Apologies for the delay with this post. Long story short, I worked a lot of overtime in the last couple of weeks at work, and felt pretty drained. Anyway, to conclude my blog’s celebration of Sean Connery’s career, let’s look at what is quite likely the weirdest movie he was ever involved with, Zardoz.
Zardoz is a science fiction fantasy film taking place in a post-apocalyptic world. I’ve now seen it twice, and if I’m merely going by the movie on its own, I still don’t really understand what it’s about. It’s weird, confusingly put together, and It wasn’t received. Roger Ebert giving it 2.5 out of 4 stars, calling it “a genuinely quirky movie, a trip into a future that seems ruled by perpetually stoned set decorators.” Empire magazine gave it one star, saying that it “misses the mark by a hundred miles … it has elements – its badness being one of them – that make it strangely compelling.”
Director John Boorman began writing Zardoz while he was preparing to adapt Lord of the Rings to the big screen for United Artists. After the studio became hesitant with the budget of such a production, he refocused on inventing a strange new world. He wrote Zardoz with William Stair, a long-time collaborator of his. 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.” He initially wanted a movie set 5 years in the future about a university lecturer who became obsessed over a young girl who had disappeared, and wanted to seek her out in the communes where she lived. After visiting some of these communes for research, he decided to set his story in a distant future where society had collapsed.
He had trouble finding a studio to pick up the film. Warner Brothers didn’t want it, despite the director making a lot of money for them in the past. Eventually, even though the executives at 20th Century Fox had no idea what to make of it, they still accepted the movie.
Originally, Burt Reynolds was supposed to star in the movie as Zed. His casting was even announced in April of 1973. However, Reynolds had to pull out due to illness, and Connery took over. “Connery had just stopped doing the Bond films and he wasn’t getting any jobs, so he came along and did it.” Connery’s casting was announced a week before filming began. Other major actors include Charlotte Rampling as Consuella, Sara Kestelman as May, and Niall Buggy as Arthur Frayn. All of the extras were played by members of the Irish Travelling Community. In the commentary track, Boorman calls them “the best extras I’ve ever had on any picture.”
The entire movie was filmed in Ireland, mostly in Ardmore Studios in Bray, just south of Dublin. He commented that several political and cultural conditions in Ireland at the time affected the production, and in one case, almost made it impossible to film. Most notably, there was a complete ban on importing rifles because of IRA activity, and there are a number of scenes that feature a large number of rifles.
Fun fact, Sean Connery owned a house in Bray, so he lived there during the shoot. That house went up for sale a couple of months before his death.
They hired David Munrow to compose the soundtrack. Munroe was an early music historian in addition to being a composer, and went for a medieval feel for the soundtrack. He primarily used old-world instruments, including notch flutes, medieval bells and gemshorns. That, in addition to elements from Beethoven’s Seventh, gave the film a very unique soundtrack that might be its strongest point. Munrow was considered to have a huge influence on the classical music and film industry in that sense. Sadly, he hung himself in a state of depression at only 33, and because nobody really followed in his footsteps, his death was a major loss to the early music movement.
Zardoz released in February of 1974. It received scathing reviews, and audiences reacted poorly, finding the movie very confusing. The negative feedback spread quickly, and soon left its screenings practically empty. On its initial release, it earned $1.8 million on a $1.75 million budget, making it a commercial failure. It was later shown on local TV stations as a late-night feature. It wasn’t available in any format of home video until 1984. It has enjoyed multiple DVD releases since 2000 and a Blu-Ray release in 2015.
Zardoz has since developed a strong cult following. In a recent retrospective, Chicago Reader called it “John Boorman’s most underrated film – an impossibly ambitious and pretentious but also highly inventive, provocative, and visually striking SF adventure with metaphysical trimmings.”
Since I can’t figure out what the movie is about through watching it, I’m basing my quick plot summary on the Wikipedia article. I don’t like using Wikipedia as my only source, but let’s go with it anyway. Zed, played by Connery, is a leader of a group called the “Brutal Exterminators”. The Brutals live in a wasteland, and mostly focus on growing food for the Eternals, who live within something called “The Vortex”. The Brutal Exterminators are unknowingly the bridge between these two groups, and their main purpose is to kill other “Brutals” at the orders of a huge flying stone head called Zardoz. Zardoz is their god, and in exchange for the food they collect, he feeds them weapons. Here’s an early quote from Zardoz himself.
“Zardoz speaks to you, his chosen ones. You have been raised up from brutality, to kill the brutals who multiply, and are legion. To this end, Zardoz your god gave you the gift of the gun. The gun is good.”
Exterminators on mass: “The gun is good.”
“The penis is evil. The penis shoots seeds, and makes new life, and poisons the earth with a plague of men, as it once was. But the gun shots death, and purifies the earth of the filth of brutals. Go forth and kill!”
At some point, Zed finds his way through the vortex, and discovers that Zardoz is in fact played by an Eternal named Arthur Frayn. The Eternals have been granted immortality by some AI called the Tabernacle. In the centuries since becoming immortal, they’ve grown bored and corrupt. Without the need for procreation, their men have been rendered impotent. Instead of sleep, the Eternals merely meditate. Some have become so apathetic that they’ve become catatonic. Those who violate their society’s rules are artificially aged, the most extreme of which are given the status of “Renegade”, are aged to an elderly body, and are kept isolated in a building just for the “Renegades”. Those who somehow die are reborn into another healthy, synthetically reproduced body identical to their old body.
At first they treat Zed as a science experiment, with no idea of how he crossed the vortex. Over time, they figure out that he’s far less brutal and far more intelligent than they thought. Consuella at one point convinces most of the other eternals to kill Zed, but a handful of others help him escape. He finds some way to absorb all of the Eternals’ knowledge, including the existence of the tabernacle. He also impregnates several of the eternals, overcoming his “the penis is evil” indoctrination. He eventually destroys the tabernacle and leads the other exterminators into the vortex. By that point, all of the eternals are bored with eternal life and welcome their deaths. This results in a climactic sequence where the exterminators are shooting the eternals left right and center, while the eternals are begging to be killed. Even knowing what the movie is about, watching that scene is still surreal.
Meanwhile, Zed helps a handful of the eternals to escape, where they live their remaining, now mortal lives, among the brutals. The movie ends with a montage of Zed sitting by Consuella, who have fallen in love, in matching green outfits. There are a number of still images as the two grow old together, have a son, and eventually dying, set to a somber section of Beethoven’s Seventh.
There’s a lot more to the story, but the more you dig into it, the more confusing it gets. Even director Boorman admitted he’s confused by the movie. “Um, it was the 70’s, and I was doing a lot of drugs. Frankly, even I’m not entirely sure what parts of the movie are about.” But to quote a 2013 article from Empire Magazine, “You have to hand it to John Boorman. When he’s brilliant, he’s brilliant, but when he’s terrible, he’s really terrible. A fascinating reminder of what cinematic science fiction used to be like before Star Wars.”
Let me be clear, I am not recommending this movie. It’s confusing, kind of boring at times, and it feels dated. That said, I won’t tell you not to watch it either. There are definitely some fascinating ideas within the movie, it’s visually impressive considering there was virtually no post-production of any kind, and the unique soundtrack does give the movie its own identity and atmosphere. The core cast plays their parts well, even if you’re not entirely sure what they’re supposed to be doing half the time. And yes, it is entertainingly bad at times. Just be warned that there is a fair amount of nudity – more than I expected.
Next month I’ll start looking at all the pre DC Cinematic Universe Batman and Superman movies. And yes, I’ll be going further back than the Tim Burton Batman movies and the Christopher Reeves movies. I’ll be going back as far as the 1940’s Batman silent films, although I’ll be covering both of those in a single blog post and I might not sit through both of them entirely. I’ll try, but each of them are over 250 minutes in total and I’ve never tried to sit through a full-length silent film before.