[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
In the opening sequence of John Boorman’s new film, a huge stone head resembling a Greek tragic mask drifts in the air above the Irish countryside, like the floating spirit of Astaroth; it spits forth a spray of rifles and exhorts a congregation of horsemen to go forth and kill. This is the god Zardoz, who decrees that the rapidly reproducing populace must be exterminated, that the gun is good and the penis evil. Here, “deep in a possible future,” the Year 2293, we thus discover John Boorman, in his first film since Deliverance, dealing once again with the conflicts between nature’s way and humanity’s way.
Zardoz, we have already learned from a brief prologue, is “a fake god,” devised and controlled by an immortal man named Arthur Frayn, whose duty it is to oversee the operations of the world outside a force-field-protected area known as the Vortex. The Vortex is the dwelling-place of the Eternals, sophisticated, knowledgeable humans who have found a way to keep themselves free from death, disease, and aging, as they live lives of luxury, practice absolute democracy, and stockpile the greatest art and learning of the past, to be preserved against the passing of a postnuclear Dark Age. All knowledge is accessible to the Eternals by means of crystalline transceiver rings that link them with a central tabernacle, storehouse of the community consciousness and workshop where even those Eternals who happen to die accidental deaths are repaired and resurrected. Many of the Externals continue to function as gatherers of knowledge, but Eternal life is not without its opponents. The Apathetics have withdrawn entirely and live a zombified existence; the Renegades have rebelled against the community consciousness and suffer the punishment of perpetual aging and senility. Even the Eternals who are still active confess to excruciating boredom in the sexless Vortex. Beyond the force-field dwell the Brutals, humans of low intelligence who have been excluded from the Vortex and whose procreation is kept in check by constant death raids carried out by the Exterminators, the rifle-bearing horsemen of Zardoz. One of these is Zed, a selectively-bred mutant and one of the few Brutals permitted to procreate. Through a gradual process of awakening detailed in fragmentary flashbacks, Zed discovers that Zardoz is a fake and manages to enter the Vortex. Living under the aegis of a futuristic Oscar Wilde named Friend, Zed learns about life in the Vortex and recognizes that he is destined to set things right. Three women form a tripartite “Eternal Feminine” which leads Zed ever upward: May, the scientist; Avalow, the visionary; and Consuela, the realist. In the course of the film all employ a metaphorically sexual method of transmitting their knowledge to him, equipping him for his Christlike mission. He is “the One, the Liberator”; the taste of his sweat brings life to the Apathetics, his touch brings welcome death to the Renegades, and his penetration into the tabernacle brings to the active Eternals—”custodians of the Past for an unknown Future”—the grim realities of the chaotic Present. Hunting and killing, the Eternals fall to frantic copulation; the distinction between them and the Brutals is erased, the force-field is dropped, and the mighty Exterminators hold final preeminence.
It’s an interesting exercise in imagination, though promiscuously imitative, borrowing without shame from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Fellini Satyricon, The Time Machine, Forbidden Planet, Fahrenheit 451, Planet of the Apes and Teenage Caveman, to name only a few from up and down the fantasy-film spectrum. Much of the film’s style is borrowed as well: its climactic central event is little more than a rococo version of the hall of mirrors sequence from Orson Welles’s Lady from Shanghai. The film’s much-touted special effects, though rarely extending beyond prismatic photography, simple superimposition, and multiple projection, nevertheless provide a dazzling visual display, which is from the very outset much more attractive and justifiable than the film’s muddled ideology. Clearly what Boorman is hoping for in Zardoz is another 2001, and he has emulated Kubrick’s film as much as possible, even to the point of using classical music as his soundtrack score (though, because the music is so ill-used, Zardoz is unlikely to have as much long-term effect on Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as 2001 has on Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra). But Boorman’s view of human nature and of evolution is not so optimistic as Kubrick’s. Where Kubrick postulated divine intervention and heightened human awareness as the heralds of a new breed of human beings, Boorman sees only the malevolent restrictions of immutable Nature. “Knowledge,” Zed discovers, “is not enough.” The oldest Renegade announces: “The Vortex is an offense against Nature,” and we see Zed as Nature’s revenge against this affront. But Zed is not simply the agent of Nature since he too has been manipulated by the controlling mind of Frayn.
“People are afraid of putting ideas into films,” Boorman has said in a recent interview, “as though for some reason that’s not the place for them.” He is obviously one who feels that ideas should be “put into” films—suggesting that the film, to him, is a kind of depository for thoughts rather than an entity that develops from and around an integral central idea. With Zardoz he puts this into practice, with the result that, for all its action and twists of plot, the film is totally lacking in tension. For one thing, the stunningly decorative creation of the luxuriant Vortex is too fantastical to inspire involvement, only enthusiastic observation. For another, the film’s winding plot and exposition spend so much time establishing the premises and terminology of this new world that the viewer tends to relate each new idea or discovery to the world in the film, never to himself. Thus the film’s overtly moralistic final sequence comes as a bit of a surprise: Zed and Consuela, having escaped the final onslaught of the Exterminators, retire to a cave to begin the human race anew, and live out the rest of their lives in a series of match dissolves taking them from their adult prime to death and dust, all the while staring challengingly at the audience. The conclusion demands that we admit it: Nature’s way (breeding, childbearing, child-raising, aging and death) is, for all its miseries, still the best. Yet this is not a romantic conclusion, but an intensely fatalistic one: for Boorman, Nature is only the final and most absurd manipulator in an ever-ascending hierarchy of controllers and puppetmasters. The Exterminators who control the Brutals are controlled by Zardoz, masterminded in turn by Frayn, who tells us in the prologue that “I am invented, too.” Yet for all this, the film fails to capture the awesome, disturbing awareness of a hierarchy of unseen manipulators that has been so powerfully expressed, fantastically in The Magus and realistically in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. Just before his disembodied head fades out and the film’s credit sequence begins, Frayn reminds us all that we are, like him, invented and manipulated. “Is God in show business, too?” he asks. Perhaps He is. But if so, He seems to be a far less dazzling and altogether stronger director than John Boorman.
Screenplay, Direction, and Production: John Boorman. Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth. Editing: John Merritt. Music: David Munrow, after Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
The Players: Sean Connery, Charlotte Rampling, Sara Kestelman, John Alderton, Sally Ann Newton, Niall Buggy, Christopher Casson.
Copyright © 1974 Robert C. Cumbow