spoiled kids tossing out curse words just rolls right off my back :)
Adam, thanks for the kind words. I checked out your site and I have to say I'm a little envious of your skill. Alas, despite my years in art school, I'm still pretty much a mediocre fine artist. Nothing like attending critique sessions week after week and having your art teacher keep asking if you've ever considered writing.
EegahInc, Your phallophyllic interpretive modality complements tremendously the inherent masculine anthropohegemonizing of the content. I wonder, however, whether your marginalization of the form, with its visual counterpoints and psychointegrating critiques, has not lent itself to a more critical reading than necessary? Could it not be that Zardoz, in the character of the flying stone head, represents man's legacy of flying stone heads through portals of otherness and transcending mere cultural barriers in the pursuit of truth, goodness, and a really really fine pizza pie? (Or, of course, as you say, drugs.)
Intriguing... most intriguing.
(Okay, I can't maintain the gradschoolspeak with a straight face anymore. Eegah, your work is brilliant and you should be appointed as undersecretary for visual media at the CDF.)
Smiter the Archdeacon (hoping to kick open a few doors...)
Weird, trippy imagery that doesn't seem to make sense...
Is this kind of like trying to watch The End of Evangelion?
You. Are. Amazing.
I used to tell my friends in grad school, "I'm too young for this kind of stuff." (And I still am.) I would have my childhood messed with 18 different ways with this one, probably. (Hoping along with you that it wasn't some group hallucination.)
“The natural law is immutable and permanent throughout the variations of history..." Amen.
Smiter, perhaps you're right, perhaps I'm just overthinking Zardoz and the whole thing is just the result of mind altering substances. The one small reason that I still have my doubts, however, is that I know Boorman's next film after Zardoz was Exorcist II: The Heretic. Zardoz is a rank amateur in the weirdness department compared to Exorcist II. Now THAT movie was made on drugs for sure!
Snuffles, I see you're still giving me anime homework to do. I'll try to catch up on Evangelion.
PaperSmyth, I feel your pain. I had some Psych classes in college that, in hindsight, seem more like lab experiments than education.
I too join the chorus of praises to Eegah on a remarkable review!
Y'know, I am afraid that my attempt to write a science fiction novel based on the Theology of the Body might have precisely turned into this type of movie if I had continued it much farther. Of course, I would not have had Sean Connery wearing a red diaper.
"I am afraid that my attempt to write a science fiction novel based on the Theology of the Body might have precisely turned into this type of movie"
Well, at least you know one person would have watched it :)
I think you didn’t understand Zardoz. It’s a critique against Christianism (probably Judaism and Islam too) as a religion that represses sex and inspires violence against those whom are supposedly scorned by God (infidels or “brutals” in the movie). It also makes you wonder if the promise of eternal life has really any sense; at least everlasting life on Earth/the physical plane. Wouldn’t people sooner or later get bored after a few centuries of having learned and experienced everything there is to learn and experience? Would immortals evolve fast enough as in normal evolution? Zed was much more genetically advanced than the immortals. It also shows how easy it is to manipulate an ignorant population through an evil religion. And there is the part where it shows how “knowledge will set you free” where Zed is instructed at a library and discovered how he was fooled. The message is “inform yourself and you’ll realize about the evil system we’re in, how we’re being fooled and how we could make it collapse”. Besides, only one person, Zed, changed everything; a way of life that lasted for centuries. It also shows that masters were as unhappy as their slaves. And about Sean wearing a diaper... Brutals were supposed to be savages wearing simple, self-made clothes; not Armani suits. You look too much to the form and not to the meaning. Zardoz is a movie who expresses many messages and leaves you reflecting on a variety of topics. I liked it.
Oh and marriage was never mentioned. At the end, the teaching is that love between men and women is the future of mankind.
Hi, Alexis. Thanks so much for taking the time to leave your comments. Assuming you're not a regular reader, I'll just point out that one of the conceits around here is that I try to drag religious meaning, often kicking and screaming, out of movies which the creators likely never intended to have religious meaning. Sure, it would be easier to do this kind of review with something like Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain, which out-weird's Zardoz in every way AND has blatant religious (and anti-religious)content, but it wouldn't be as fun and challenging.
So, that said, I readily concede that many of your points represent ones Boorman himself INTENDED to make. That's why I was sure to point out in the review that Boorman is a secular humanist who believes the Catholic Church to be “a very repressive force, very stultifying.”
But everything I said in my review hinges on the film's final scene which, in Boorman's own words, brought scorn and ridicule from his secular contemporaries. They couldn't accept the "simple notion in the face of all these other ideas" that, as you yourself say, "love between men and women is the future of mankind." Boorman actually takes it further than that by introducing the child and showing the couple age together until their deaths. It's not just their love, but their full communion with one another resulting in new life, that wins out in the end. I'm not saying Boorman intended it, in fact he almost sounds ashamed of it, but the final scene seems to indicate that the scaramental model of the family trumps all of the other ideas he introduced. And as a Catholic I really dig that because we believe that when that kind of love is done right, it shows the rest of the world something about God. (Even if they don't believe in such a thing.)
As for the diaper... I'm sorry, but I'm a bit of a hairy mustachioed guy myself, and if I posted a picture of myself in that outfit, everyone would laugh their butts off, and rightly so. I understand it's function in the context of the world of Zardoz but... sometimes silly is just silly :)
OK, ok, maybe an animal skin, caveman's style, would have suited Sean better, LOL! I'm glad to have found a good blog about this old movie.
Loved this movie on tv - until I accidentally rented a videotape copy to show my kids until I discovered that it wasn't even remotely pg.But the ideas presented were very good. Just um don't watch it - um - unsensored with kids.
Woops! Yeah, might want to show the kids the edited TV version.
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