Zardoz Review

John Boorman’s existential sci-fi gets a long overdue reappraisal courtesy of Arrow Video…

Written, produced and directed by John Boorman, Zardoz represented a notable departure for its star, Sean Connery. According to Boorman, Connery was struggling to find interesting roles and was desperate to break free of the staitjacket the success of James Bond had placed upon him as an actor. Off the back of Deliverance, Burt Reynolds was Boorman’s first choice for the lead but due to him becoming unavailable and Connery’s willingness to come one board for a relatively modest fee – spending the duration of the shoot as Boorman’s houseguest in Wicklow – he was duly cast.

Connery plays Zed, an Exterminator, faithfully executing his duties largely consisting of the rape, pillage, execution and latterly the subjugation of the underclass – referred to pejoratively as the Brutals – in the service of the god Zardoz. The stone head figure of Zardoz dominates the landscape and dictates the terms of this rigidly stratified society, supplying arms for the Exterminators to ensure the persistent culling and control of the Brutals and reaping the harvest of their labours for purposes which Zed increasingly comes to question.

In an effort to get answers to these questions Zed manages to sequester himself within the stone head during one harvest and in doing so succeeds in crossing into the world of the Eternals, a master race of beings who have transcended the drudgery of everyday life and its baser qualities of sexuality and mortality becoming insular, vapid and downright bored in the process. Unsurprisingly Zed’s arrival causes major upheaval threatening to disturb the delicate balance of life in an environment where tensions are already threatening to surface and expose unpalatable truths with catastrophic consequences.

This represents an intriguing premise and overall Zardoz is not a bad film but it tends to be remembered primarily for some of its weaker elements. First off we have wardrobe issues: when someone mentions Zardoz chances are a moderately cineliterate audience will share the abiding memory of Sean Connery prancing about rural Ireland in a red nappy. To be fair it’s not really a nappy, rather harder to classify but I’d describe it more as a loincloth or posing pouch and when paired with crossed ammo belt accessories it takes on the look of a DIY mankini – groundbreaking, possibly, but not in a good way (although based on the supplementary material Ben Wheatley begs to differ).

Secondly, budgetary constraints meant that not all of the concepts that Zardoz seeks to broach are satisfactorily realised. Boorman himself in commentary and interview admits that he probably bit off more than he could chew and that Zardoz attempts to accommodate ‘too many ideas’. Consequently this results in a number of scenes in which actors are effectively asked to fill in the blanks whereby there is a lot of dubious improvising and what I can only describe as interpretation through movement and the medium of dance.

Last but not least, for a film pitched ostensibly at a mainstream audience the content tends to lean more towards the philosophical than the expository. Boorman mentions in his commentary how he filmed the opening scene as a response to test audiences feedback that they didn’t understand the film with the net effect only serving to increase the confusion. With all factors taken into account, the vast, muddled philosophy; the disparity between the scale of budget versus ambition; and a past-his-prime Connery running around in his underpants (albeit still in pretty good nick), it is understandable why the viewing public might have felt somewhat alienated from the finished product.

Regardless of any of these reservations Zardoz remains a film of great energy, wit and invention and I would take issue with those who seek to cast Connery’s performance as a half-hearted, token effort. On the contrary Connery clearly throws himself into what represented a very challenging role (and costume) with impressive gusto, investing Zed with considerable emotional and physical spirit and intensity. Equally, that Zardoz struggles to deliver the full realisation of John Boorman’s vision is certainly no indication of ‘failure’, as despite any shortcomings this remains not only a beautiful looking film but one which boldly attempts to tackle some very weighty ideas, offering up uncomfortable but not necessarily unwarranted conclusions.

The Disc
This new 4k restoration of Zardoz, presented its OAR of 2.35:1, was personally supervised and approved by director John Boorman. Overall a strong presentation that showcases DP Geoffrey Unsworth’s work at its best – faithfully reproducing colours and exhibiting a pleasing level of grain – especially the breathtaking shots across the beautiful Wicklow Hills.

Two options are provided. DTS-HD 3.0 Master Audio and an LPCM 2.0 soundtrack, on both options dialogue is clear and intelligible with punchy sound effects complementing a superb score by David Munrow (and with all due respect, Ludwig van Beethoven). Optional English SDH subtitles are also available.

Audio Commentary with John Boorman
Over the course of what is an unmoderated and patchy commentary, Boorman talks about numerous aspects of the production. Exhibiting lengthy silences where Boorman lapses into watching the film, when he does get going he generally fares better on the technical aspects and his working relationships with cast and crew, throwing in numerous anecdotes along the way. The commentary is less coherent in those sections – especially in the first half of the film – where Boorman attempts to explore the ideas and concepts within the story, perhaps an indication as to why audiences struggled to get to grips with the finished product.

An array of interviews – over two hours worth – with cast and crew represent the rump of the supplementary material. Director Boorman is on more articulate form here as he charts his involvement in the production and we also get the perspectives and reminiscences of actor Sara Kestelman, production designer Anthony Pratt, special effects creator Gerry Johnston, camera operator Peter MacDonald, assistant director Simon Relph, hair stylist Colin Jamison, production manager Seamus Byrne, and assistant editor Alan Jones. Typically I become wary when people are universally positive about a production and a director but in this case there is enough material to suggest that Zardoz was also at times a testing and arduous shoot. It is perhaps due to the latter fact, and recent reappraisals of the film as an undervalued work by fans and critics (and a couple of the participants included here), that there is a collective professional pride on show amongst the copious technical and anecdotal insights.

An appreciation by Ben Wheatley (16:24)
Film director Wheatley’s love for Zardoz is never in doubt as he waxes lyrical about it for the duration of this piece, from discovering the film in his formative years, through the stunning visuals and imagery, the complexity and incomprehensibility of the plot, and the ongoing resonance and relevance of its themes.

Also included is the theatrical trailer and a collection of radio spots. A collector’s booklet is also included but was not available for review.

Final Thoughts
Like a number of contributors featured in the supporting material on this disc, I came back to Zardoz somewhat conditioned by the negative commentary that habitually accompanies the film as a lesser offering in the careers of both John Boorman and Sean Connery. However after a repeat viewing I demur; hats off to Arrow for this fine presentation, drawing together an extensive collection of supplementary features providing a fresh appreciation of this brave, flawed gem of the science-fiction genre. All hail Zardoz!

John Rowall

Updated: Sep 27, 2015

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