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ZARDOZ, SUCCESFUL SCI-FI OR NONSENSICAL FAILURE?

There are a few movies that I have seen which at initially, I just did not get, and did not understand fully, and whilst watching even had the thought in my head “Why have they made this, what is the point”? Which is a feeling I know constantly get when viewing anything on ITV especially if it involves Simon Cowell or Ant and Dec. There are a handful of movies that I still really do not understand totally, and without wanting to sound dumb don’t really want to, because if I did finally understand them, I would probably think that they were not worth watching in the first place. I am sceptical about the brilliance that is always mentioned when discussing movies such as 2001 a Space Odyssey, and I often have to say to myself well that’s your opinion when people hail the magnificence of things such as El Topo, and still to this day am confounded somewhat by the John Boorman movie Zardoz.

The latter is the focus of this article, the film, its director, its stars, and the composer, and of course Sean Connery’s costume (or lack of it). John Boorman started to toy with the idea of creating a futuristic world when he was working on adapting Lord of the Rings for United Artist’s, a project which we all know did not come to fruition, because the studio was not convinced that it could be filmed at that time. So, when United Artist’s cancelled the project, Boorman continued working on his idea for this futuristic world, which was inspired by the writings of Tolkien and eventually would become the rather warped, brutal, and fantastical world that was Zardoz.

So, lets look at the development of Zardoz, Boorman collaborated with William Stair, on the story whom he had worked with before. Boorman was said to comment at the time that he “Wanted to make a film about the problems of us hurtling at such a rate into the future that our emotions are lagging behind.” The original idea for the movie was it was set just five years in the future, (so late 1970’s early 1980’s) and it focused upon a University lecturer who was obsessed with a girl who disappeared and the lecturer went on a mission to find her, searching communes where he was told she had lived previously. Boorman did his research and visited a few communes but after a while decided to change the timeline of the story and set it far into the future, where he envisaged a society that had totally fallen apart.

Boorman’s end script was inspired not just by Tolkien, but he also credited the influences of T.S Eliot, Frank L. Baum and said that the Arthurian quests also inspired him. Zardoz was in effect a sci-fi movie which was about inner space rather than being set in the depths of outer space. The storyline is complex to say the least and although it is science fiction, it is a more abstract view rather than what was expected even during that time of men in space suits running around. When the script was finished, no one as in no studio was interested, many not understanding what it was all about. Warner Brothers turned it down, but Boorman’s agent managed to convince 20th Century Fox to take a look and eventually they decided to make the movie.

In the early part of 1973, Boorman announced that the movie would star Charlotte Rampling and Burt Reynolds, but Reynolds who had worked with Boorman on Deliverance had to pull out of filming because of illness, Boorman approached Sean Connery, who had stopped making the lucrative Bond movies and was finding it hard to get work and Connery agreed to do the movie. Whether Connery fully understood what it was all about only he would have know. Charlotte Rampling however was enthusiastic about the picture, and Boorman himself had a cameo role alongside his three daughters, in fact the movie was a bit of a family affair with Boorman’s wife at the time Christel Kruse, designing the costumes for the film. She decided that one set of characters The Eternals lives were purely hypothetical and colourless, this should be incorporated in their costumes.

As for the other characters The Brutals, these were a lower form of life and primitive beings, Christel decided therefore that they would not care much about what they were wearing, only what was functional and comfortable. To be honest I am not entirely sure if their attire was either comfortable or functional, and Connery’s costume was quite revealing, with his thigh high leather boots, Mexican style moustache, ponytail hair do, crossed bandolero’s across the torso and red bandages for want of a better description were more revealing and distracting than Borat’s infamous green mankini.

Yes, they were eye catching, and did put over the brutality and the raw masculinity of the Brutals to a certain extent, but often sparked giggles and laughter in the cinema. Connery joined the production in the May of 1973 and shooting started in August of that year in Ireland. It was rumoured that Stanley Kubrick was involved on the movie, but this has not been confirmed.

DAVID MUNROW.

Boorman was known for being something of a maverick filmmaker, and this was confirmed when the director became totally in control of all aspects of the movie including the soundtrack, with Boorman asking composer David Munrow to write the score. Munrow was an early music specialist, so it was thought to be an odd choice for a movie set far in the future in the twenty third century, but it worked and Munrow provided the movie with a score that was in many ways more outstanding than the picture itself. The composer also worked on The Devils and The Six Wives of Henry Vlll. Boorman said on many occasions that he believed although Zardoz was a futuristic tale that even that far into the future that music and instruments from the old world would have survived and still been utilised. The composer incorporated a plethora of medieval instruments within his score, most notably the notch flute, Gemshorns, and medieval bells. (The Gemshorn is an instrument that was made from the horn of a chamois goat and is a wind instrument with a distinct sound). It was said in the 1970’s that “David Munrow did not just emerge into the field of medieval and renaissance music, he quite literally exploded into it. He was credited and applauded for establishing a standard that can now never be ignored, and the stimulating shockwaves from his music will carry far into the future”. Munrow’s score for Zardoz, was supported by sections of the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony number 7.

A soundtrack album was not released, but this is probably because the movie was not as popular with audiences as the director thought it was going to be. Zardoz was released in cinemas on February 6, 1974, having premieres in both Los Angeles and New York. When the film was released more widely, it was immediately given dire reviews and along with these awful reviews the film was also rejected by the public, who it seemed according to Boorman did not understand the world of Zardoz. (not alone there then). Some members of the public were said to leave screenings of the film and go into the lobby of the cinema and tell waiting patrons not to bother buying tickets. I saw the movie in a specialist cinema in 1975, the Brighton Film Theatre would show mainly art house/world cinema movies or films such as Battle of Algiers, Queimada, Z, El Topo, and others that did not have that mass appeal. But even when the BFT showed Zardoz, the place was half full, and I did notice a few people leaving before the movie had even got halfway through, obviously struggling with Boorman’s analogies.

The film was officially declared a commercial failure by 20th Century Fox, and soon began to be shown on local TV stations in the States and also in late night slots elsewhere throughout the world, the movie was not issued on video until 1984, and had to wait till 2015 for a dvd/blu ray release. Reviewers did have mixed thoughts on the movie some commenting, “Zardoz is more confusing than exciting even with a frenetic, shoot-em-up climax” and others not being so condemning  “Direction, good; script is a brilliant premise which unfortunately washes out in climactic sound and fury; and production, outstanding, particularly special visual effects which are among the best in recent years and belie the film’s modest cost”. With a more recent review in 2013 by Empire Magazine saying, “You have to hand it to John Boorman. When he’s brilliant, he’s brilliant (Point Blank, Deliverance) but when he’s terrible, he’s really terrible. A fascinating reminder of what cinematic science fiction used to be like before Star Wars, this risible hodge-podge of literary allusions, highbrow porn, sci-fi staples, half-baked intellectualism, and a real desire to do something revelatory misses the mark by a hundred miles but has elements – its badness being one of them – that make it strangely compelling”.  

But in recent years critics and fans alike have come to the aid of Boorman and Zardoz, calling it “Boorman’s most Underrated film”, and “John Boorman’s finest Movie”.  Which have catapulted it to cult status. So conflicting views, some positive others negative, which I think sums up Zardoz very well.