As far as religious creeds go, ‘the gun is good and the penis is evil’ surely ranks amongst the quirkiest. ‘Love thy neighbour’? Peace and harmony? Pshaw. As I’ve come to realise, penis envy and violence are the staples of any good weekend – not to mention film – an idea that Zardoz confirmed for me earlier this week.
Taking place in a desolate post-apocalyptic Ireland, Zardoz depicts humanity on its knees, split between three segregated societies. The Brutals; savage zealots governed by a stone god called Zardoz, follow the aforementioned creed to the letter, while the Eternals – an immortal group of scientists and thinkers – hide in a secluded utopia called The Vortex, safe from the Brutals’ genocidal sprees. In between these two opposing sides rest the Apathetics, people that are… well, a bit apathetic towards everything. Needless to say, over the course of the film’s runtime, the three groups intersect a fair bit.
Sean Connery plays Zed, a Brutal who discovers the world of The Vortex, but perhaps more importantly, wears very little except a red diaper and a pair of leather boots for the duration of the film. Most likely owing to his egregious defiance of the laws of fashion, taste and aesthetics, Zed is subsequently made a slave to the Eternals, and forced to reign in his violent and sexual deviancies in favour of a life on the leash. From here – assuming it hadn’t already done so – the plot proceeds to fly off the rails and into orbit.
For the Eternals, aging is a semi-voluntary practice, a punishment doled out to those who exhibit any aggressive tendencies or thoughts. Those who fall too far foul of the aging process are locked up in a shed in Utopia’s back garden, and with the assistance of these outcasts, who wish for nothing more than death, Connery sets out to lead a revolution in the name of mortality, stopping along the way to grimace at holo-projected porn-flicks, leer at unassuming women, and to learn all of the secrets of the cosmos.
I feel like the descriptor ‘batshit insane’ has been thrown around too much, but Zardoz’s world was made for it. This film is the special kind of illogical – something so far removed from reality and conventional thought that it somehow comes back full circle and adopts its own enclosed, understandable systems of operation. A lot of this film is so conceptually obtuse that it’s a wonder it ever got given the go-ahead, and yet you probably won’t realise how ridiculous it all is until long after the credits have rolled.
At risk of spoiling a near-forty year old film, Zardoz’s high-concept antics extend far beyond the ‘Brutals versus Eternals’ promise of its description; there’s also a whole load of stuff about demigods, all-knowing artificial intelligences and eugenics, plus it has one of the most sombre – yet unwittingly hilarious – ending sequences ever conceived.
This is echoed in the set and costume design – the most obvious example, of course, being Connery’s own indulgence in the crib-couture look, extending outwards into the general design of the world, consisting of rural farmsteads and idyllic manors draped in futuristic rubber and spangled bits, a clear cut from the ‘just for the hell of it’ school of set design. Feast your eyes on Zardoz for just half an hour, and chances are you’ll find the most profound sense of inner peace achievable via the medium of a flaming red pair of briefs.
That’s not to say Zardoz is without its problems. Heck, if a film with this premise had actually fully delivered, we’d probably all be worshipping it like Zardoz himself right now.
You see, as Connery proceeds to better himself as a person and guides an overwhelmingly contrived and campy coup to liberate the Vortex and the people within, the film quickly outstays its welcome, sinking into complete self indulgence on director John Boorman’s part. Following the respective heights of Deliverance and James Bond, Boorman and Connery were given a dangerous level of creative freedom with Zardoz, and while it’s left us with an intense and oftentimes hilarious visual display, the fact remains that a lot of the film is also spent watching the script try to untangle itself from its numerous excesses.
This perhaps explains why, for all of its great moments – including a scene in which a group of Eternals experiment with Connery’s ability to get it up, and a montage that shows us the learning of everything, ever – Zardoz is only remembered in hushed tones, usually as ‘that film with the red diaper’. Times have moved on, and I doubt that Zardoz even hit all of its marks way back in 1974. There’s a lot going on here, some of it thought provoking, a lot of it hilarious (intentionally and otherwise), but most of it laborious.
Struggle through to the other side, however, and you won’t regret it; whether you choose to adopt it as a serious commentary on post-60’s society or, more likely, a cheap giggle in between shots of Connery’s groin, there’s plenty to enjoy here. Zardoz is the pinnacle of Hollywood excess, filmed on a budget.