Zardoz (1974)

Theater PosterRated: R
Duration: 1h 45min
IMDB Genre Listing: Drama, Fantasy, Romance
Released (USA): February 6, 1974
BIYF Year: 1998 (BIYF I)

Director: John Boorman
Producer: John Boorman
Writer: John Boorman
Music: David Munrow
Starring: Sean Connery, Charlotte Rampling, John Alderton, Sara Kestelman, Niall Buggy

IMDB Description: In the distant future, a savage trained only to kill finds a way into the community of bored immortals that alone preserves humanity’s achievements.

Roger Ebert | Black Hole | 366 Weird Movies | Ruthless Reviews

Arthur Frayn Speaks!
Come, my friends. Before we speak of Zardoz, let us speak of how things began…

So I think it was The Bricker who asked us in late November of 1997 if we’d ever heard of a film called Zardoz. Little did we know how much of an impact this seemingly innocent question would have over the next couple of decades.

A brief discussion followed about the batshit crazy nature of the film, a mention was made of the City Pages annual spring Beer Tasting Festival, and a tentative decision was reached that we could attend the beerfest and then go rent/watch Zardoz and maybe something else at somebody’s place of residence. A good plan. A simple plan. A plan that City Pages decided not to work with us on enacting.

The primative GIF graphic for the initial Beer Is Your Friend event on May 8-10, 1998.

For a reason I can’t remember and which is apparently not documented on The Internet anywhere that I can find, City Pages decided to move their beerfest to the fall in 1998 which would not work for us. Undaunted, we went ahead and planned our own fest – hosted at the Malla/Bricker residence – which included not only drinking… er tasting beer but also watching Zardoz and two additional (and apparently frequently grouped) films.

Despite the fuzzy, low resolution, 4:3 pan-and-scan nature of our rented VHS tape viewing selections…

Despite the fact that someone (possibly me) thought we might actually rate and taste beers critically at this “beerfest” event…

Despite missing two members from the initial group that discussed the idea (apparently it was Mother’s Day or something?)…

Despite all of these things we must have hit on something that worked because BIYF keeps happening every year. Doubtless most of the credit goes to the delightful mix of people that make up our group. You’re the best and I would happily sit and watch anything/drink anything with you at any time. I believe this has now been proven repeatedly. But I also think that the film Zardoz has more than a little to do with the magic of that first BIYF that started us down this path that now heads – after 18 years, 19 previous festivals, about 100 feature-length films, dozens of short films/features, 6 road trip events, and a lot of beer, merchandise, & food – toward a landmark twentieth occurrence next year.

Speaking to you...
The face that launched a thousand beers…

Zardoz is pretty much the template for the type of viewing we’ve come to… appreciate… ?… at BIYF so it’s really no surprise that it won the celebratory BIYF X Movie Voting Showdown. As I re-watched this film to kick off the BIYF Binge for BIYF XX, I found myself thinking about the qualities that define what a “successful” BIYF movie are and how Zardoz pretty much nails them out of the gate. It’s not that I want to peer behind the curtain and expose the Wizard of Oz – or rise up out of the grain bin and shoot Arthur Frayn, as the case may be – but since this is the first of many stops on my nostalgia tour it seemed only logical to try to make sense out of what we watch every spring.

This guy found jumping around worshipping Zardoz on uneven terrain while wearing a vision-limiting helmet challenging.

If you need a refresher on the actual content of the film before we proceed, I encourage you to check out one or more of the reviews linked near the top of this post. There are a variety of styles to suit varied tastes. The Ruthless Reviews one is basically just an incredulous listing of WTF moments from the film that picks up speed as it heads downhill. Not especially insightful, but entertaining nonetheless.

Khal Zed
The Khaleesi hoped against hope that someday her bloodriders would be even half as manly as Zed and his Exterminators.

So what are these qualities I mentioned above? What makes something a “good” BIYF film? That’s something that will always be open to debate, but I think I’ve identified three things with which we can start.

  • The film should be both ambitious and sincere.
  • The film’s reach should exceed its grasp.
  • The film should carefully walk the line between nostalgia and “harsh dose of reality” (a.k.a. “The Twiki Effect”).

Now that’s a pretty short checklist for someone that likes to drone on and on and on in his blog posts, but I think those three points cover a lot of ground.

Ambitious and Sincere
Ambitions and lofty goals show through in production work and performances that seldom (if ever) deliberately wink at the audience to acknowledge the surreality of the work.

The film should be both ambitious and sincere.

I think Zardoz encapsulates this aspect of a BIYF film perfectly. John Boorman was fresh off of the success of Deliverance and pretty much had carte blanche from the studio to do whatever he wanted for his next film. He shot for the stars. It’s clear this film is intended to have a Message. It is plainly meant to be Great Art. It’s Surreal. It’ll Blow Your Mind. Look at the clash/combination of both Ancient and Modern in the sets, the costumes, the music! It’ll be Better Than 2001!

I have no doubt that everything about this production treated it as a serious Film. All of the technical aspects of the film are up-to-snuff (for the time). Technical competence abounds, in fact. Images are striking and sometimes beautiful. The UK actors are all set to “Shakespeare” mode (as opposed to broad comedy or Pantomime – a.k.a. “Panto” – mode). This isn’t to say there aren’t over-the-top performances, but even the over-the-top folks pretty much treat their lines and actions as seriously as if they were performing The Bard regardless of the absurdity inherent in any given scene.

Ambition and sincerity are great. Then there’s execution and creative choices run amok. “Be in the scene, Sean. Be Zed. What would Zed do?” vs. “Maybe try it this time without licking his hand, Sean. I feel like it’s taking away from being able to tell a coherent story.”

The film’s reach should exceed its grasp.

While ambition, sincerity, and good intentions help make a BIYF film, by themselves they aren’t enough to make a film successful, great, or even necessarily watchable. There are plenty of ways to fall short of those goals and true BIYF films are made of these shortfalls. Budget, script, execution, terrible actors, not-so-special-FX… you name it. There are numerous ways to underperform.

Let’s be clear, though: A BIYF film needs to succeed in at least a few areas while still ultimately failing. Otherwise it’s just a bad film. There has to be something that works even as it fails to reach its ambitions.

In the case of Zardoz, I think a lot of the technical aspects came off pretty well. Aesthetic preferences aside, cinematography, costumes, locations, actors, even FX were all decent enough. But it feels like the vision for the film was never truly realized or perhaps even conceptualized past the idea stage. “Half-baked” is the phrase that comes to mind. It might be that the budget started to run out and creativity/imagination failed them on how to realize the script with no money. My theory is that Boorman started making the film while it was really still in the “idea” phase and then got so caught up in the technical bits and visuals and in-the-moment decisions of making the film he never managed to complete “baking” his ideas. Or perhaps there was just too much that was “baked” on the set while working on it…

Bad, Friend. Bad!
Coincidentally, my expression was very similar to this one at the same point in the film (about the 1h15m mark) when my interest finally began to flag during the re-watch. Let me also note here that I made to the end with no alcohol whatsoever. It was about this point where that became challenging, however.

For example, in the picture above the Eternals are supposed to be having a giant groupthink mind meld around a large circular table when Friend finally snaps and openly defies the system. On paper this probably sounded pretty fleshed out. When they got to the studio it seems like nobody had a clue how to represent this visually. What we get amounts to everyone standing around the table with their arms stretched to the center “woo-wooing” away until Friend breaks with them at which point they turn toward him and “woo-woo” him into submission. From about this point in the film onwards it seems like a lot of things could have used a bit more planning and bit less winging it on the set.

Gonna make you sweat.
And then Zed goes and revives the Apathetics. OK, How? Uh… What about his Manly Musk? They could just rub that on themselves somehow… maybe?

In another scene, Zed has to reveal the truth about himself to May. They are interrupted by an angry/jealous Consuella who proceeds to have a telepathic tug-of-war with Zed as she fights to control him. I imagine this conversation:

Assistant: So how are we going to show this? How does Zed show May the truth?

John Boorman: You know how “Get Smart” had the Cone of Silence? What if May has this bedsheet that she puts over Zed and herself that allows her to see the truth? We can afford that, right?

Assistant: “Sheet of Truth,” got it. How about the telepathic tug-of-war? The boys have no idea how to represent that.

John Boorman: Since we’ve already got the sheet, what if Zed & Consuella both grab that and we also make it a LITERAL tug-of-war? Huh? How about that! Then Zed’s Manly Musk causes them all to grope each other and make out and then Consuella makes Zed blind and then we wander off and do something else?

Assistant: Genius!

Make it up as we go.
May’s “Sheet of Truth” bringing people together.

Anyway, for all of the ambition and effort that went into it, Zardoz ends up being a half-baked, often surreal for the sake of being surreal, bizarre piece of eye-candy with the message and vision of the film often succumbing the to the trappings and occasionally random actions of the film. That said, the more I watch it (and this was at least the fifth time I’ve watched it), the more it kinda grows on me.

While I think it’s more than fair to call this film a failure that doesn’t live up to its potential, there are certain demographics that love this film and know beyond question that it was an Important Film. From what I can tell these are mostly old men from the UK and/or hippies that saw it during its theatrical run (not mutually exclusive sets). As such, I think it’s also fair to say that it has managed to find its own odd form of success. At least for some. Possibly me. Help.

Marry me, Friend.
Sean found a wedding dress somewhere and put it on. Let’s run with that.

The film should carefully walk the line between nostalgia and “harsh dose of reality” (a.k.a. “The Twiki Effect”).

I think it’s safe to say that many of the films we watch at BIYF, while not necessarily being things we have already watched or remember watching, are films that call back to something in our youth. They might be the type of films we snuck into early in our adolescence before we were really supposed to see them. They might be the sort of “classics” that we watched on TV as a kid. They might be landmark films that everyone knew, loved, and quoted – though you may have only seen them edited for TV. BIYF films typically have strong ties to the past.

Sometimes this is a plus, sometimes not. When this works we call it nostalgia, a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations. When it doesn’t work, you may have your warm fuzzy memories tainted by a fresh and often unwelcome perspective that sours your ability to indulge in nostalgia. We’ve come to think of this as the “Twiki Effect.” As in “I used to think Twiki was awesome, but seeing him now I realize how awful and annoying he is.” Zardoz is a pretty good example of a film that touches on both the good and the bad sides of this coin without tipping over into the “this is now ruined for me forever” zone.

And that balancing act is important. Too much on the favorable side doesn’t necessarily make a film bad. In fact, it probably means it’s actually a good overall film and not really a true BIYF film. If it goes too far in the other direction, chances are it’s just a horrible film and you just couldn’t see it for what it was as a kid. It also means that it probably won’t succeed enough to really be a BIYF film either. Our stuff lies somewhere in the grey zone between the extremes.

Your mileage will vary, of course, as this is an especially subjective area. My past is not your past and so we’ll filter things differently. I think I can find a relatable example of each side of the coin for you in Zardoz, however.

One of the things that warms the cockles of my heart about Zardoz is its pre-1977 sci-fi surreal-ness. Before Star Wars came along and codified everything that the big studios thought sci-fi had to be, there was so much more variation to things. TV shows like The Wild Wild West and the original Star Trek had a creativity to them driven as much by this structural freedom as by limited budgets and gave us weekly examples of wild variety. Whether you love or hate the trappings and aesthetics of Zardoz, you have to admit it isn’t built to a cookie-cutter formula. Score one for nostalgia.

Score one for nostalgia.
No matter what you think it is, it’s definitely not “Star Wars.”

On the flip side, Zardoz has an inherent misogynistic undertone running through it that was not uncommon in films of the era. You don’t have to look too hard to find it even in major long-running film franchises which also starred our hirsute leading man Zed. While Zardoz isn’t the worst example of this out there, it does suck a bit of the fun out of watching/mocking it when you realize no one used to even bat an eye at such things. Boorman probably didn’t receive a single note from the studio pointing it out. It was “normal” and that’s unpleasant. Bidde-bidde-bidde.

Why did Connery agree to make this film again? Oh.
She seems unimpressed, Zed.

Still, the sheer amount of crazy in this film assures that no agenda, good or bad, gets too much emphasis and it manages to land in the middle of the no-man’s-land that is BIYF Cinema. Ambitious and pretentious yet scatter-shot and insane. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes incomprehensible, always Zardoz.

How can I have watched this film as many times as I have and not remember that the “cave” in which they live out their final days is actually the ruins of the giant flying stone head of Zardoz?

If you’ve made it this far into the post, congratulations. Your wait is almost over! I’ve done my best to textually emulate the experience of watching the film for you. There’s ambition and pretentiousness. I’ve no doubt gotten some things right and some things wrong and I’ve done my best to tug at your nostalgia heartstrings regarding the First BIYF Ever™ (1998). I hit a point while re-watching the film (at about 1 hour, 15 minutes) where I began to falter in my resolve and I’m guessing many of you felt that way two thirds of the way through reading this. As an apology/thank you, please help yourself to these Zardoz-related audio materials I’ve re-posted below to replace those wiped out in the great purge of 2016:

Zardoz by Zzebra
The original 7″ promotional album featuring two tracks “inspired” by the film. Credited to the group Zzebra and released in 1974. Click on the image to download a ZIP file.
Sounds of Zardoz
The 2016 BIYF commemorative “Sounds of Zardoz” album featuring excerpts from the soundtrack and John Boorman commentary track of the film. Click on the image to download a ZIP file.

All kidding aside, this post ran on waaaaaaay loooooonger than I ever intended for it to go and I think it’s safe to say most BIYF Binge posts will be significantly briefer. I ended up wanting to cover a lot of ground and it apparently is not in my nature to be succinct. I could probably use an editor. Good thing I married one, though I don’t think I could pay her enough to cover the overtime…

Please comment below and let me know your thoughts on and/or memories of BIYF 1998, the qualities that define a true BIYF film, and, of course, Zardoz itself. Thanks for sticking around till the bitter end!

That's all for now.
Just one more image and then it will all be over.

3 thoughts on “Zardoz (1974)”

  1. Bravo! I don’t even know where to start (as I sit here being hypnotized by BIDI BIDI BIDI BIDI BOOTY BOOTY BOOTY on repeat. Thanks for that, by the way). Great analysis of the film and its appeal to our group. It took me right back to the sunporch on Vincent nineteen years ago. Zardoz really is the ur-BIYF movie. For now, just one correction: You say “My past is not your past” but I think our conversations over the last quarter century have shown how false that statement is!

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