A Look Back At The Ludicrous: Zardoz (Part 1)

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I’ve had great fun writing about Star Trek and MST3K, and apparently being the worst person on earth because I did not care for Batman v. Superman. But those are all current pop-culture staples, and all capable (at least in theory) of being good. One of the things that attracted me to the job in the first place was the opportunity to write about ludicrous films of yesteryear — the ones that never had a chance of being anything but ridiculous.

That, I think you’ll agree, is a noble calling. And we’re going to kick things off with perhaps the single greatest ridiculous movie I have ever seen: the 1974 sci-fi masterpiece Zardoz.

Zardoz the Great and Powerful

Zardoz, for the unititiated, stars Sean Connery and features a supporting cast of Charlotte Rampling and Connery’s barely-concealed penis. It (the movie, not Connery’s penis) was written and directed by John Boorman, fresh off his triumphant turn as director of Deliverance. The director of photography was the celebrated Geoffrey Unsworth, who had already lensed A Night to Remember and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and would go on to shoot A Bridge Too Far, Return of the Pink Panther, and Superman. A lot of talent went into this picture, is what I’m saying. Of course, very little of it is apparent onscreen.

Warning: Spoilers ahead

The film, set in 2293, opens with a man wearing a blue towel on his head delivering a monologue directly to the camera. The man also wears a mustache and goatee drawn with eyebrow pencil. No attempt is made to hide this. In fact, the mustache sports little curlicues at the ends.

Zardoz
This doesn’t bode well.

 

We then cut to a giant, floating stone head– the eponymous Zardoz — descending on a barren plain. Worshipers gather round the head, which is clearly their god. The head tells the worshipers that they’re the Chosen, the “Exterminators” who are charged to kill the “Brutals.” In case you’re wondering, “Brutals” are apparently semi-savage humans who populate this post-apocalyptic world.

“The gun is good. The penis is evil,” says the head. The Exterminators voice enthusiastic agreement, proving that no matter what else is different in 2293, at least the Southern Baptists are still going strong. The head then vomits dozens of shotguns and hundreds of shotgun shells onto the crowd.

It was at this point that I decided that this was the greatest movie ever made.

A brief pause here to consider something, though. This movie was made in 1974. Sean Connery was already — and had long been — the biggest star in the world. John Boorman had already been decked in laurels for Deliverance. Geoffrey Unsworth had already done 2001. Now, Boorman wrote this thing, so I guess he had a vested interest. But Unsworth and Connery? I want you to read the above synopsis again. It only covers the first five minutes of the film, but read it again anyway. I’ll wait.

Cue ‘Jeopardy’ theme

Done? Good. Okay. Now, bearing in mind what you’ve just read, I want you to imagine Sean Connery, the biggest star in the world, and Unsworth, the DP for Stanley Freaking Kubrick, reading that far into the actual screenplay for Zardoz and thinking, “I have to be involved in this!”

Digression over. Back to the film.

Now comes the credit sequence, superimposed over a long shot of the stone head flying through the clouds. It was here that I found out that Geoffrey Unsworth was the DP for this movie. I don’t often say “What the f**k?!?” aloud when watching TV, but I did here. At any rate, the credits end and we zoom in toward the open mouth of the stone head. Then we cut inside to see the head is hollow. Inexplicably, there’s a pile of grain on the floor.

Even more inexplicably, Sean Connery suddenly bursts out from under the grain. How he got there in the first place is not immediately explained. Connery is carrying a six-shooter and wearing what seems to be the uniform of the Exterminators. This uniform consists of crisscrossed ammo bandoliers, thigh-high boots, and an orange speedo.

That’s it. That’s all he’s wearing. And pretty soon he’ll be losing the bandoliers.

Zardoz - Sean Connery
Dear god, WHY?

Suddenly, Connery hears a noise and hides. From somewhere (who knows where; the inside of the head seems a lot bigger than strictly possible) comes the blue-towel-headed guy who delivered the prologue. Connery shoots him (why not?) and he falls through the open mouth of Zardoz and plummets to his apparent death.

The Vortex

The head eventually lands in “The Vortex,” which looks a lot like a country home in England. The Vortex, as if you didn’t know, is the place where the immortal “Eternals” live. They secretly run the world by piloting these Zardoz heads around the “Outlands” and keeping the uneducated mortal populace in check. While checking out the neighborhood, Connery is captured by two Eternals named May and Consuela (Rampling).

They want to know how he got inside the Vortex, and take him to what I’m guessing is an interrogation room. The room is lined with naked people. I don’t mean pictures of naked people. I mean the walls are lined with actual naked people, suspended in various poses. Lots of naked people in this movie. Connery himself is laid spread-eagle on a table so the Eternals can read his thoughts. No, I don’t know why he has to be spread-eagle for them to read his thoughts. Apparently in the 1970s you could only read Sean Connery’s mind if he was giving you a good, long look at his area.

Zardoz - exam
“Look on my groin, ye mighty, and despair!”

 

At any rate, Consuela and May don’t get too far in discovering how  Connery snuck aboard the head. He’s intellectually primitive compared to the Eternals, and his thoughts are fragmentary at best.

They do find out that he killed the towel-headed guy, now identified as Arthur. A computer voice tells them that Arthur is now being reconstructed. They look at the nude-studded wall and see, suspended among the naked adults, a fetus. “Ah, so he is,” they say.

The Connery Conundrum

Consuela is for killing Connery at once. Considering all the splaying and presenting he’s doing on that table, I agree with her. May, however, will have none of it. The Eternals need to study this “animal.”

Connery is put to work doing menial labor for the Eternals, under the charge of May and a male Eternal named Friend. All the Eternals, incidentally, are effete English twentysomethings, which seems to be the rule for immortals in post-apocalyptic societies. In spite of his primitive nature, Connery shows some native intelligence and curiosity, so Friend and May tell him a bit about life in the Vortex. The Eternals, it seems, are protected from death by the Tabernacle, a supercomputer. They cannot die. If they do, they are merely reconstructed by the Tabernacle. Friend even admits to committing suicide a few times from boredom.

They can, however, age. This is used as punishment for infractions great and small; if an Eternal commits a crime, he or she might be sentenced to age six months, or a year, or whatever. Too many infractions, and you end up old and senile, but still unable to die. Friend shows Connery where they keep the Eternals who couldn’t stay in line. Hilariously, it’s a building full of old people who are yelling and waving their arms around like idiots. A couple are fighting with plastic swords. If that’s senility, count me in! It looks like a blast!

And that’s where we’ll stop for today. Check out the second half of my review, coming soon. Meanwhile, here’s my capsule review of the first half:

Zardoz is what you’d get if Logan’s Run suffered a terrible head injury after a high-speed collision with that old Star Trek episode about space hippies, then languished in the hospital and had Sean Connery’s dick grafted to it while still comatose. In other words, the greatest film ever made.

Click here for Part 2

Ryan Smith
Ryan Smith is a writer and podcaster living in Denver. He is still angry at Fox for canceling "The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr."

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