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35 Things We Learned From John Boorman’s Zardoz Commentary

By  · Published on May 18th, 2015


I’m not the first person to say this, but 1974’s Zardoz is one strange goddamn movie. Writer/director John Boorman’s follow-up to Deliverance is an odd, dystopian look at class warfare and the inevitable boredom of immortality, and it landed in theaters with a universal “huh?” The film is overflowing with ideas, but most viewers understandably only got as far as Sean Connery in a mankini/diaper.

Boorman recorded a commentary for the film’s 2001 DVD release, and Twilight Time’s beautiful, newly released Blu-ray (available from Screen Archives Entertainment) has ported it over for our enjoyment (alongside a brand new one featuring film historians and the label’s own Nick Redman). Boorman makes it clear that this was a dream project for him, but one he admits he may not have had the budget to properly achieve.

Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for John Boorman’s Zardoz.

Zardoz (1974)

Commentator: John Boorman (writer/director)

1. Boorman added the opening scene with the floating head introducing the film “in an attempt to explain the picture to audiences which didn’t seem to understand what the film was about.” He hoped it would make things clearer for viewers. “It didn’t work.”

2. The film was made for one million dollars, “all in,” including the $200k paid to Connery.

3. It was shot within ten miles of Boorman’s own home in Wicklow Hills, Ireland. “I’ve used it many times in my movies.”

4. The giant stone head was pulled along on a cable, and it was shot in a studio parking lot.

5. The film was inspired by The Wizard of Oz, obviously. “Hence the title, Zardoz. If you take the W I off the front you get to Zardoz.” Both films feature a hidden, frightening “wizard” using illusion to keep the populace in check.

6. Boorman yearns for these simpler days when a film’s credits were shown entirely at the beginning of the movie. “There weren’t nearly as many of them of course. Nowadays you have to give credit to every driver who turned up for a day on the picture.”

7. Zed’s (Connery) first appearance inside the stone head sees him rising gun-first from the dirt. “This is an image that I’ve often used in my films, like the sword rising from the lake in Excaliber, the hand coming out of the river in Deliverance, and here.”

8. Burt Reynolds was originally set to play Zed, but he fell ill before filming began (and presumably after the first costume fitting). The studio had a short list of other actors, but “Sean had just finished doing Bond and he was finding it very difficult to get a job. So difficult in fact that he agreed to do my picture.” They became great friends with Connery becoming a frequent guest at Boorman’s home in Ireland.

9. Connery asked Boorman how much the car and driver in his contract were costing the production ‐ roughly 300 British pounds ‐ and then volunteered to drive himself around. You probably assume he did this to help shave a little bit off the film’s budget. Wrong. Connery instead suggested that he and Boorman split the money evenly. “That’s Sean,” says a still entertained Boorman.

10. “There are very few actors who could have worn this costume,” says Boorman, who credits Connery’s body and powerful presence with his success here. He recalls attending a football match with the actor during production, and when the game ended the pair found themselves surrounded by a crowd of admirers pressing ever inward. Boorman was terrified, but Connery simply raised his arms saying “’Stand aside, move back,’ and suddenly a path opened up.”

11. The horse with the topless woman riding it was named Snowy and belonged to Boorman and his family. “It was ridden by my children for many years,” he says. “But not bare-breasted I might add.” When the horse died they cut his tail off and attached it to a rocking-horse “so something of him still remains.” So now there are two things making this the creepiest moment of the commentary.

12. The man Zed shoots at the 21:42 mark is actually Boorman himself. It was a blank, but it still left pieces of wadding embedded in his forehead which took a long time to come out. “So, I was actually shot by Sean Connery.”

13. Part of Boorman’s goal here was to explore the idea of immortality when it comes to sex and children. I’ll let him rephrase. “In a society where people live forever there’s clearly no reason or need for children, and therefore does sexuality disappear, does the sexual urge no longer function.”

14. The folks being gunned down along the beach were cast from “travelers, gypsies” in Ireland. “They always turned up, they were never late, they never complained, they were delighted with the food, in fact they were the best extras I’ve ever had on any picture.”

15. The scene with Zed in the outdoor cage shows the enclosure beside him occupied by a man in a baboon outfit. They had a real baboon, but it attacked the guy in the costume.

16. Boorman points out that more than a few of his films feature recreations of famous artworks, and he’s kept almost all of them. “There’s a room in my house I call The Fakery.”

17. You’d think the costume would have been a point of contention for Connery, but no, his biggest problem was the scene where he pulled one of the immortals along in a cart. “I started by having him pull it uphill, and he wasn’t very happy about that,” says Boorman. “In fact he complained bitterly.”

18. Boorman explains the various categories among the populace: the Renegades are old folks condemned to eternal senility, the Eternals who have been rebuilt into younger bodies, the hapless Brutals struggling outside, the Exterminators (like Zed) whose job it is to keep the Brutal population in check and finally the Apathetics ‐ Eternals who’ve lost all interest in life.

19. “I think that Sean played that with great restraint,” he says, regarding the sequence where the Immortals attempt to get a rise out of Zed by showing him softcore shenanigans and watching for his erection.

20. Boorman acknowledges how goofy the film looks, particularly in retrospect if you don’t enter into the spirit of the film. “A lot of this can very laughable really,” he says.

21. One of Boorman’s inspirations was Aldous Huxley’s story “After Many a Summer,” about a rich man who finds a way of living forever but who gradually regresses into an ape. “It had a very powerful effect on me whenn I read it when I was young.”

22. When the film opened in France a Communist paper wanted Boorman to sign a document acknowledging that the mask worn by the Exterminators was in no way poking fun of Vladimir Lenin. He gladly signed knowing that the mask had actually been modeled on his own face/head. The paper gave the film a glowing review.

23. The scene where Zed is finally able to resist Consuella’s (Charlotte Rampling) mind control was upsetting to the actress. “She said she’d been looking forward to being raped by Sean Connery,” says Boorman, “and that it was all over much too quickly.”

24. Connery lived at Boorman’s home during production, and “he was the perfect sort of lodger. He would always turn the lights off at night.” Apparently the actor would retire to his bedroom and write poetry each night. “He’s never shown this poetry to me or to anyone else as far as I know, but he does write poetry.” Connery also has a pretty impressive memory ‐ he remembers the name of the milkman from when he was a child.

25. The 3rd act scene where Consuella mounts a horse with a torch in her hand left her injured. The wax had melted down, and when the scene ended they found her hand “welded” to the torch and severely blistered.

26. “Dressing up Sean Connery as a bride was something that he resisted, for quite a long time,” says Boorman with a laugh. The director was persistent though and eventually wore Connery’s manly resistance down.

27. Boorman advocates for a disclaimer on films going forward similar to the one stating “No animals were harmed in the making of this film,” but that would instead point out that no computer effects were used to create the visuals in this film.

28. One critic wrote a negative review of the film but pointed out his immense appreciation for the scene with the characters in the dark illuminated only by video footage projected onto their bodies. He printed the time stamp in his review for when the scene occurred so viewers could make a point of popping their head in for it without having to watch the entire movie. It’s at the 1:19:30 mark.

29. Boorman’s three young daughters appear in a flashback sequence late in the film when the Eternals are sharing their history with Zed.

30. He once asked Connery if he ever considered using a different accent when acting, to which the actor replied “If I didn’t talk the way I talk I wouldn’t know who the hell I am.” Boorman doesn’t press the issue as he acknowledges that Connery won an Academy Award for playing an Irish cop with a Scottish accent in The Untouchables.

31. The final scene where Zed and Consuella age before our eyes via time-lapse photography was filmed over the course of an entire day with Connery hating every second of it. The man is no fan of things touching his skin. Unfortunately for all involved a flaw was discovered when the film was being processed, and they had to do the entire thing again. “Sean was horrified.” They spent the day following their wrap party re-shooting the scene only to have a hungover camera assistant accidentally expose the film and ruined it. “When he [Connery] realized we had to do it a third time he went into a kind of rage, he began to froth at the mouth, he wanted to kill the assistant cameraman and we had to restrain him.” That crew member left the country shortly thereafter, and Boorman didn’t see him again until he ran into him many years later at a Starbucks in Venice. He’s now a commercial DP in Los Angeles.

32. The “quilts” worn by many of the Eternals were actually picked up by Boorman while making Deliverance in Appalachia.

33. The film was shot in Ireland while the Irish Republican Army was still quite active, and they refused to allow the production to import any live weapons into the country. Boorman considered having to shoot the film elsewhere, but then one of the technicians approached him and said he was a member of the IRA and could supply any number of weapons needed. The IRA relented and allowed him to import the guns.

34. The film ends with a hand-print on the wall as that’s the earliest known sign of human existence. The print here was made by Boorman’s own hand.

35. The commentary ends without Boorman having once commented on this guy’s drawn-on facial hair.

Best in Commentary

Final Thoughts

Boorman provides a fun anecdote-filled commentary for his goofy film, and while there are more than a few silent gaps the times where he’s talking are immensely entertaining. He acknowledges that his film movie is overly ambitious and strange, but his affection for it remains clear. He’s especially proud that all of the film’s visuals were created in camera without the aid of post-production work. Well, that and the inflatable plastic bubbles seen throughout the movie ‐ he’s really pleased with those too.

Check out more commentary commentary in the Commentary Commentary archives

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.