Here’s a hypothetical for you: if you could go back in time and be a fly on the wall at any movie premiere, which one would you attend? There are a million correct answers to this question, and frankly, I’m not even sure what my final answer would be, but a safe bet to make the cut would be the premiere of John Boorman’s Zardoz on February 6th, 1974. Imagine if you will, a roomful of people seeking refuge from a nippy February day at their local movie house, excited to see that latest effort from the person who made Deliverance two years prior. Plus Sean Connery, James friggin’ Bond himself, was cast as the lead. You can see how people might have been led to think that this would be just another day at the pictures, evocative poster be damned: Boorman and Connery, as a dual Oscar nominee and one of the most popular actors on God’s green earth at the time respectively, lent the project heft, even a little prestige. What they ended up getting instead was one of the last great acid hangover movies, the last gasp of this particular flavour of hulked-out paperback science-fiction before Star Wars came along and spit-shined it into profitability.
But in order to talk about Zardoz, we have to talk first about The Lord of the Rings. After the success of Deliverance, Boorman was commissioned by United Artists to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy after an initial version, which was to be directed by Stanley Kubrick and to star the Beatles, fell though, partially because Kubrick (rightly) was wary of the project’s scale, and because Tolkien was in his late 70s and thought very little of Liverpool’s finest interpreting his work. But even when it became clear that Kubrick was onto something and the Boorman version of the project was scrapped, the experience did serve as a springboard for the stratified, ritualistic world of Zardoz. Instead of royals and peasants, or elves and hobbits as it were, there are Eternals and Brutals. They are, respectively, the bored immortal upper crust and the violent, barbarous brutes of this post-apocalyptic nightmare, because Zardoz is not a film that trades in nuance. Case in point: the Exterminators, the gun-toting, floating head-worshipping upper caste of Brutals that Connery’s Zed is a part of, initiators of the telling call-and-response of “The gun is good!/The penis is evil!”
For a movie with no actual penises in it, Zardoz is incredibly phallic. Right from the jump, a giant floating stone idol vomits enough M16s and MP40s to arm a small island nation. Elsewhere, Consuela (the Eternal skeptic-cum-love interest portrayed by Charlotte Rampling with way more class and brio than the role deserves) attempts to arouse Zed via an approximation of erotic imagery, only for she herself to have the desired effect on him, demonstrated to us solely through a glance downwards, a jaunty Steve Howe-esque guitar solo, and Zed’s doofy smirk. Who else but Connery could have truly embodied this knuckle-dragging warlord who, through the power of one of the most jaw-droppingly absurd reveals I can think of, upends a society of sexless elites to become the one true Ubermensch? You cast Connery in Zardoz for the same reason you cast him in Marnie or The Rock: the cultural baggage he comes with makes for instant metatext. As the first–and by many accounts, best–Bond, Connery is iconic and masculine in a way no other mere role can dilute. Given this, plus the way his character is treated in this film–that is to say ogled, caressed, treated like a sideshow curio–Sean Connery might as well have been a walking erection in red leather wrestling briefs.
Everything about Zardoz–the indulgent imagery, the weird sexual politics, its eroticism devoid of sensuality, the dully opulent set design, the sheer headiness of the whole operation despite the superficial silliness–screams “bummer Seventies.” It hasn’t aged gracefully, but it has become a time capsule, a window back to the few years where this kind straight-faced lunacy could get funding and distribution if not exactly contemporaneous acclaim. This is a classic your-mileage-may-vary movie: if you don’t have an appetite for kaleidoscopic sci-fi window dressing and gleefully bizarre world-building choices, this may not do it for you. But Boorman’s flair for the mythic shines through; Zardoz’s boisterousness and exuberance do lay the groundwork for the amazing Excalibur seven years later. Just make sure you know ahead of time what you’re in for.
Directed by John Boorman; written by John Boorman; starring Sean Connery, Charlotte Rampling, Sara Kestleman, John Alderton, Sally Anne Newton, and Niall Buggy; 105 minutes.