ZardozcoverThe mid 70’s were a great time for experimentation and radical ideas and when you mixed dystopian fantasy and a shed load of psychedelic pharmaceuticals the results for film goers could often send them on a right old trip in the movie theatres. One film that was one of the must-see motion pictures for those that liked to dabble in such stimuli was John Boorman’s 1974 feature Zardoz, a film that is with this new lease of life on Blu-Ray still going to confound viewers over 40 years after it first turned acid casualties into gibbering wrecks. Is it meant to make sense is the main question people will no doubt ask after watching Sean Connery running around in a bright red nappy for an hour and three quarters? After watching it again last night and sitting down to try and get my head around it and put it in a review context I think I can safely say no! Zardoz is a real head-fudge of a film and the best way to view it is sit down, prepare to be dazzled in wonder at its fantastic set pieces and crazy ideologies, then try and wrap your noggin around it later.


Boorman may have been very down to earth when he made the excellent survival epic Deliverance a couple of years earlier and what on earth happened in the following couple of years to make him film such a bizarre film is uncertain. Perhaps he drunk something in the Cahulawassee River that had a profound effect on him, maybe he happened upon El Topo and The Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky’s seminal art-house Westerns and the only films that I can think of as truly comparable to Zardoz. Whatever it was he went off into a parallel universe in more ways than one here.


Trying to explain the plot is a right old mission in itself. The year is 2293 and the planet is divided by two groups of people, the brutals a warlike clan who live by the gun and are overseen by Zardoz a strange floating stone faced god and the eternals an idealistic hippy cult living an immortal life in a utopian society governed by very odd rules and strange telekinetic powers. The two societies are divided by a void and the only way between them as brutal exterminator Zed (Connery) discovers is to hitch a ride in the head of Zardoz and cross from one to another but what exactly is his purpose in doing so? That’s the brief premise but it leaves you with more questions than answers as he finds himself entrapped as the ‘beast’ of the eternals (in quite a similar fashion to the astronauts in Planet Of the Apes) and becomes a pawn in their games and pursuits. The eternals who include John Alderton and Charlotte Rampling in their ranks are a really odd bunch and as the film develops we discover other parts of their group such as ‘the apathetics’ mindless zombies who have forgotten the will to live and the old and demented, entrapped in old age as a punishment but unable to die due to immortality. Add to the scenario that due to their longevity, procreation is physically impossible and Connery is the only virile male to intrude upon them and naturally you have a fair amount of sexual tension added to a plot in a society where everyone has forgotten all about love and indeed the humanity and necessity of death.


Many things struck me watching this after all these years. First the care and attention gone into each and every set design is sumptuous and looks fantastic on the Blu-ray release from Arrow. Colours are vivid and the futuristic trimmings confounding, adding to the intrigue. You can’t help but wonder why people and plants are housed in giant plastic wrappings and what strange kaleidoscopic rooms are all about. It’s all part of the film’s mystery and charm unless you want to dig deeper for some of the many hidden meanings that have had people discussing the film over the years. I hung around till the end credits to discover that the setting for the film was County Wicklow (apparently where Boorman lived) and it’s gorgeously displayed here both in the wild lands where the strange masked brutals roam and the more urban farmstead habitation of the Eternals. There are plenty of trippy and experimental techniques employed in the filming and sound is often equally strange and convoluted amidst a central motif of Beethoven’s gorgeously evocative seventh symphony. Naturally, except for the radical free thinkers and pot heads of the time the film had no real audience as far as the mainstream was concerned bombing on release but achieving cult status later. The imagery and some of the scenes are certainly going to linger long after viewing if not forever and Zardoz is a really surreal viewing experience and although you could look far and find parallels, a unique one. My best advice before watching this if you have never seen it before is leave your head at the door!


I purposely have not looked for any of the explanations or thoughts of others before writing this but having done so did hope for some further insight with the extras here. There are no shortage of interviewees with nine of them to talk about the film from the director Boorman right through to hair stylist Colin Jamison. 82 year old Boorman certainly seems sane and lucid describing the film that he wrote, produced and directed following the success of Deliverance as an allegory to class struggle and divide of rich and poor, something ever as valid today as it was back then. Script, editing and production design are all discussed and Boorman explains it was always meant to be a mysterious film; well he succeeded there! He does however find the philosophical aspects simple enough and I would imagine on further viewings it will all become clearer. Sara Kestelman who played Immortal May represents the actor’s side of things. And explains that Burt Reynolds was all set to play the lead but became ill and Connery loving the script was quick to take up the part. She has lots of fond memories of her time there and discusses her character’s impetus, thoughts on the striking costuming and the whole creative process behind the film.


Next up it’s the technical boffins. Production designer Anthony Pratt had as I already mentioned done a wonderful job especially as he states he was working on a very tight budget. He talks about the sculpture of the striking Zardoz head and how they achieved the look inside of it. The pyramid ‘brain room’ is also mentioned and lots of the other strange spaces used within the movie. His memories of the special effects are discussed but one of the people responsible for these Gerry Johnston also gets a segment. Naturally one of his biggest tasks was getting the heads to fly using wires in these pre CGI times as well as throwing guns out of them to arm the brutals. Obviously he did a good job and went on to work on films such as Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan. Camera operator Peter MacDonald is next with his anecdotes and some of the striking camera techniques used by Oscar winning DoP Geoffrey Unsworth (who died in 1978). It certainly wasn’t an easy task for any of these people with the schizophrenic Irish weather changing several times a day. Assistant director Simon Relph must have found it even more confusing not having had the chance to read the script prior to being thrown in at the deep end. He fondly remembers his ten or so weeks on the set, partying with a visiting Lee Marvin and working with the ensemble cast and crew. Weird fantasy hair do’s and nappies falling off in front of watching nuns are what stylist Colin Jamison remembers the most and production manager Seamus Byrne talks about the various locations, scene scheduling and Ardmore Studios where he has worked over 50 years. Finally it’s down to assistant editor Alan Jones to wrap these interviews up telling us all about the interesting ideas and amount of work that they did with all the projected scenes in the film. After going through all these and watching the film with director’s commentary you should have more of an understanding about it all but then again maybe not…

A last extra apart from trailers is an appreciation with the always interesting director Ben Wheatley (whose adaptation of JG Ballard’s Hi-Rise) is highly anticipated. He vaguely remembers as I did stumbling across the film first on terrestrial TV and thinking he had never seen anything else like it before. He talks about the uniqueness of Boorman’s oeuvre and his artistry and brave visualisation in making Zardoz. He has a lot of interesting points and no, in case you are wondering does not step up to the plate and talk about remaking it. Can we imagine Daniel Craig doing it, god forbid!


So Zardoz, a unique and startling parable of the future that was way ahead of its time and amazingly prescient in many ways. We might not be eating green bread yet but the rings and the information they provide could be looked at as watches and glasses which today have you plugged in to instant access knowledge and the divide between people is every bit as valid as it was when made all those decades ago. Personally I really enjoyed this and am looking forward to watching it again in six months or so to see what else I can take out of the experience. A UK Blu-ray of Excalibur would be a more than welcome follow up.

Pete Woods