Zardoz: an Appreciation

Often maligned, frequently laughed at, but full of the kind of WTF imagery that first drew me to science fiction: Zardoz. I'd always meant to blog about it, but never did, although I did write a piece about it for Martin Lewis, when he put together a collection of short essays by various sf writers on their favourite movies. It was published by the BSFA as a small pamphlet, called SF Writers on SF Films: from Akira to Zardoz. It came out in Summer of 2009. Here's what I wrote:


It's easy to forget that after the imagined, shiny, optimistic techno-future of the Sixties, exemplified by movies like 2001, the Seventies were in many ways characterised by a creeping cultural malaise predicated on the notion that there was no future to be had; that civilisation had reached some kind of apotheosis which could only be followed by an inevitable decline into chaos and anarchy. Although this sense of imminent doom was largely fuelled by the constant and very real fear of nuclear war, there was also a nascent environmental movement to warn of the imminent collapse of the ozone layer - assuming, that is, the oil didn't run out first. And if that didn't happen, then nature would find some other way to punish us for our hubris.

Although there was no lack of post-apocalyptic movies prior to the Seventies, the form they  took at that time seemed reflective of a genuine inability to see beyond the end of that decade. The hopefulness of the Sixties had given way to the sense that Judgement Day was a-coming, and neither good old-fashioned American know-how nor plucky British stoicism would be able to do a damn thing about it. It was a time that saw the birth in the US of Survivalism as a life-style choice, and cinema found itself reflecting the fear that with the end of civilisation so clearly approaching at breakneck speed, the only sane thing to do was to hole up in the country with plenty of ammunition and a portable power generator. This fear was reflected in the UK as much as anywhere else, manifesting itself in TV shows such as Survivors and the final Quatermass series, with John Mills fighting  his way across a collapsing Britain. Even the innocuous back-to-nature  comedy  of The Good Life was a reflection of this save-yourself zeitgeist with its comfortably middle-class take on self-sufficiency.

To understand Zardoz (dir. John Boorman)  in its proper post-apocalyptic context, it’s worth taking a look at Boorman’s previous movie, Deliverance, where Lewis - played by Burt Reynolds - makes it clear he expects the collapse of civilisation at any minute when he delivers the following lines: "Then  it's going to come down to who can survive and who can't, when the lights go out and the taps are dry. Survival."  Zardoz,  made in 1974, crystallises this expectation in a work of visually stunning science fantasy.

The film straddles a curious bridge between the apocalyptic fantasies of the mid-Seventies and the more psychedelic excesses of the Sixties. Starring Sean Connery as a wasteland-warrior commanded by his god Zardoz to slaughter ‘Brutals’ in a landscape clearly made from the ruins of our own, he smuggles himself inside the mouth of his God - which manifests as an enormous flying stone head - only  to discover that Zardoz is nothing more than the creation of a race of human immortals (Eternals) who have survived the fall of civilisation within communities known as ‘Vortexes’. Protected by impenetrable force-fields and deeply stultified by unending life, these Eternals secretly yearn for death. However, since they made sure their central computer (The Tabernacle) would always resurrect them upon death with their memories intact, even suicide isn't  an option. Connery’s role, then, is to bring welcome death to the Eternals.

Without giving too much away, Zardoz is effectively a brutal, sexual, psychedelic take on The Wizard of Oz, with Connery as Dorothy, the Tabernacle as The Good Witch, and Arthur Frayn as the Wizard, while the Vortex acts as a stand-in for the Emerald City. Mostly, however, Zardoz is best remembered for its visual appeal, particularly the enormous stone head and the costuming (Connery spends most of the movie in a red loincloth and thigh-length leather boots, as well as a ponytail and zapata-style moustache that would probably have gone down a storm in some of the era’s gay disco’s). Its inventive visual imagery makes the most of a relatively tiny budget, and doesn't skimp on the plot, presenting an intelligent and carefully woven tale of dissent amongst the Eternals in which Connery's ultimate role is never quite clear until the end.

Although dismissed by some critics, I consider it a welcome antidote to the modern crop of over-CGI’d committee-produced epics. It was a movie that always seemed to appear last thing at night on the TV schedules in the Seventies and Eighties, usually unannounced; the kind of thing you tended to stumble across after a long  weekend hanging out in the student union (or at least, you did if you were me). Plus, Charlotte Rampling gets her kit off. Can’t knock that.


New Gig, and Writing Advice

I have a new, occasional gig writing for the blog over at writersworkshop.co.uk, on the subject of writing, naturally. My first entry is here: The One-Third Slump.


And here's what it's about.

Catalogue copy for The Thousand Emperors:

"Archivist Luc Gabion has finally achieved his life's goal — of bringing down Winchell Antonov, head of the Black Lotus terrorist organisation, and the scourge of the Tian Di’s stellar empire for countless years.
     But instead of feeling victorious, the encounter has left him scarred. Forcibly implanted with a technology far in advance of anything he's encountered before, Luc sees and hears things he knows he's not supposed to. Worse, the technology is killing him, slowly. So when he finds himself investigating the murder of one of the Tian Di’s ruling clique, the Thousand Emperors, he knows he's in real trouble. Any one of them could be the killer, and any one of them could have him put to death on a whim.
     Worse, the dead man is the architect of the coming Reunification: two great civilisations, separated for centuries by old enmities, are about to reunite in a new age of peace and prosperity. But it soon becomes clear that someone out there is willing to do anything to make sure that day never comes..."
Those two civilisations, as anyone who's read Final Days will guess, being those colonies originally controlled either by the Western Coalition or the Pan-Asian Congress (now the Tian Di). As I've said before, it's really a stand-alone set in the future of Final Days, than a direct continuation of FD, which means you don't have to have read the first (or so I believe) in order to read the second.

The cover of the next book

The cover is by Steve Stone, of course (http://www.stevestoneartworx.com/galleries/index.html), the same man that did the artwork for Final Days, and did some amazing work for Mike Cobley's Humanity's Fire series of space opera books.