My friend, Johnny Byrne (27 November 1935 – 3 April 2008) — an Irish poet, philosopher and writer on science fiction TV series such as Space: 1999 and Doctor Who — often termed the decade of the 1970s the “wake-up from the hippie dream” of the 1960s.
In other words, the counter-culture revolution which was formed in large part due to opposition over the Vietnam War, failed to re-shape the world and the direction of the human species. The dreams of the post-Camelot world gave way to the hard realities of the disco decade.
Instead of a new social order, the world seemed on the verge of social breakdown instead. Words like “malaise,” and terms like “crisis of confidence” seemed to dominate the debate. Gasoline shortages slowed down America, and garbage collection strikes left trash piled high in the streets of London.
The dreams of finding a better way of living seemed to give way to excessive consumption, personal decadence, hard drug use and even cult insanity, much like that exemplified by Charles Manson and his “family.”
Space:1999 (1975-1977) very much concerned the concept of the “wake-up from the hippie dream,” at least in metaphorical terms. The series was often about humanity broaching new and radical forms of life — and ways of living — in episodes such as “Guardian of Piri,” “The Last Enemy,” “Missing Link,” “Mission of the Darians” and so on.
In the end, the human Alphans always clung tightly to what one might term established “human” values. They were not co-opted by the Utopian but often coldly cerebral dreams and thinking of the Zennites, the Bethans, the Pirians, the Darians or other races which had “perfected” themselves.
Moonbase Alpha was itself an experimental commune of sorts, but one that cast off both the failures of “20th century technological man“ and the alien thinking of various, highly-advanced intergalactic cultures.
In this way, Space:1999 was a remarkably balanced presentation; noting both the perils of blindly accepting tradition/convention and the dangers of shifting the established social order to something untested and seemingly “alien” (as many in the Silent Majority viewed the tenets of Eastern Philosophy, which gained a new foothold in American intellectual thinking during this epoch.)
All of this description is but contextual prologue to my analysis of director John Boorman’s challenging Zardoz (1974), a brilliant and highly idiosyncratic science fiction production which, like its contemporary, Space:1999 arrived smack-dab during the “wake-up from the Hippie dream.”
Specifically, the 1974 film concerns the serious problems of a post-apocalyptic counter-culture order of “Eternals” — essentially an egalitarian commune — and the eventual, violent re-assertion of the conventional nuclear family unit through the presence and actions of a revolutionary in the commune, a macho outsider and “Brutal” named Zed (Sean Connery).
Chicago Sun Times critic Roger Ebert termed Zardoz “an exercise in self-indulgence (if often an interesting one) by Boorman, who more or less had carte blanche to do a personal project after his immensely successful Deliverance. Boorman seems fascinated by stories which are disconnected from the ordinary realist assumptions of most movies.”
Film scholar Jay Cocks of Time Magazine appreciated the cinematic wizardry of the film, if not necessarily, the details of the world Boorman created. He wrote: “The startling beauty and tension he can work into a single shot –say, of Connery rising out of a pile of dark grain holding a revolver — are the work of a film maker who is rather a wizard himself.”
These critical snippets get at some of the trademark if extremely controversial brilliance of Zardoz; both its unconventional manner of presentation in terms of traditional cinema narratives, and its unique ability to foster suspense through individual moments of resonant, extremely powerful imagery.
Today, the film succeeds mainly as a critique of the counter-culture, of the commune experiment of the 1960s-1970s and, simultaneously an all-guns blazing defense of the traditional family structure, or what some left-leaning scholars might not-so-happily call “the Patriarchy.”
The narrator of the film, the puppet-master behind the god Zardoz (the wizard of oz so-to-speak) introduces the film as “rich in irony and deeply satirical,” and what he seems to suggest, simply, is that mankind’s long search for a better way of living — for immortality itself — is a fruitless search.
Man has already discovered the way of life that works best for him, and it is the conventional family structure. Everything else is a dead end; a blind alley. By film’s end, the unsuccessful “new” order has been invalidated and overturned, and tradition re-established.
There’s also an argument here against the evils of Communism. Zed and his macho, cowboy-styled Executioners (all men, by the way…) ultimately rebel against their false God, Zardoz and the hidden puppet masters, the Elders, when the advanced society turns the Brutals from hunters to workers: slaves cultivating crops and delivering them to the God Head.
This is an unacceptable way of living to the formerly “free,” savage, Brutals and so rebellion results.The Eternals interfered with their destiny to be killers…turning them into farmers serving a higher class, and populist revolt is the solution.
“Who conjured you out of the clay?”
|The false god, Zardoz calls to the Brutals in the futuristic landscape of Zardoz.
Zardoz involves a futuristic society of the year 2293. A small egalitarian commune of “Eternals” has established a new order of life amidst the breakdown of civilization. After a new Dark Ages occurs, a group of scientists wall themselves off from the rest of barbaric humanity with a force field called “The Vortex,” and then establish the control of an artificial intelligence called “The Tabernacle.”
Each Eternal is surgically-implanted with a crystal in his or her forehead, and it can link to the Tabernacle and its vast repository of knowledge at the speed-of-thought. Each Eternal also carries a communication ring, for issuing orders and transmitting holograms about scientific and mercantile matters.
Disease and death have been banished from everyday life in this futuristic commune, and the Eternals are truly immortal. They have lived hundreds of years. One cost of this immortality: Eternal males can no longer achieve erection, and therefore there is no possibility of children; of offspring.
This is the last generation; but it shall last forever.
Another dark sign: the Eternals mercilessly punish those who assert individuality amidst their democratic (Marxist?) community. They banish these “Renegades” to an old-folks home after rapid-aging them years, sometimes decades. The Renegades live in this home — senile and lost — forever banished.
Eve worse, the community of the Eternals has come to prize its own eternal continuance over the well-being of other communities, over other human beings. The rest of humanity dwells outside the force field “Vortex” in poverty and primitivism. The Eternals keep the “Brutals” in line by providing them a false god named Zardoz. Zardoz — a giant, floating stone head — orders these Brutals not to breed, telling them that “the penis is evil,” lest the environment become unbalanced, with too many Brutal mouths-to-feed.
Similarly, Zardoz informs the Brutals that “the gun is good,” because it can be utilized to reduce the Brutals’ numbers.
Both the evil of the penis and the good of the gun are methods of population control; so that the Eternals may retain their grip on power, and a life of ease and luxury.
In Zardoz, one curious Brutal, an executioner named “Zed” (Connery) sneaks into the floating Zardoz monument and thereby penetrates the Vortex. After Zardoz lands in a rural landscape, in the Eternal commune, he finds himself an object of both curiosity and hatred by the Eternals.
One woman named May (Sara Kestelman) wants to study Zed, especially after learning that he is a genetic mutant with the potential of great intelligence (greater even than that of the Eternals). Another Eternal, Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) sees Zed as a primitive virus or disease who could pollute the commune and even destroy the Eternal way of life. A third, apparently disinterested party, Friend (John Alderton) sees Zed simply as a means of passing the time.
“Let’s keep it,” he suggests, “Anything to relieve the boredom…”
Zed undergoes a kind of evolution or period of enlightenment in the Eternals’ commune. Friend shows him the Renegades in the old folks home, as well as a breed of “Apathetics,” Eternals who have slipped into virtual catatonia for lack of physical stimulation and any change in the same routine.
Then, Zed learns that he was actually bred and selected by the puppet master behind Zardoz, Frayne, to destroy the Eternal way of life; to defeat the Tabernacle and bring the gift of death back to a civilization that serves no purpose but its own, endless continuation. He is “The Chosen One.”
At film’s end, Zed breaches the Vortex and his fellow Brutals swarm into the commune on horseback, with guns blazing. In a scene that plays more like an orgy than a massacre, the Exterminators destroy the Eternals, who are grateful to see their endless, pointless lives finally come to end.
Meanwhile, May escapes to the outside world, carrying “knowledge” back to the ignorant Brutals.
As for Zed, he and Consuella reconcile…and become lovers.
Finally in Zardoz’s final time-lapse montage, we see this duo — this man and woman (Adam and Eve?) – form the crux of a new family unit…one that will produce offspring, and ultimately a new, better chapter in human history.
“A better breed could prosper here. Given time…”
|Zed (Connery; center) sees his savage past replayed for Eternal consumption, by Consuella (left) and May (right).
It is not difficult to interpret Zardoz as director John Boorman’s carefully and occasionally humorous critique of the unconventional, untested “hippie” life-styles developing in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In particular, the film seems to take dead aim at the Zeitgeist of that period by presenting the Eternal Community as, essentially a 1960s-style commune run amok.
Let’s pause for a definition and history lesson there. Communes are small groups of people living together for a common purpose, but not in a traditional family unit. Nearly a million people lived in communes in the early 1970s, and the goal, largely was to keep the outside world at bay.
In Zardoz, of course, the Eternals (a tribe of perhaps fifty) actually maintain a force field separator – the Vortex – between their commune and the outside world, a literalization of that goal of keeping the world at bay.
Timothy Miller, writer of The 60s Communes, Hippies and Beyond, wrote an illuminating definition of a commune in his 1999 book from Syracuse Press. In the introduction (pages xxii-xxiii,) he noted that communes feature a sense of common purpose and separation from the dominant society, some form or level of self denial and suppression of individual choice in favor of the group, a geographic proximity, and notions of economic sharing and critical mass. In this case, critical mass means simply that communes are relatively small in size, fifty or so individuals, as I already labeled the Eternals above..
The Eternals of Zardoz fit this definition perfectly, not just in terms of their separation from the Brutals, but in other important fashion. Like many communes, the Eternal society is egalitarian in nature, meaning that decision is made by a group, and all members of the commune have equal access to resources and decision-making.
Throughout the film, for instance, we see the Eternals “voting” on the final disposition of the intruder in their midst, Zed. Should he be put down, outright, as Consuella desires? Or held for further study, as May wishes? Everyone in the commune votes on it, and Zed is given a new lease on life, seven more days.
In terms of geographic proximity, the commune in Zardoz consists largely of a single mansion and its out-buildings, though there is also an old folks’ home for “Renegades” and a stable for the “Apathetics” within walking distance
In addition, the Eternal mansion and grounds fit very much the pop culture stereotype of 1960s-1970s communes. They are a place of “strange music, weirdly dressed people, and psychedelically-fueled behavior.”
In this case, however, the behavior is not psychedelic so much as psychic. Each Eternal is joined to an artificial intelligence (a super computer?) called the “Tabernacle” which sees to their needs and desires. It’s like having the Internet and a web search inside your own head, ready to be activated by vocal command.
But more importantly, when Friend is labeled a “renegade,” he is psychically assaulted — with exaggerated hand gestures — by his former comrades. This is weird and trippy; and not entirely unlike some drug-fueled, hippie-styled dance.
Zardoz sees the unconventional structure of a commune as being counter-productive to a healthy human existence. The Eternals are immortal, but they have lost — in their all-consuming quest for permanence — any sense of the spontaneous, any sense of the moment. They are bored, and some of them, like Friend, actually long to die. For them, that is the only possible release from a life of eternal, emotionless intellect. The new form of the democratic commune has, in fact, made life stagnant and empty.
The joys of sex and procreation have also been forsaken in this futuristic commune. Without children, there is no real sense of the future. Only the continuance of the present, the status quo. Without children, a culture cannot be healthy, because it can not look past its own selfish needs at the needs of the race; at the needs of a future generation. This is another example of the Eternal’s stagnation.
Even sleep itself has been vanquished in the Eternal commune, replaced by active, second-level meditation. Interestingly, Zardoz positions sleep – and dreaming – as an essential quality of healthy humanity. Consuella observes Zed sleeping and then awaking from a dream, and it is clear that he finds dreaming restorative. It is a “changed” mind-state, a release from the drudgery of the Eternal existence, and without it, the Eternals are empty. They have no change; so they cannot brace transformation; transcendence.
The Tabernacle informs Consuella that “Sleep was necessary for Man when his waking and unconscious lives were separated. As Eternals achieved total consciousness, sleep became obsolete, and Second-Level meditation took its place. Sleep was closely connected with death.“
Sleep was closely connected with death; perhaps that is what makes life meaningful; the omnipresent threat and presence of mortality in our daily cycle. With this “state” of consciousness gone, the Eternals have forsaken some essential quality of humanity. Death has been banished not just from their physicality, but from their very psyche.
“Every society had an elaborate subculture devoted to erotic stimulation.” Or “The Penis is (not ) Evil.”
|Consuella (right) sizes up Zed’s manhood; while a screen behind her charts the trajectory of his erection.
Zardoz is not likely to win any accolades from feminists. In the film’s most daring, even brazen sequence, Consuella studies Zed’s penis, and looks for the connection between mental stimulation and physical erection. In fact, a large viewscreen behind her actually plays arousing, pornographic imagery for Zed to respond to. But instead, he grows erect at her presence…a fact which greatly disturbs the Eternal.
And no, I’m not kidding about any of this. You’d never see a scene like this in a movie today.
And that’s kind of a shame.
As I’ve written above, Zardoz creates a comparison between the unchanging, stagnant Eternals (a largely feminized culture, dominated by May and Consuella, I mean…) and Zed, the Brutal….the male ideal. The Eternals don’t shift from consciousness to sleep. They don’t dream. Zed does both. Zed is proud of his physicality, he doesn’t discount it, and indeed, Sean Connery spends the bulk of the movie wearing nothing but a red jockstrap. Hie is a walking, talking phallic symbol.
But importantly, Zed is able to change his body; as the movie explicitly points out inthis sequence. Unlike the other Eternal men, his penis goes from flaccid to erect (and Zardoz accommodatingly — and amusingly –shows us a view-screen diagram of this transition).
Consuella reports clinically about the penis, and its role in human culture: “There seems to be a correlation with violence, with fear,” she notes of male sexual arousal. “Many hanged men died with an erection. You are all more or less aware of our intensive researches into this subject. Sexuality declined probably because we no longer needed to procreate. Eternals soon discovered that erection was impossible to achieve. And we are no longer victims of this violent, convulsive act which so debased women and betrayed men.”
Again, Consuella sees sex as a “violent, convulsive act” which “debased women and betrayed men,” yet the sex act is undeniably part of who we are as a species. It is the process through which life continues and evolves; the act of procreation.
Zardoz suggests in some ways that like sleeping/waking, flaccid/erect is a kind of miracle of the human imagination and ingenuity — even if it can be linked to male violence — and that, well, it is the key to our future. The male mystique? Perhaps, perhaps not.
The film makes no bones (*ahem*) about the fact that Zed is an unrepentant rapist of women during his life as a Brutal. But the film also seems to state that changeability (from flaccid to erect) is part of the human process of transformation that is essential to a healthy human race. And indeed, it precedes the most miraculous transformation of all: from an empty womb to the creation of a new human life. That’s the (traditional) role of females.
In Zardoz, even the destruction of the Tabernacle is put in decisively masculine, sexual terms. “You have penetrated me. There is no escape. You are within me,” says the defeated machine. “Come into my center. Come into the center of the crystal!”
That’s not the end of it, either. May desires Zed. She sees salvation through intercourse with this “superior” genetic specimen. “Inseminate us all, and we’ll teach you all we know, give you all we have. Perhaps you can break the Tabernacle.”
Again, I remember many reviewers being really, really offended by this idea, noting that the female Eternals longed for the potent “magic” underneath Zed’s “loin cloth.” That’s a simple way of putting it, when the film is really about the process of change, and how we can change even our physicality (in terms of attaining an erection). It’s a metaphor. The idea of human evolution and change is ultimately what allows Zed to grow beyond being a simple savage, to defeating the Tabernacle and ending the Eternal culture. The dichotomy between sleeping/waking is just as important, but not as dramatic, I suppose.
So, Zardoz, in simple terms, is a clash of cultures. In one, the penis is “evil” for what it brings (more babies!). In another, it is “good” because it represents the way man can change himself, and even continue himself.
I should further add, I am not subscribing or advocating any particular point of view here; only reading the text of the “film” and attempting to interpret the meaning of the visuals and themes. I encourage you to screen the film and come to your own conclusion about what Zardoz means.
Zardoz and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony
|The feminine gaze?
Zardoz ends with the traditional family structure visually re-affirmed. Zed and Consuella move into the stone God head, Zardoz, mate with one another, and have a baby, a son.
The film then cuts to a time-lapse family portrait featuring the couple and their boy over the years as they age, the son goes off to find his own family and destiny, and the long-lived parents finally die. Zed and Consuella — in the natural order of life — become bones, then dust. The implicit message: this is how it is supposed to be, for human beings.
This climactic time-lapse family portrait is scored to Beethoven’s impressive Symphony Number Seven, written in 1802. The master work is widely held out as a “perfect” symphony by critics, and is also known for reflecting a sense of energetic spontaneity.
Consider then, the conjunction of image and song in this finale. With the traditional family re-affirmed visually in the blocking: the perfect triumvirate of father, mother and child, the music serves the same purpose. The perfect symphony is heard, reinforcing the notion that this is how things should be. This is the family structure that will save mankind, going forward.
And in terms of spontaneity, this is how we must face life, isn’t it?
Not with all the knowledge in the universe in our possession; not as some kind of boring, stagnant egalitarian democracy…but as thinking, feeling changeable (transforming…) humans who live in the moment. This dazzling final sequence gets at that notion with the spontaneous-sounding symphony, and the idea of each moment lived most fully…and then gone.
It’s a perfect, rousing note to go out on, and it reflects entirely Boorman’s critique of unconventional living arrangements (like communes) and idolizes the traditional nuclear family as the vehicle for a productive future.
Again, I don’t have to tell you that this idea is very unpopular with some. Stephanie Goldberg of Jump Cut, for instance, wrote: “ZARDOZ can be read as a wistful if handsome attempt to build a labyrinth around a crumbling male supremacist ideology.”
She has a point. The film undeniably forwards a conservative argument, a return to traditional values as the key to continuing mankind in a healthy fashion. As The New York Times observed: “Zed…arrives to overthrow the élitists and bring mankind back some 300 years.” Yep, it’s a return to traditional values all right.
The test of a great film (and a great science fiction film) is not so much whether we individually agree with every argument therein; but whether the film successfully makes its case. I would argue that Zardoz succeeds on this basis. It gorgeously, humorously, brazenly, erotically, skillfully presents its arguments about human nature.
And Boorman directs the picture with his usual, incomparable sense of finesse. A director is “a fake god by occupation – and a magician, by inclination,” the film suggests, and in Zardoz Boorman masterfully presents this imaginative dystopic universe, proving, perhaps — at least to conservative critics (who hated the movie when it was released…) — that “God” [the natural order of man?] has a place “in show business too.”