RV!: Point Blank (1967) Dir: John Boorman Date Released: August 1967 Date Seen: November 3, 2010 Rating: 4/5
363) Hell in the Pacific (1968) Dir: John Boorman Date Released: December 1968 Date Seen: November 4, 2010 Rating: 4/5
364) Leo the Last (1970) Dir: John Boorman Date Released: May 1970 Date Seen: November 5, 2010 Rating: 4/5
365) Deliverance (1972) Dir: John Boorman Date Released: July 1972 Date Seen: November 5, 2010 Rating: 4/5
RV!: Zardoz (1974) Dir: John Boorman Date Released: February 1974 Date Seen: November 6, 2010 Rating: 4.5/5
The following is a complete transcript of the introduction I gave to a screening of Zardoz I introduced when I visited San Jose...or thereabouts.
What you’re about to see is inspired madness that needs a fair amount of unpacking to be properly appreciated. It’s something of a camp masterpiece but it’s also totally and completely unique, full of the kind of crackpot ideas that only director John Boorman could come up with. Boorman, most famously the director of Deliverance, Excalibur and Point Blank, has certain key themes that he loves to explore in his best movies and one of them is the concept of arbitrary difference, an idea that’s central to Zardoz.
Zardoz follows Zed, played by Sean Connery, a violent, hyper-sexual badass that infilitrates and destroys a tranquil society of mutant pseudo-intellectuals. Yeah, let that sink in for a sec. Zardoz is set in a distant future where society is broken down into two classes: the first group is the Brutals, who themselves are divided into the Chosen, a group of armed, horseback riding zealots, and the rest of the Brutals, who are basically hunted and murdered by the Chosen for sport and to appease Zardoz, the Brutals gods. The other group are the Eternals, a group of highly evolved intellectuals that in turn shun a group called the Renegades, a cast-off collection of subversive thinkers and trouble-makers.
Boorman, who wrote the script for Zardoz, maintains that there’s no real difference between the Brutals, the Chosen, the Eternals or the Renegades. If anything, they’re all separated by their clothes. The Brutals wear this funny-looking kind of red underwear that look like they’re just a bandanna wrapped held together by the suspenders that bind their bandolier. The male Brutals, the one that get hunted for Zardoz, are all dressed in blazers. The female brutals are all less lucky as their breasts are exposed, most likely because they’re constantly getting raped.
Similarly, the Eternals are highly evolved in that they can telepathically exert control over Zed. But the Eternals also don’t know how to read or write: almost all the information their little communicator rings give them is repeated ad nauseam until they ask a new question. There are likewise a number of blatant spelling errors on the list of surplus items each individual Eternals’ community has to offer each other.
Paganism of Boorman’s spirituality: religion doesn’t nurture people, nature does. But like religion, it’s also a potential hazard and often is. Note the emphasis on bodies of water throughout his films until this point: the water surrounding Alcatraz in Point Blank, the treacherous river in Deliverance, the Pacific Ocean that traps Toshiro Mifune and Lee Marvin’s characters in Hell in the Pacific and the pool that Marcello Mastroianni’s character rediscovers his sense of empathy in in Leo the Last.
Boorman inherently distrusts religion though he also shows that on a basic level, he respects its goals. God is man-made and hence can die. Zed is shown a hall full of busts of gods and goddesses and is told that all of them are dead. “They died of boredom,” he’s told and that’s because they’re not natural but rather overtly artificial. They can die because our imagination can lose interest in them.
Boorman suggests that this tendency towards cyclical deicide is the root of idleness at the heart of the Eternals’ society. Apathy is spreading through the Vortex,” says Friend, Zed’s guide to the Eternals’ world. Everything is voted on and decided by committee, especially crimes of every magnitude. Even the punishment afforded these people allows for an eternal cerebral life: people who commit crimes get prematurely aged but they can never die. Old people are herded together in a menagerie and called “Renegades.” Eternals can’t even kill themselves because when they die, they are almost instantaneously reborn in the Tabernacle in a new fetus body. There’s a basic level of self-loathing in that idea according to Boorman that’s wonderfully expressed in the final statement of a man facing group judgment. After confessing his crimes, the Eternal says, slowly and deliberately: “I hate you all. I hate you all. I hate you all, especially me.”
But the Eternals aren’t just intellectually justified barbarians: they have potential, just like all of the other savages in Boorman’s films, like the mis-shapen boy in Deliverance, who plays the banjo with an almost savant-level of intelligence. The Eternals in Zardoz have so much potential: responsibilities are divied up totally between the sexes and everyone must do their share. Their habitat could be paradise but as it is, it more closely resembles Thomas More’s Utopia, a place where equality is equated to drudgery and similitude leads to a total lack of excitement (note the way the men all wear these elaborate effeminate haircuts and togas).
Of Boorman’s protagonists, Zed most closely resembles Walker in Point Blank. Walker, played by Lee Marvin, is a man out for revenge, just as Zed is, and they’re both agents of chaos in that way. They don’t know how they’re going to get from point A to point B but they do basically know what they want: Walker wants his money and he wants revenge. Zed also wants revenge but he wants something more than money: he wants the truth. Or at least, he thinks he does. He refuses to admit out-right that he came into the Vortex to kill the man he now knew was posing as Zardoz, a false god.
But there’s something rather funny inherent in that concept. Zardoz and the Tabernacle are all of man’s aspirations, all of his knowledge, science, theology and art. In his attempt to destroy them both, Zed and Boorman are encouraging anarchy. There is no viable alternative solution to how humanity can continue without self-destruction: vases must be smashed, art destroyed and ideas have to be digested but only so they can be violently rejected and then recreated from memory. This is what makes Zardoz Boorman’s answer to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain, a film that rejects its own seamlessness as a work of fiction and attempts to rouse the viewer into actively destroying their known environment so that they can build a new one. That level of radical thought is dated, even rather silly now, but it’s still potent thanks to Boorman’s unswerving conviction and out-there images. It’s one of the most unique and exciting American science fiction films of the ‘70s, a decade whose genre films were defined by their revolutionary passion. I don’t think we’ll see another movie quite like Zardoz ever again.