At the Movies: So What About this Midnight Showing of Zardoz?
John Boorman’s ZARDOZ is a psychedelic, science-fiction allegory 0f 1970s America on a path to possible destruction. Zed (Sean Connery) is an ‘Enforcer,’ part of a warrior/exterminating clan controlled by the God-like Zardoz, who appears as a giant floating head in the sky. Zed discovers the secret of Zardoz and infiltrates a secret, utopian land of eternal life (and apathy), whose residents are fascinated by their newest specimen from the outland. Zed’s presence, however, may upset their society’s balance in profound ways.
So says the the Indiana University Cinema program book of Friday night’s midnight showing, to which Wikipedia adds: The film received mixed-to-negative reviews. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times called it a “genuinely quirky movie, a trip into a future that seems ruled by perpetually stoned set decorators. . . The movie is an exercise in self-indulgence (if often an interesting one) by Boorman, who more or less had carte blanche to do a personal project after his immensely successful Deliverance.” Jay Cocks of Time called the film “visually bounteous”, with “bright intervals of self-deprecatory humor that lighten the occasional pomposity of the material.” Nora Sayre, in a 7 February 1974 review for The New York Times, called Zardoz a melodrama that is a “good deal less effective than its special visual effects”. . . a film “more confusing than exciting even with a frenetic, shoot-em-up climax.” Decades later, Channel 4 called it “Boorman’s finest film” and a “wonderfully eccentric and visually exciting sci-fi quest” that “deserves reappraisal”.
Other reviewers have said things ranging from pointing out, as is explained in the film, that the name of the God himself comes from THE WIZARD OF OZ (wiZARD of OZ — get it?), the carnival fake discovered by Dorothy behind the screen, to the fact that Sean Connery spends most of the film wearing an orange diaper. And all this is true: the film is fascinating, yet draggy in places; overly violent in other places yet circling around a sort of philosophical center; visually lovely in places yet, as it ends, at least somewhat disappointing.
So see it. It’s worth at least one look. And as to what it’s about, well, while some point to an H.G. Wells-ish Eloi/Morlock element,* perhaps half way through I began channeling a different book, by Robert Graves, that I’d read many decades ago called SEVEN DAYS IN NEW CRETE.(a.k.a. WATCH THE NORTH WIND RISE depending on whether one has the US or British edition). Graves, noted for novelizations based on Ancient Greece and Rome (e.g. HERCULES, MY SHIPMATE [“retelling” the ARGONAUTICA, the voyage to win the Golden Fleece]; I, CLAUDIUS), wrote this one as his take on a re-created matriocentric utopia as might have existed in Minoan culture before men took over and messed everything up (one may note that, while a point isn’t made of it, the ZARDOZ utopia also appears very woman-based). But Graves’s point is that every so often the “North Wind” must rise, there represented by a contemporary English poet brought purposefully to New Crete and unwittingly bringing about its destruction, because perfection is ultimately, of necessity, a static condition, leaving a choice of knocking it down and starting over or seeing it atrophy.
Or at least that’s the way I remember it.
*One might also see in Zed an echo of the “savage” John in Aldous Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD.