Zardoz (John Boorman, 1974)

Beware of giant floating evil broadcasting mountainous heads

Zardoz is a Monty Python-esque nightmare played straight. It is a baffling, luminous, original film that defies description. This review will attempt to do just that and inevitably fail. If your curiosity is at this point piqued to give Zardoz a try, I strongly recommend you skip this article and just watch it instead, without any advance notions of what it is.

Sean Connery is James Bond. That seems like a good starting point. No one will disagree. But after six films starring as the world-famous spy, Connery grew tired of it and wanted to try his hand at a more challenging and artistic endeavor. He opted to play the lead in Zardoz and boy, did he ever get exactly what he wanted. Connery deserves a real amount of respect for recognizing the potential of this script and choosing to lend himself to it, knowing all the while how alienating it would be for exactly his Bond-loving fans.

There is no easy access to Zardoz. It begins with visions of a post-apocalyptic wilderness. A scarred land in which wild men on horseback hunt helpless survivors. Then a mountainous floating head appears, carved from rock. It is the angry god Zardoz, spouting rhetoric against procreation, whom the hunters worship. Connery plays Zed, one of them. He is a curious savage and climbs aboard his god. He’s then transported to a walled community where society has been preserved and people live forever. It is a disturbing Garden of Eden filled with debauchery, punishment and cruel compassion.

Because of its science fiction trappings, Zardoz makes it easy to see the symbolic layer throbbing underneath. Understanding the metaphors is quite another challenge, however. Zardoz has much to say about the nature of sexuality, immortality, the deceit of men and other lofty concerns. Zed stands in this as an unspoiled soul; the savage man who acts purely on instinct. As he spends more time in paradise, he becomes a learned man, but with understanding comes loathing too. To remain in biblical terms, it echoes the Book of Ecclesiastes, which laments how wisdom leads to the insight of how maddening life is.

The story of Zardoz plays like a dream. The real and the allegorical shift into each other, encompassed by the pervasive soundtrack of Beethoven’s 7th. Connery and his ilk are dressed in red fetish outfits. More than just being weird for weirdness’ sake, there is an authentic ambition powering this film. Discrediting it would be discrediting the ideas underneath the comedy of Monty Python. Yes, Zardoz often heads into the realm of preposterous sci-fi, but when it hits the right note it manages to be spectacular.

It’s easy to see this as a camp movie, something so bad it’s good. What I offer is a harder prospect: Zardoz is genuinely brilliant. It’s detrimentally inaccessible, but persist and you’ll be highly rewarded.

Roderick Leeuwenhart

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