Zardoz is a 1974 Irish-American science fantasy film written, produced, and directed by John Boorman and starring Sean Connery and Charlotte Rampling, and featuring Sara Kestelman. The film was shot by cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth on a budget of US$1.57 million. It depicts a post apocalyptic world (which Boorman says, in the audio commentary, is matriarchal) where barbarians (the "Brutals") worship a stone god called "Zardoz", who has the power to grant either death or eternal life, and who - in the opening scene - declares: "The gun is good! The penis is evil!". In this future dystopia, while the Brutals live in a wasteland, their overlords (the "Eternals") luxuriate in the Vortex, apparently as self-satisfied as landed gentry. The Eternals created Zardoz to control the Brutals, inciting them to mass murder. However, Zed (Sean Connery) refuses to accept the status quo and his place among the oppressed, embarking on a journey that explores the theme of genetic engineering and exposes the devastating truth about the corrupt society he lives in.
Theatrical release poster by Ron Lesser
|Directed by||John Boorman|
|Produced by||John Boorman|
Charles Orme (associate producer)
|Written by||John Boorman & William Stair|
|Music by||David Munrow|
|Edited by||John Merritt|
John Boorman Productions Ltd. (uncredited)
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox (United States)|
Fox-Rank Distributors Ltd. (United Kingdom)
|102 or 104-105 minutes|
|Box office||$1.8 million (US and Canada)|
Boorman decided to make the film after his abortive attempt at dramatising The Lord of the Rings. Burt Reynolds was originally given the role, but when he pulled out (due to illness), Sean Connery, in his post-Bond phase of reinvention, signed on. It was shot entirely in County Wicklow, in the east of Ireland, and used locations at the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation, Hollybrook Hall (now Brennanstown Riding School) in Kilmacanogue, and Luggala mountain - which lies near Boorman's home in Annamoe - for the dramatic wasteland sequences (Boorman used the location for several films, including Excalibur). Lough Tay features prominently. Many of the crew and supporting actors were Irish, including Bosco Hogan, Bairbre Dowling, Christopher Casson and Niall Buggy, who played Arthur Frayn/Zardoz, and appears as a disembodied head which floats across the screen - slowly getting larger - while delivering a monologue in the film's prologue. He proclaims that he is "a fake god by occupation and a magician by inclination...I am the puppet-master". The extras were played entirely by members of Irish Travelling community. John Boorman says, on the audio commentary, that "they were the best extras I've ever had on any picture."
In his commentary to the DVD/Blu-ray (commentary first released in 2000, and included in subsequent releases), Boorman says it "was a very indulgent and personal film" but one he admits he may not have had the budget to properly achieve. While praised for its ambition and scope, critics found the film to be either unconvincing or confusing. Roger Ebert, giving it two and a half stars out of four, said it is "a genuinely quirky movie, a trip into a future that seems ruled by perpetually stoned set decorators....Boorman puts a lot of heavy concepts into “Zardoz”, but seems uncertain whether he takes them seriously himself." It has since been the subject of re-appraisal and become a cult classic, recognised as "one of the wildest, most ambitious films of the 1970s." While awarding it one star, Empire conceded that, while it "misses the mark by a hundred miles", the film "has elements — its badness being one of them — that make it strangely compelling." The LA Times concluded that Boorman achieved his vision to a degree, and that "for fans of wild science fiction, the film is a trippy examination of what happens when intellect overpowers humanity and humans taste immortality". In creating the bizarre imagery and visual pyrotechnics, Boorman says in the commentary that "there was no lab work. No process. Everything was done on the spot", using shadow lenses, projections, mirrors and other techniques.
In a future post-apocalyptic Earth in the year 2293, the human population is divided into the immortal "Eternals" and mortal "Brutals." The Brutals live in a wasteland, growing food for the Eternals, who live apart in "the Vortex," leading a luxurious but aimless existence on the grounds of a country estate. The connection between the two groups is through Brutal Exterminators, who kill and terrorize other "Brutals" at the orders of a huge flying stone head called Zardoz, which supplies them with weapons in exchange for the food they collect. Zed, a Brutal Exterminator, hides aboard Zardoz during one trip, temporarily "killing" its Eternal operator-creator Arthur Frayn.
Arriving in the Vortex, Zed meets two Eternals – Consuella and May. Overcoming him with psychic powers, they make him a prisoner and menial worker within their community. Consuella wants Zed destroyed immediately; others, led by May and a subversive Eternal named Friend, insist on keeping him alive for further study.
In time, Zed learns the nature of the Vortex. The Eternals are overseen and protected from death by the Tabernacle, an artificial intelligence. Given their limitless lifespan, the Eternals have grown bored and corrupt. The needlessness of procreation has rendered the men impotent and meditation has replaced sleep. Others fall into catatonia, forming the social stratum the Eternals have named the "Apathetics." The Eternals spend their days stewarding mankind's vast knowledge – through a voice recognition-based search engine – baking special bread for themselves from the grain deliveries and participating in communal meditation rituals. To give time and life more meaning the Vortex developed complex social rules whose violators are punished with artificial aging. The most extreme offenders are condemned to permanent old age and the status of "Renegades." Eternals who somehow managed to die, usually through some fatal accident, are then reborn into another healthy, synthetically reproduced body that is identical to the one they just lost.
Zed is less brutal and far more intelligent than the Eternals think he is. Genetic analysis reveals he is the ultimate result of long-running eugenics experiments devised by Arthur Frayn – who is Zardoz – who controlled the outlands with the Exterminators, thus coercing the Brutals to supply the Vortices with grain. Zardoz's aim was to breed a superman who would penetrate the Vortex and save mankind from its hopelessly stagnant status quo. The women's analysis of Zed's mental images earlier had revealed that in the ruins of the old world Arthur Frayn first encouraged Zed to learn to read, then led him to the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Zed finally understands the origin of the name Zardoz – Wizard of Oz – bringing him to a true awareness of Zardoz as a skillful manipulator rather than an actual deity. He becomes infuriated with this realization and decides to plumb the deepest depths of this enormous mystery.
As Zed divines the nature of the Vortex and its problems, the Eternals use him to fight their internecine quarrels. Led by Consuella, the Eternals decide to kill Zed and to age Friend. Zed escapes and, aided by May and Friend, absorbs all the Eternals' knowledge, including that of the Vortex's origin, to destroy the Tabernacle. While absorbing their knowledge Zed impregnates May and a few of her followers as he is transformed from a revenge-seeking Exterminator. His subsequent efforts to give the Eternals salvation by bringing them death are in essence acts of mercy. Zed helps the Exterminators invade the Vortex and kill most of the Eternals—who welcome death as a release from their eternal but boring existence. May and several of her followers do escape the Vortex's destruction, heading out to bear their offspring as enlightened but merely mortal beings among the Brutals.
Zardoz ends in a wordless sequence of images accompanied by the sombre second movement (allegretto) of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, snatches of which are heard throughout the film. Consuella, having fallen in love with Zed, gives birth to a baby boy within the remains of the giant stone head. In matching green suits, they sit with the boy standing between them, who matures as they age in a series of dissolves. The youth leaves his parents, who take each other's hands and grow very old, eventually decomposing into skeletons and finally vanishing. Nothing remains in the space but painted handprints on the wall and Zed's Webley-Fosbery revolver. Boorman says in the audio commentary that the handprint in the final close-up is his.
- Sean Connery as Zed
- Charlotte Rampling as Consuella
- Sara Kestelman as May
- Niall Buggy as Arthur Frayn / Zardoz
- John Alderton as Friend
- Sally Anne Newton as Avalow
- Bosco Hogan as George Saden
- Jessica Swift as Apathetic
- Reginald Jarman as voice of Death
- Bairbre Dowling as Star
- Christopher Casson as Old Scientist
Boorman was inspired to write Zardoz while preparing to adapt J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings for United Artists, but when the studio became hesitant about the cost of producing film versions of Tolkien's books, Boorman continued to be interested in the idea of inventing a strange new world. He wrote Zardoz with William (Bill) Stair, a long time collaborator. Boorman said that he "wanted to make a film about the problems of us hurtling at such a rate into the future that our emotions are lagging behind." The original draft was set five years in the future and was about a university lecturer who became obsessed with a young girl whose disappearance prompted him to seek her out in the communes where she had lived. Boorman visited some communes for research, but decided to set the story far in the future, when society had collapsed.
In the audio commentary Boorman says he developed the emergent society, focusing on a central character "who penetrated it. He'd be mysteriously chosen and at the same time manipulated — and I wanted the story to be told in the form of a mystery, with clues and riddles which unfold, the truth slowly peeled away." The script was influenced by the writings of Frank L. Baum, T.S. Eliot and Tolkien, and drew inspiration from medieval Arthurian quests. "It's about inner rather than outer space," said Boorman. "It's closer to the better science fiction literature which is more metaphysical. Most of the science fiction that gives the genre a bad name is adventure stories in space clothes."
"Nobody wanted to do it. Warners didn’t want to do it, even though I’d made a shitload of money for them," Boorman said. His then-agent David Begelman knew the head of 20th Century Fox wanted to make a film with the director, and offered the executive the script to read, but insisted on a decision within two hours. "It's either yes or no," Begelman told him. "You have no approvals, and it’s a million dollars negative pick-up". Boorman said that "[the] Fox guy came to London, and I was very nervous, so we went for lunch whilst he read the script. When he finally came out of the office his hand was shaking, clearly with no idea of what to make of it. Begelman went straight up to him and said, ‘Congratulations!’ He never gave the poor guy a chance."
In April 1973 Boorman announced the film would star Burt Reynolds and Charlotte Rampling. Reynolds had just worked with Boorman on 1972's Deliverance. However, Reynolds had to pull out due to illness and was replaced by Connery. "Connery had just stopped doing the Bond films and he wasn’t getting any jobs, so he came along and did it," said Boorman. Connery's casting was announced in May 1973 the week before filming was to begin. Rampling said she did the film because it is "poetry. It clearly states — love your body, love nature and love what you come from." Boorman had a cameo, as did three of his three daughters, Daisy, Katrine and Telsche.
The film was shot in Ireland, based out of Ardmore Studios in Bray, County Wicklow. Several locals[who?] were hired to help with the production. A group of County Wicklow artisans[example needed] were hired to create many of the film's futuristic costumes. The costumes were designed by Boorman's first wife, Christel Kruse (the credits say they were made by La Tabard Boutique in Dublin), and were creations based on "pure intuition". She decided that, because the Eternals' lives were purely metaphysical and colorless, this should be incorporated in their costumes too. As The Brutals were lower, more primitive beings, Christel decided that they would not care much about what they were wearing, only what was functional and comfortable. As stated in the magazine Dark Worlds Quarterly "functional" and "comfortable" costumes ended up meaning that the costumes were extremely revealing, "It is the costumes for the Brutal Exterminators, and Zed in particular, that raise the eyebrows. Thigh-high leather boots, crossed bandoliers and a pair of shorts that can be described as 'skimpy', the Brutals and Connery in particular exude raw masculinity, particularly as they ride their steeds and fire their guns." 
Financed by 20th Century Fox and produced by Boorman's own self-titled company, John Boorman Productions Ltd. which was based in Dublin, principal photography for Zardoz took place from May to August 1973 . It was reported that Stanley Kubrick was an uncredited technical advisor on the film.
Zardoz was shot entirely on location in County Wicklow in the Republic of Ireland. Some interior shots were filmed at Ardmore Studios in Bray, Co Wicklow,Ireland. Sean Connery lived in Bray while shooting; his house went on the market in 2020, some months before his death.
In the audio commentary, Boorman relates how political and cultural conditions in Ireland at the time affected the production, saying that it was "very difficult to get women to bare their breasts", nudity being a prominent feature in several sequences. He added that a ban on importing rifles which had been imposed because of IRA activity nearly prevented the movie from being made, as a large number of rifles feature in several scenes, especially the climax.
John Boorman controlled all aspects of the film, including the soundtrack. Boorman commissioned David Munrow, director of the Early Music Consort, to write the score. While the film is set in the distant future (the 23rd century approximately), Boorman seemed to believe futuristic music would contain a variety of old-world instruments. Boorman instructed Munrow to use a variety of medieval instruments including notch flutes, medieval bells and gemshorns. These instruments, plus snatches of Beethoven's Seventh, gave the movie a truly unusual soundtrack. As stated by British conductor Sir Anthony Lewis in 1976 "David Munrow did not just emerge into the field of medieval and renaissance music......he exploded into it. He established a standard that can now never be ignored, and the stimulating shock-waves from his explosion will carry far into the future..." 
Along with David Munrow's medieval ensemble, the Zardoz soundtrack features Beethoven's "Symphony No.7" in A, 2nd movement, played by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Conducted by Eugen Jochum.
Zardoz was released in theaters on February 6, 1974, in Los Angeles and New York. When the film was released, it was immediately met with terrible reviews. Along with the scathing reviews, the public reacted very poorly to the confusing world of Zardoz. According to a Starlog Magazine article on Zardoz "these reviewers (and the general public) failed to understand many of Boorman's analogies and philosophical statements". The confusion caused word of mouth to spread very quickly that Zardoz was not worth watching and soon theaters showcasing the bizarre sci-fi were left practically empty. Moviegoers reported that "when dissatisfied patrons from the previous showing exited the lobby, they would encourage those waiting to leave. Many times they did." This bad reaction caused ticket sales to drop immensely. As Zardoz had a budget of $1.57 million and only made $1.8 million at the box office, it is considered to be a commercial failure. The film was later shown on local TV stations as late-night movie fare.
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, Zardoz holds an approval rating of 47%, based on 34 reviews, and an average rating of 5.6/10. Its consensus reads, "Zardoz is ambitious and epic in scope, but its philosophical musings are rendered ineffective by its supreme weirdness and rickety execution."
In a 1974 New York Times article, film critic Nora Sayre wrote "Zardoz, which opened yesterday at the Trans-Lux East, is science-fiction that rarely succeeds in fulfilling its ambitious promises... Despite its pseudo-scientific gimcracks and a plethora of didactic dialogue, Zardoz is more confusing than exciting even with a frenetic, shoot-em-up climax."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave it two-and-a-half stars out of four and 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." Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave it one star out of four and called it "a message movie all right, and the message is that social commentary in the cinema is best restrained inside of a carefully-crafted story, not trumpeted with character labels, special effects, and a dose of despair that celebrates the director's humanity while chastising the profligacy of the audience." Variety reported the "direction, good; script, a brilliant premise which unfortunately washes out in climactic sound and fury; and production, outstanding, particularly special visual effects which are among the best in recent years and belie the film's modest cost."
Jay Cocks of Time called the film "visually bounteous", with "bright intervals of self-deprecatory humor that lighten the occasional pomposity of the material." Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times was generally positive and wrote that its $1.5 million budget was "an unbelievably low price for the dazzle on the screen and a tribute to creative ingenuity and personal dedication. It is a film which buffs and would-be filmmakers are likely to be examining with interest for years to come." Pauline Kael of The New Yorker wrote that the script "lacks the human dimensions that would make us care about the big visual sequences" and burdened the actors with "unspeakable dialogue," and also remarked that Connery "acts like a man who agreed to do something before he grasped what it was."
In 2013 Will Thomas of Empire Magazine wrote of Zardoz "You have to hand it to John Boorman. When he's brilliant, he's brilliant (Point Blank, Deliverance) but when he's terrible, he's really terrible. A fascinating reminder of what cinematic science fiction used to be like before Star Wars, this risible hodge-podge of literary allusions, highbrow porn, sci-fi staples, half-baked intellectualism and a real desire to do something revelatory misses the mark by a hundred miles but has elements – its badness being one of them – that make it strangely compelling."
Decades later, Channel 4 called it "Boorman's finest film" and a "wonderfully eccentric and visually exciting sci-fi quest" that "deserves reappraisal". Despite being mostly panned by critics, Zardoz has since developed a cult following.
Recently the Chicago Reader called it "John Boorman's most underrated film – an impossibly ambitious and pretentious but also highly inventive, provocative, and visually striking SF adventure with metaphysical trimmings."
- Zardoz at the American Film Institute Catalog
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- Celtic Twilight, an 18 February 1974 review from Time magazine
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