As we write, today is Sean Connery‘s 90th birthday. The very epitome of the suave, debonair, smooth Hollywood leading man, Connery has lent his chiseled visage and distinguished voice to some of the most famous roles in movie history. He has voiced Draco the dragon in DragonHeart (1996) (“I AM the last one!”), played Indie’s dad in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), stolen the show as King Agamemnon in the high fantasy cult classic Time Bandits (1981), and of course regaled generations of viewers with his spellbinding portrayal of James Bond.
Yes, but we’re here to acknowledge perhaps his greatest contribution to geek culture: Zed in 1974’s Zardoz. Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the greatest wardrobe design to ever grace the loins of a post-apocalyptic hero, the-
DAY-GLO ORANGE PAMPERS PULLUP OF ETERNAL INTERNET MEMEDOM:
Oh, what a cosplayable costume! You know wardrobe is on their toes when they can later stuff Sean Connery into a bridal gown for a wedding scene and everybody forgets that part!
Sean Connery’s outlandish outfits make perpetual meme fodder today, but I have to wonder how many of you Internet silly persons have actually sought out the full movie and attempted to sit through it. Because I have, multiple times in fact. It is #74 on the list of the 366 Weirdest Movies after all. Zardoz just has its charm, especially for a science fiction freak. It’s also irredeemably goofy. You know that expression “pants on head” for something really stupid? This movie literally has people wearing their pants on their head:
Let’s try our best to actually explain this movie for once:
How Zardoz happened
Modern day film scholars apply the following narrative: John Boorman is an otherwise brilliant director who had an unfortunate stumble with Zardoz, a misstep which is bound to occur in the path of any great career. To this day, he has made amazingly little peace with it.
Here’s a late-70s interview on this treasure of a clip from Mick Garris’ Fantasy Film Festival (yes, that Mick Garris), who genuinely seems to appreciate Zardoz on its own terms. John Boorman here seems to be more in touch with his original vision for the film:
Trouble is, to buy that narrative of Zardoz being the lone glitch in the director’s resume, you have to honor Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) as a watchable film. Which is impossible; that film is remarked today as not only the worst sequel, not just one of the worst horror movies, but one of the worst movies ever made, period. Boorman himself wrote Zardoz while the rest of the world barely noticed, but with Exorcist, he was handed the reigns to what could have been a great classic film franchise and has nobody to blame but himself then.
The other narrative, espoused by my colleague Greg Smalley at 366 Weird, is that John Boorman came off the success of Deliverance (1972) with accolades and a blank check from Hollywood to do any film he wanted next. So he originally wanted to adapt – wait for it – Lord of the Rings, but that deal was yanked away from him by United Artists. Therefore, Boorman went on a psychedelic trip into the bowels of Flower Power culture and the spinner racks of paperback pulp science fiction novels in college bookstores. The acid wore off to leave him with the script for Zardoz in his trembling hands.
This second narrative is the more obvious candidate. You can reverse-engineer Zardoz and see exactly how the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
Zardoz is a flea market of stock sci-fi ideas
Briefly, it’s after the apocalypse (Mad Max), and the world is divided into castes of humans after a restructuring of civilization (H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine). There are savage Brutals, elite Exterminators who keep them in check, and Eternals who oversee the whole society. They do this with the titular flying stone head which poses as an artificial god (John Carter on Mars, plus every other episode of Star Trek where somebody violates the hell out of the Prime Directive).
But the Eternals have found out that immortality sucks (Time Enough For Love), especially when it’s at the cost of your libido so nobody has anymore babies (Damon Knight’s World Without Children). The Eternals furthermore have evolved into a psychic hivemind that becomes a functional tyranny (Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge). When Zed is determined to penetrate the secrets of his layered society (The Stars My Destination), he discovers that his whole world is fake (The Truman Show) and furthermore that everybody else wants to help him smash this silly world so they can die already. It’s the happiest massacre ever filmed!
Oh, and the reveal ties in a very famous children’s fantasy book. Spoiling it is kind of pointless; I wouldn’t dream of denying you the most epic facepalm of your life. Seriously, wear a helmet for your own protection.
So Zardoz is basically a pile of ideas from hard science fiction run through the woodchipper and blended into a mashed pulp. The total effect is a dizzy and hazy trek through 1970s sci-fi culture where all the half-baked themes are introduced and then tossed aside. This is our “muddled mess” argument.
But Zardoz is unforgettable!
Say whatever else you will about Zardoz; it is never boring! It is by turns pompous beyond belief with the kind of hubris only attainable for first-year theater students, and then other times it’s slapstick and self-conscious, aware that it’s gone beyond pretentiousness to the point of getting drunk on its own bullshit. It has enough of a cult following to prompt homages in weird pop culture corners like Rick & Morty:
Zardoz does manage to ask some piercing questions about society. When we look at society now, doesn’t it seem like we’ve separated ourselves into castes anyway? Don’t we always? If we are to continue progressing to the point where we transcend the beastly side of our nature and become beings of pure light and intellect, but create a sterile and flavorless society, is that worth it? Do we try to drag along the conservatives into joining our advancement against their will or just create a reservation for them and leave them alone?
The trailer for Zardoz dares to gasp “Beyond Nineteen Eighty-Four! Beyond 2001 (A Space Odyssey)!” There’s also a repurposing of the cynical quote by Robert Fulford, “I’ve seen the future and it doesn’t work.” Indeed, the trailer plays heavy with the psychedelic visuals and synthesizer scores, coming within inches of imitating A Clockwork Orange, which only came out three years prior.
That makes a great basis for comparison. The vision of the future in Zardoz is decidedly not any more way-out than that of Clockwork Orange, so why is the latter hailed as a masterpiece while the former is seen as an embarrassment? Again, Zardoz just wasn’t as well thought out. It’s far from the only sci-fi movie of the 1970s to trip over its own big ideas, either.
It wouldn’t be the same movie without Sean Connery
In every silly, embarrassing scene, Connery gives it his all. He is a man determined to escape his type-casting as James Bond and ends up coming off like the wackiest Ian Fleming installment of them all. He is clearly lost in this sea of psychedelic science fiction abstraction and yet he gamely plays along with it. When he encounters a jack-in-the-box and a ring that projects glowing eyeballs, he acts just like a proper savage superstitiously cringing at miracles his primitive mind can’t grasp. When he throws a fit in the library angrily heaving books about because he’s discovered The Truth, he tries to make us feel it. God bless him, he tries.
Do I recommend this movie? No I do not.
But if you happen to see it against my recommendation and appreciate the great science fiction movie fighting to breath free of the hippie head-shop aesthetic that smothers it, you’re welcome.