Boorman’s metaphysical western

by Stephanie Goldberg

from Jump Cut, no. 1, 1974, pp. 8-9
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1974, 2004

While aspiring to the epic grandeur of 2001, ZARDOZ, a film scripted, directed and produced by John Boorman, is more successful as unintentional parody—mimicking Kubrick’s bravura flourishes and its own pretensions at the same time. Equating ponderousness, gradiosity and virtuoso camera maneuvers with complexity, ZARDOZ is unhappily wanting the discipline and proportion that informed Kubrick’s vision. Instead, the film assaults on multiple levels, being given to fits of visual gluttony and lyrical excess, operating from a sensibility that celebrates the myth of penis power to near absurdity.

As one might expect, the story line is somewhat elliptical. Set in the year 2293, most of the film’s action takes place within the Vortex, a kind of repository for the elite tradition of arts and letters in western culture. The citizens of the Vortex are quite attractive in a cosmetic sense; they are youthful and will remain so throughout eternity, as part of a master plan to perpetuate the Brahmin caste. Immortality, however, is not without its drawbacks. Intended as a Pleasure Dome, the reality of life in the Vortex is closer to Sartre’s NO EXIT. Passion and instinct have withered under the tyranny of the intellect. Heterosexual intercourse is a phenomenon of purely historical interest since the men of the Vortex can no longer “perform.” Group mind is maintained by a mysterious omnipotent brain bank gifted with the ability to dispense rewards (physical regeneration) and punishments (eternal senility). Endemic to the region are the Apathetics, who manifest internal rebellion through wooden inertia.

Beyond the Vortex, the id is alive and well in the presence of the Barbarians, who cultivate the soil so that the intellectual elite can live off their labors. They are a drab lot characteristically shown grappling for food and photographed in bleak grey tones in contrast to the hothouse, soft focus colors reserved for the Vortex. In spite of (or perhaps) owing to their oppressed state, they procreate on a grand scale which periodically triggers the need for population control measures by the Exterminators, a quasi-storm trooper class. Garbed in orange loin cloths, Janus-faced tragedian masks and buskins, with matching ammunition belts, they prey on the Barbarians as Zardoz, the mammoth Vortex effigy, exhorts “The gun is good; the penis is evil. Go forth and kill.”

This is the nexus in which Boorman’s characters operate. Paring the plot to its bones leaves a kind of metaphysical western: a desperado invades a community at the outpost of the frontier. He ultimately instigates the release of appetites long denied by the sated, effete society. Appetite vs. intellect, individual vs. society—these are the terms of Boorman’s dialectic. They are neither original nor delicate in their distinctions. Sean Connery is Zed, the master exterminator chosen to infiltrate the Vortex and provoke insurrection. The name is ironic for Boorman obviously thinks of him as a quintessential progenitor who will spawn the master race.

In the course of the film, Connery grows from hulking Neanderthal to epic warrior. With surprise, the audience learns that he is actually a mutant—not only virile, but gifted with a cognitive capacity equal to that of the Vortex intellectuals. The product of cultural synthesis, Zed is virtually willed to power and constitutes the only dynamic character in the film. For example, after one of its founders repudiates the Vortex as a “crime against nature,” Zed is the instrument of reversal. Toward this end, he rouses the Apathetics out of lethargy and into group grope. The heinous power of the brain bank is smashed and Zed assimilates its massive store of intelligence in an impressionistic sequence using overlapped filmed projections. The film verges on epiphany as the Vortex surrenders in ecstatic frenzy to the bullets of Zed and his comrades. Why do the Exterminators rebel? “We were hunters. You made us into workers,” Zed informs May (Sara Kestelman), the woman scientist who befriended him earlier.

Apparently in Boorman’s wasteland, some souls merit redemption. May is one; Zed places her on a horse pointed in the direction of the Barbarian camp where she will presumably repent of her intellectual ways and rediscover her authentic female nature—as a breeder. Consuela, Zed’s love interest (Charlotte Rampling), is another, predestined to be Eve to Zed’s Adam. The final sequence telescopes the couple’s life span into mere seconds, depicting them at various critical stages: from conception and childbirth toward death and ultimate decay while Beethoven’s Seventh blares in the background. Functioning as a coda to the main action and a poetic illustration of life after the revolution, this sequence is also a succinct statement of the limits of Boorman’s vision. The fundamental relationship of the Utopia that Boorman appears to be championing is nothing m more than an idealized version of the traditional nuclear family, patriarchal values intact.

If the modern viewer finds this vision unpalatable, she or he can take heart in the fact that Boorman, himself, seems to shrink from the implications of his simplistic logic. Thus, he resorts to a curious undercutting humor to blunt the crude distinctions of his dialectic. For example, Arthur Frayn (Niall Buggy), the Vortex intellectual who animates the Zardoz effigy, steps outside the action to confront the audience with the information that he is

a fake god ... a magician ... a puppet master ... an invention. And you, poor creatures, who conjured you out of clay? Is God in Showbiz, too?

Ultimately Boorman appropriates Brechtian tactics for his own self defense. The hall of mirrors, the panoply of jazzy optical effects dazzle the viewer and distract his attention from a feeble storyline. ZARDOZ can be read as a wistful if handsome attempt to build a labyrinth around a crumbling male supremacist ideology.