Mysticism in Film: ‘Zardoz’ (1974)

❉ ‘The Gun is Good… The Penis is Evil!’ Here’s the nonsense that is Zardoz.

“And you, poor creatures, who conjured you out of the clay? Is God in show business too?”

I thought this would be interesting. Fun, even. A light hearted romp through master of hit-or-miss John Boorman’s most WTF effort, Zardoz. But then, where to begin? Surely not with the endlessly repeated image of 70s pornstached Sean Connery in an orange jockstrap and thigh-high boots so kinky Lina Romay would have thought twice about wearing?

You can never unsee this.

Zardoz feels like the concoction classicist who got really, really stoned one night and wrote down as many concepts that 100 pages would allow. Boorman admits to smoking a lot of weed whilst making this movie.

The very opening shot introduces us to Arthur Frayn (Niall Buggy), a Gnostic false god, whose disembodied head floats about against a black background and addresses the camera, telling us, “I am Arthur Frayn, and I am Zardoz.” He also has what looks like a pair of underpants on his head and a moustache and beard drawn on with crayon. He then attempts to explain the premise of the movie, because test audiences had no idea what was going on. He claims to have lived 300 years, and that death is no longer possible. He is the puppet master, and everything we’re about to see is (or so he thinks) engineered by him. This information is only half-useful.

Arthur Frayn–God of underpants.

Once Frayn is done “explaining” things, we cut to a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where hundreds of armed horseman wearing aforementioned orange loin cloth nappy arrangements hail the arrival of their god, Zardoz; an immense stone head (apparently modelled after Boorman’s own) that floats through the clouds and comes to land in front of them. It’s a weird, half impressive, half laughable image that has the overall effect of being intriguingly surreal, and if the entire film were some sort of fantasy quest movie set After The End, it might have been a delightfully silly romp.

Unfortunately (in the best possible way, of course) it isn’t; it’s a deeply pretentious mess, made by a director with a god complex hot off a string of hits and given carte blanche. The trouble is, even Boorman himself admits he doesn’t understand what half the film is about, and to do something this weird, you need someone like Alejandro Jodorowsky; listen to Jodorowsky commentary track on the glorious The Holy Mountain (1973). Every single tiny detail within every frame has a deeper meaning and is there for a reason.

‘The Gun is Good… The Penis is Evil!’

Anyway…

After his flock has gathered, the stone head announces, “The gun is good. The Penis is evil.” and tells them to, “Go forth and kill.” Zardoz then vomits up a huge pile of guns and ammo. It turns out these nattily attired gentlemen are Exterminators, and they have been selected from the general population, known as Brutals, for their genetic purity.

To be fair, these early sequences do have an amazing look to them, anticipating the aesthetic of the more fantasy-oriented stories of Metal Hurlant/Heavy Metal, the first issue of which would appear in December of the same year.

James Bond… I mean, Sean Connery, trying really, REALLY hard not to be James Bond.

One of the Exterminators, Zed (Sean Connery, trying to escape the Bond role) stows away amongst the piles of grain the Exterminators have forced the Brutals to load aboard. There he finds Arthur Frayn and shoots him. Frayn declares, “Without me you are nothing!” He then falls from the mouth of the head, presumably to his death.

However…

The stone head crosses over an invisible force field and eventually comes to rest in a bizarre rural commune populated by a band of immortal psychic hippies known as Eternals. Since they can no longer die, they no longer need to reproduce, hence all the males are impotent, which leads to a hilarious scene in which Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) gives a lecture on “penic” erection, complete with a handy animation, and wet booby porn to boot. She’s outraged to discover none of this stimulates Zed; she herself “does the trick.”

May and Consuella debate what to do with the rapey murderous savage that has fallen into their midst. Perhaps they should debate getting a new interior designer as well.

Zed is the subject of much debate amongst the bored Eternals. It’s a matriarchal world in which May (Sara Kestelman) is calling for new births even though none are needed, and Consuella is constantly condemning sex as a vile, degrading and base. Of course, the arrival of Zed, this hairy, animalistic personification of masculinity, has stirred up everyone’s long repressed desire; even the Apathetics, a class of catatonic immortal who’ve simply given up the will even to move.

It’s this plague of ennui-induced paralysis that prompted Frayn / Zardoz to instruct the Exterminators to initiate a forced farming programme with the Brutals as slaves, since the Eternals are rapidly running out of people willing to contribute to the upkeep of their infrastructure.

Zed explores his god’s home.

On top of all this, there’s a mysterious super computer called the Tabernacle running the show (the Gnostic true god, if you will), so if anyone is killed by murder, accident or suicide, the Tabernacle rebuilds them, and if anyone steps out of line, they’re sentenced to ageing, which means there’s a bunch of Renegades who have to spend the rest of eternity as very “old farts,” a fate which befalls Friend (John Alderton), an immortal in league with Arthur Frayn, after he refuses to link minds with everyone else and goes off on a rant about hating women, fertility and life, but which makes you wonder if it’s not just an embodiment of sexual frustration.

‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead…’ Cosmic trickster Arthur Frayn celebrates his resurection with a bit of T.S. Eliot

After a series of increasingly bizarre plot twists and adventures, Zed gains enlightenment, impregnates May and her followers and finally learns his true destiny from the resurrected Arthur Frayn; the immortals have a death wish, but need someone else to find and destroy the Tabernacle, since the founders of their community put in too many safeguards to allow them to do it themselves.

Eventually, all this tension boils over into violence. The Apothetics discover violence and desire, Consuella whips up an angry mob, Nietzsche and T.S. Eliot quotes get thrown about, and Consuella comes to the conclusion that rather than stab a bloke who looks like Sean Connery, she’d rather run off with him and live in the crashed remains of the stone head to have his babies.

Magritte’s Castle of the Pyrenees, the inspiration for the stone head.

The problems with Zardoz are the very reasons it’s worth seeking out. Unlike most films, which are over-simplistic, Zardoz has way too many ideas. A major plot twist involving the true origins of Zardoz occurs half way through the movie. I won’t spoil it on the off chance you don’t know what it is, but it’s the sort of thing most films would have left to the end.

The film’s packed full of highbrow references that don’t really go anywhere; as Zed ransacks Frayn’s apartment, for example, he finds Rene Magritte’s Castle of the Pyrenees hanging on the wall; a clear inspiration for the gravity-defying stone head. In the same scene, we get Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, the Kabbalah, and Darwinism chucked at us within a matter of seconds.

If nothing else, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth conjures soft-focus images that are hauntingly dream-like, accompanied by medieval music expert David Munrow’s gorgeous choral and organ version of Beethoven’s 7th.


 About the author: Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became an actor and has appeared in several film and television productions.

 Jonathan Sisson’s 2001 film ‘The Institute’ is now online on Vimeo and can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/193049022

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