Zardoz is a beautiful, slowly-paced, and highly philosophical Sci-Fantasy with Sean Connery in one of his most enigmatic roles. Directed by John Boorman after the breakout success of Deliverance, the movie features some startling sci fi imagery courtesy of Geoffrey Unsworth (who also worked on 2001 back in ’68) and beautiful costume design done by Boorman’s own wife Christel Kruse Boorman. I particularly loved the Brutals’s iconic red jumpsuits with the crisscross bandoliers; the images of Zed (Connery’s character) shooting the screen and then later emerging from the sand with his revolver have to make up one of the great character intros in movie history, thanks in no small part to those bizarre red outfits.
The movie concerns a future where a group of intelligent (read: bourgeoisie) humans sequester themselves away with all the luxuries (in a place called the Vortex) while one of their group (Zardoz) stays behind and lords over the Brutals (read: Proletariat) who fight a never ending war over nothing. Our hero (Zed) leads a revolution of death against the immortal bourgeois and we learn that this was Zardoz’s plan all along. That’s an extremely simplified summary, but what I wanted to establish was an outline of the subtext. Contrary to much I’ve read on the subject, I didn’t think that the film was especially conservative (or misogynistic). Here I’ll take on two of the more problematic elements of the storyline in hopes of sussing out a meaningful subtext at work behind the madness.
The Eternals vs. The Brutals
The Eternals live in opulence: immaculate, sexless intellectuals. They’re each individuals with different ornamental clothing, jewelry, and specialized roles. They’re immortal, and seem to have no concept of spirituality, disease, or human emotion. They are NOT hippies or Communists or leftists at all. They are the all-consuming bourgeoise, the fallout of the hippie movement—the 80s a few years early. Fucking YUPPIES. While I definitely agree that Boorman was leary of the counterculture, it doesn’t seem like it was a clash over metaphysics. A hard truth about the counterculture is that it was comprised almost entirely of spoiled suburbanites, and the society we see depicted in Zardoz is the result of a group of sell-outs selling out.
The Brutals do all the farming, they wear rags, and they worship a false God CREATED by the Eternals. They are clearly denoted ‘proletariat’ or ‘Other’. It is extremely simplified to draw the binary between the counter/mainstream cultures. It’s more like the Eternals are the entirety of society at that time, with certain elements (the priestess, Friend, etc) representing aspects of the counterculture working against the extremely Positivistic Consuella.
The Brutals are entirely Male, and If anything I’d like to look at this binary from a gendered perspective; that would probably yield some frustrating conservative ideology. But economically? ‘Zardoz’ is a critique of modern Capitalist society, not the failings of Socialism.
Zed is a rapist in the time before his arrival in the Vortex, and throughout he film he’s portrayed as the ultimate masculine ideal. The whole movie is often seen as a rebuke of not just the counterculture, which by the early 70s had produced a fairly strong Women’s Movement. I do think that there’s something funny going on with the arrangement of these societies, but I felt like his treatment of gender (like everything else in ‘Zardoz’) was highly symbolic. In the film masculinity seems to represent dynamic change, the violence of stars crashing and whatnot. Femininity is stability and foresight, caution and love. The film draws on these historically relevant, and mythologically sound symbols but I did feel like it transcended simple binaries in the end.
I think Boorman—while certainly not an actual feminist—was sympathetic to their cause. Zed is shamed by the footage of his rape, and he is incapable of performing on the Apathetic later in the film—although it’s ambiguous as to why. A great deal is also made of the fact that he never knew love until he falls into it with Consuella. By the end of the movie he’s incapable of carrying out his own predetermined genocide of the Eternals, and his outfit changes from the erotically charged red loincloth and pistol for a green jumpsuit that matches his new wife’s. The movie is not about subsuming feminine instincts in favor of masculine ones, it’s about combining the two—symbolized perfectly in the form of their child leaving and their bones crumbling. Neither form is permanent, only their symbiosis lives on.
Overall, I loved Zardoz. I thought it was one of the most mythological of all the Sci-Fi films I’ve seen, and it’s mise-en-scene is cluttered in the best possible way. The world, despite its extreme silliness and willful absurdity, comes across as lived-in and authentic. The SFX are great, with the flying stone head being a particularly beautiful image. That being said though, to be perfectly honest , it’s not a movie for everyone. It is extremely boring, crawling along at a snail’s pace that even the shoot-outs can’t accelerate, and while I thought the pacing of the film was actually one its strengths—it allows you to ponder the various images and ideas—it also makes the film almost unwatchable to general audiences.