John Boorman is a great filmmaker, certainly one of the best to have ever emerged from Britain. Having said that, it also appears that he is totally mad, at least on the evidence currently before the court. Zardoz is visually stunning, packed with ideas and audacious images, and totally bonkers. If that sounds like a criticism, please read on. This is one film which deserves the recommendation "must-see".
Any summary of the film is bound to make it sound totally silly - which it is - so do bear with me. Set in the 23rd Century, Zardoz depicts a world which has been divided between the Brutals and the Immortals, separated by a psychic barrier. The Brutals, primitive and illiterate, are banned from procreating and are regularly culled by Exterminators, mounted on horseback and armed with rifles dispensed from the mouth of a huge flying stone head called 'Zardoz'. The Exterminators worship Zardoz as a god, listening to its instructions and advice, such as "The gun is good, the penis is evil." Controlling Zardoz are the Immortals, eternal creatures living on the other side of the barrier in the "Vortex". These Immortals are cultured and vain, living off the labour of the Brutals. The women are dominant and the men are impotent, reproduction no longer being an issue. However, behind the civilised veneer is a mess of jealousies and power struggles. Those who dare to disagree with the majority opinion are punished by being "aged" five or ten years. Persistent offenders, labelled 'Renegades', are aged to the point of senility and sent into geriatric exile. There are also the 'Apathetics', tired Immortals who long for the release of death.
... All of the above is merely the setting for a fairly ambiguous plotline in which an Exterminator, Zed (Connery), sporting some kind of postmodern baby-ware, hitches a ride on the stone head, kills its controller Professor Arthur Frame by throwing him out of the mouth, and arrives in the Vortex. Needless to say, his presence in the privileged, asexual world of the Immortals causes problems, notably a rift between two scientists, May (Kestleman) who wishes to keep him for research, and Consuela (Rampling), whose initial reaction is to get rid of him. It's not long before the presence of the fiercely masculine Zed has the two ladies a-quiver, and May wastes little time in getting him on his own and discovering exactly what might be hiding under his nappy. What happens beyond that is best discovered by watching the film, but needless to say, none of it is especially sensible and by the end you are likely to be either totally confused or open-mouthed at Boorman's sheer nerve. As a vision of the future, or an "awful warning", it makes little sense, although the richness of the settings does have enough strength to be halfway convincing.
The film is full of allusions to literature and philosophy - there are elements of Huxley jostling for space with specific references to "The Wizard Of Oz". The latter book is one of the keys to unravelling the film; think of Zed as a sort of Dorothy with added facial hair. The scene where we discover its relevance is one of the most powerful in the film, and the use of the stone head in this context does make a surprising amount of sense. This is a typical trait of Boorman's more personal films; the somewhat muddled use of Teillard De Chardin in Exorcist II The Heretic being another example. Like that film, Zardoz is packed to bursting with ideas, probably too many for its own good, but at least this means that it is never boring. Its real strength is the way these ideas are transposed into visual images - even when the story makes no sense at all, the images convey the ideas with more cumulative power than words could. Geoffrey Unsworth's gorgeously lush photography of the Irish locations helps a lot in this respect. The visuals also help compensate for the fact that the dialogue is variously banal and meaningless.
Sean Connery is very impressive in the central part of Zed, especially when you consider the costume he is required to wear. His presence holds the film together in the somewhat, er, mixed-up second half and he triumphs in some of the more difficult scenes - notably when he first encounters the book of "The Wizard Of Oz", which is one of the strongest moments in the film. He works well with both of the leading actresses, both of them strong performers struggling with some leaden dialogue. Sara Kestelman has an impossible part, requiring some changes of character that make no sense, but she works hard and registers more convincingly than Charlotte Rampling whose characteristic remoteness is a bit wearing. Also present is the unlikely figure of John Alderton, camping it up in a curly blonde wig while spouting would-be witty epigrams.
It's not entirely clear what Boorman is getting at in this film. There's the usual obsession with spirituality and religion, some interesting ideas about relations between the sexes, various asides about creation - at one point, in the wacky prologue, the bouncing head of Arthur Frame asks us "And, you, who conjured you out of the clay ? Is God in show-business too ?" - and the role of sex in a society where reproduction is unnecessary. There are some interesting observations about violence as entertainment too, and the argument that violence is, in itself, cathartic is ironically embodied at the end in an exultant and liberating burst of rifle fire. This is the reason, perhaps, why Boorman's silly films are so much better than most other directors' silly films - even when you're laughing, you're engrossed in the imagery and ideas. Boorman doesn't just want to make genre pieces, he wants to weave new myths, even when, as in Excalibur, he's dealing with old myths. Myth-making is perhaps the theme that links a lot of his films together, whether its modern outlaw legends - The General - war stories filtered through childhood - Hope And Glory - or epic battles between good and evil - The Heretic. It's this determination to make something somehow bigger than most films that makes Boorman one of the great filmmakers, perhaps in the same league as Welles and Griffiths - both of them men who reached too far too often and who made their share of conventionally 'bad' movies. Not everyone will like Zardoz, some will label it 'rubbish' - which, in a way, it is - , but no-one is likely to come out of it thinking "Well, that was OK".
Fox have acknowleged that Zardoz, a critical disaster at the time, has developed a big cult following by giving it a very nice DVD release. Technically, it's excellent, and the extra features are nice. Only the lack of a documentary lets it down.
The film is presented in a new anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer. This in itself is welcome, since the only version of the film previously available in the UK was panned and scanned. My rental VHS from 1983 is horrible to behold in comparison. That's not the only good point either. Although there is a fair amount of grain present, and a little artifacting in places, the level of detail is good and the colours are simply beautiful. The transfer copes well with the soft photography and captures the contrast between the scenes with the Brutals and those in the Vortex very well. It's not a stunning picture, but it is very pleasing and better than I had expected.
The soundtrack has been remixed from the original mono into Dolby 3.0 Surround. It's not too bad, but largely monophonic. There are some dialogue separations but most of the limited surround effects are ambient noise and sound effects. It's certainly not bad, but I would have personally preferred the original mono mix on balance. The music score does come across very well - much of it is classical and interestingly integrated into the film.
There are several extras. The most substantial is the director's commentary. Boorman comes across as genuinely passionate about the film, and has a self-deprecating humour that is refreshing. He discussed the problems of making such a big film for a million dollars, his relationship with Connery, the problems that audiences had with the film and the reasons it is so close to his heart. There are quite a few pauses but this is still one of the better commentaries I've heard recently.
We get a reasonably extensive gallery of stills from the design and production stages of the film, a radio spot and, best of all, the totally loony pop-art trailer for the film which is a joy to behold.
The menus are nicely designed, and there are a generous 24 chapter stops.
Zardoz is a totally unique film, which is a recommendation in itself. The fact that Boorman got the money to make it from a major studio is somehow rather heartening, and it's nice to see it presented on DVD in such a pleasing release. I would have liked to see a retrospective documentary, especially to see what Connery has to say about the film, but it's still a very worthwhile purchase.