I screened this film last week for co-critic Justin Souther and another friend. By the time I got home from the showing, an e-mail awaited me from the other friend. It read, “What the f**k did we just watch?” Considering that this is a question I’ve been working on without resolution for some 30-odd years, I couldn’t answer him. John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974) is the kind of movie that could only have been made in the years between 1965 and 1975. It seems incredible today that it was made for a major studio—20th Century Fox—and given a general release, but was only mildly unusual in 1974 when filmmakers ruled the scene and experimentation was encouraged. Whatever else Zardoz is, it’s certainly experimental. We are, after all, talking about a singular vision of the future that’s most famous—or infamous—for featuring Sean Connery wearing a large red diaper. This is simply not your everyday sci-fi/fantasy flick.
As to just what it is, that’s another matter. Put bluntly, it’s an incredibly pretentious collection of often-clashing ideas, startling images and drug-culture nonsense. That last is almost certainly how it got made in the first place—the studio figured that stoned-out audiences would get off on all the trippy pictures and just accept the rest as somehow profound. In this regard, they erred, since Zardoz was a colossal flop. Boorman’s radical vision was—and is—too radical. Oh, the story line is easy enough to follow—assuming you accept the basic premise of a class system constructed on the humbuggery of The Wizard of Oz (hence, Zardoz) and the idea that Zed (Connery) finds himself unable to “pay no attention to that man behind curtain.” The problem lies in what the damned thing means or attempts to mean. At points it seems to be attacking the very culture it was aimed at, and it’s hard not to wonder if even Boorman knew exactly what he was trying to say. That said, he says whatever it is in a fascinating manner of the kind that only a truly great filmmaker could. Boorman’s visuals and his use of music—especially the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony—are extraordinary. His daring to attempt such an ambitious film greatly outweighs its muddled quality and occasionally laughable dialogue. If nothing else, Zardoz is unique. Catch it now—just in case the rumors of Boorman making an animated film of the actual Wizard of Oz turn out to be true.