The Gist (Zardoz)
"A lot of this can be very laughable, really, if you don't enter into the spirit of the thing." - John Boorman

Short-listed as One of the Worst Movies Ever Made (alternatively, One of the Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made) and remaindered to the kitsch corner with Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) and Michael Sarne's Myra Breckinridge (1970), John Boorman's Zardoz (1974) has been assessed less often on its own merits than on the costume star Sean Connery was made to wear in it. Playing a post-apocalyptic warrior of the wasteland stamping the blighted terra in knee-high leather boots and a crimson nappy with bandoleer suspenders while sporting a braided hairpiece and a porn'stache, Connery was light years beyond the comfort zone of his career-defining work in Eon Productions' James Bond franchise (which took him from Dr. No in 1962 to Diamonds Are Forever in 1971) and even such resume-expanding side bars as Irvin Kershner's A Fine Madness (1966) and Sidney Lumet's The Anderson Tapes (1971), for which the actor had deglamorously tossed out his toupee. If Connery seemed oddly at home playing Zardoz's stupefied stranger in a strange land, it may be because the role cut somewhat close to the truth.

After turning his back on the security of playing secret agent 007, Connery's career trajectory becalmed, with the major Hollywood studios unsure of what to do with him. Though he had shown a flair for comedy, no one wanted him for lighter fare. Though he had played darkly romantic leads in such prestige films as Mikhail Kalatozov's The Red Tent (1969), Martin Ritt's The Molly Maguires (1970), and Lumet's The Offence (1971), Hollywood was turning away from middle aged heroes to favor such relative newcomers as Al Pacino, James Caan, and Burt Reynolds. Reynolds had emerged from a decade of minor movie work and a run of failed television series as the star of Boorman's Appalachian endurance test Deliverance (1972) and it was to him that Boorman first offered the lead in Zardoz. When Reynolds proved unavailable, Connery was all too willing to fill the gap. A freewheeling riff on pet themes that have informed Boorman's work on such films as Point Blank (1967), Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), and Excalibur (1981) - namely magic, mysticism, art, music, sexuality, and the fragility of personal identity - Zardoz revealed a different kind of Sean Connery, a novelty which moviegoers worldwide seemed disinclined to appreciate.

Zardoz occupies a notch on a science fiction continuum split between big budget spectacle (a wildly variable field represented, on the high end, by Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968] and, on the low, by Michael Anderson's Logan's Run [1976]) and quieter, more contemplative fare (Robert Fuest's The Last Days of Man on Earth [1973], Robert Altman's Quintet [1979]) that marches to the beat of a different drum in the face of near-unanimous contumely from its target audience. Shot on an exceedingly low budget (Connery gave up his star's right to a car and driver and split the cost with Boorman, in whose house he bivouacked during filming) in Ireland's County Wicklow, Zardoz plays like a traveling theatre troupe trunk show, staging jaw-dropping setpieces with, at times, little more than some scarves and colored lights. Elsewhere, old timey in-camera special effects evoke the fin-de-siècle experiments of Georges Méliès while British and Irish actresses cavort with a topless abandon that even the increasingly more permissive Bond movies had not yet attained. Connery looks, at times, suitably nonplussed, his bull-like animus and four-ply chest hair selling the veracity of his New Age primitive, whose encounter with a world of aristocratic but enervated "Eternals" (personified by Charlotte Rampling, Sara Kestelman, and John Alderton) brings about the end of the world as we have never known it.

Though inspired by the novels of Frank L. Baum, Zardoz steers clear of overt sympathy with The Wizard of Oz (1939) and seems closer kin to two other films released around the same time: Woody Allen's Sleeper (1973) and Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man (1973). All three concern the intersection of incompatible philosophies and the nettlesome arrival of an outsider whose lack of sophistication and quizzical nature upset the established order. Though Boorman and Allen share an influence in Aldous Huxley, it is The Wicker Man with which Zardoz is more intriguingly contrasted. Both films are seated in the controlling nature of religion, a stranglehold challenged by protagonists who are, despite their job descriptions (a cop in The Wicker Man, an exterminator in Zardoz), innocents whose lack of guile undermines the collective illusion. The Wicker Man's Sergeant Howie fails in his hero's journey because his answer to superstition is merely a competing superstition while Connery's brutish Zed succeeds by wiping the slate clean and returning humanity to its point of origin, prolonging the race at the expense of exalting a higher power who never seemed good for much in the first place.

By Richard Harland Smith


John Boorman, director's commentary, Zardoz DVD (20th Century Fox, 2001)
Sean Connery interview by Gordon Gow, Films and Filming (March 1974)
Charlotte Rampling interview by Alex Scott, Venice (June 2001)
Charlotte Rampling interview by Sean Macaulay, The Telegraph (May 2003)