Zardoz (1974) vs. Excalibur (1980)

Zardoz

Dir. John Boorman, 1974

For all we talk about how 1960s-70s counterculture destroyed polite society, the real impact was marginal compared with what it did to cinema. The advent of drugs and the end of censorship gave inspired filmmakers to tell stories that could never before be realized. It also meant that successful filmmakers had license to make any film they wanted, and it was a disaster: the New Hollywood was destroyed by massively expensive bombs by directors who thought they were gods, and Zardoz is one such film.

Already reasonably successful, director John Boorman found a massive hit in the classic thriller Deliverance. With a newly acquired carte blanche, Boorman chose to use an original story he’d been working on for a few years. The result is Zardoz. In a desperate attempt to escape James Bond’s shadow, Sean Connery plays Zed, and “exterminator” roaming the hills of what was once Britain, killing and enslaving whoever he finds. Gifted with uncommon intelligence, Zed sneaks inside the titular flying, talking, gun-loving, penis-hating stone head to discover an enclave of posh hippies who developed technology to keep them living forever. After centuries of youth, they have lost the will to live, and believe Zed is a saviour who can unlock their technology and bring them merciful death.

Needless to say, this movie was made on drugs, for people on drugs. There’s a lot that goes unexplained, and just as much that makes no sense. But ultimately Zardoz is a “fairy story” that relies on emotion. If you can get into this film, you can love it, and I really enjoyed it. It’s a unique window into 1970s anxieties over technology, class, youth, and the author himself. If you think you’ll like it, give it a try. B+

Excalibur

Dir. John Boorman, 1980

Though much in the vein of Zardoz, Excalibur works a little differently. Excalibur is a mythical reimagining of the King Arthur legends that managed to change our perception of those legends. The ideas are more interesting than those in Zardoz, but the execution is less inspired. Nigel Terry’s Arthur is often painful to watch. Nicol Williamson is enjoyably campy as Merlin, but he disappears halfway through, only to return for the big finale. The whole film is episodic, and while the creepy, otherworldly visuals are enjoyably reminiscent of Josef von Sternberg, they don’t really fit the story until the second half. On the other hand, most of the actors are fun to watch, especially in hindsight, and the film’s use of Welsh is inspired and quite admirable at a time when the language was proscribed.

When I was 7 or 8 years old, I caught Excalibur on cable and was mesmerized. Watching now, I don’t know why, but it might have been because it was unlike anything I’d seen. Now that I’m an adult, I have seen a lot of the same tricks, done better, including in Zardoz. C+

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