Authors: John Boorman
Based on the original screenplay by
First Printing, April, 1974.
in 1972 at my home, a lost valley in the dreaming hills of Wicklow. It came out closer to a novel than a screenplay. Gradually I worked it into a film form that proved too radical for most of the studios. Finally I got some backing and shot the movie in our local studios, Ardmore, and locations around my house between May and July, 1973.
In the final weeks of preparation, Bill Stair—who worked with me on
Leo the Last
—came in to help rationalize the visions that threatened to engulf me.
While editing the film I decided to restore the story to novel form. I asked Stair to help me with it. It follows the film very closely but draws heavily on the earlier versions. It offers an interpretation of the film and helps to lay to rest those ghosts that stalked the Celtic twilight pressing this strange vision of the future upon me.
JOHN BOORMAN September 1973
“We seal ourselves herewith into this place of learning. Death is banished forever. I direct that the Tabernacle erase from us all memories of its construction, so we may never destroy it if we should ever crave for death. Here man and the sum of his knowledge will never die but go forward to perfection.”
The old man finished speaking. There was no applause from the assembled audience. They quietly dispersed and went about their allotted duties.
Eternal Life had begun.
Nothing was easy. Life came hard and short. The young boy, Zed, took shelter at the side of his father from the merciless wind. They were fortunate, they were the blessed ones. They waited at the mountaintop.
Others were gathering on horseback. All moving to the appointed place, all heads turned to the point on the horizon from whence Zardoz would come.
Zed’s sharp eyes swept the bare landscape. Acres of hook-thorned shrubs jostled in the unceasing wind, their dry leaves whispering across the tundra. Low tussocks of gray grass gave way to deformed woods and midget oaks that rose from pools of brackish, oily water—and all the plants were dead.
First there was a low note, then one of the watchers pointed to the heavens. A shout rose up. “Zardoz comes!”
Through the lowering clouds came their God. This was to be the first time that Zed would see him. Even he, a warrior’s son, shook with fear and fell to his knees when he saw God.
A gigantic stone head slowly descended toward them. Vast and menacing, its huge face was carved into a frightening grimace, its eyes glowing, its face glittering with rain. How could a head live without a body? What kind of creature could have borne this monster? Perhaps the body was invisible and all around them. Zed stood firm. The warriors raised a huge salute as the head came to rest before them on the hilltop.
Zed was privileged. His father had the right to slay and breed, and these would be his rights too. He could take women in the name of Zardoz, and he could kill in that name. He would be One with Zardoz, he would be a Man.
“Zardoz speaks to you his chosen ones.”
The earth trembled with the voice. The warriors replied, “We are the chosen ones,” their eyes averted. Zed dared raise his head and look into the black mouth of Zardoz, into the dazzling, molten eyes.
“You have been raised up from brutality to kill the Brutals who multiply and are legion. To this end Zardoz your God gave you the gift of the Gun.”
High above the head appeared a hand, then in the hand a gun. So real was the dream that Zed reached out to touch it, but the giant thumb pulled back the hammer and the forefinger squeezed the trigger and the gun fired. The report exceeded even the noise of Zardoz’ voice. The Gun!
Another part of the familiar litany to all the congregation except Zed; to him the miracle of the firing vision was only exceeded by the next image.
“The Gun is good,” boomed Zardoz.
“The Gun is good,” repeated the warriors.
“The penis is evil. The penis shoots seeds and makes new life to poison the Earth with a plague of men, as once it was. But the gun shoots death and purifies the Earth of the filth of Brutals. Go forth and kill. Zardoz has spoken.”
Before Zed’s startled gaze the God vomited up thousands of weapons; guns, swords, bullets, rifles, all spewing out of his mouth onto the hillside. The Exterminators, the killers of the Brutals, surged forward, forgetting their fear of the huge God. They fought for the weapons and gave thanks to Zardoz for his bounty. Zed had run forward too, had claimed his first weapon, a revolver, and was now a man, a warrior, a priest of Zardoz.
Zed lived with his father in an encampment at a hilltop.
It flattened into a wide plateau and bore signs of other times and other men. High earthen walls rose above deep ditches that grew with spiked stakes, impaling rotting heads of slaughtered Brutals. Guards strolled the walls, and called the names of those who rode up to the gateways, always friends returning, never foes. The gates led to an intersection around which grew the camp. A profusion of many-shaped shelters, of cloth, skins, metal, and wood, all smoking and begrimed, surrounded the long hut of the warriors. This stood tall like an upturned boat beached in the center of the flotsam of the hovels at its rim.
The women and children were quartered in these surrounding places. They were of a slave-rank, the adult females captured in raids, chosen for their strength and the features prescribed by Zardoz. His shrine was at the head of the long house. Here the men lived, for the most part in seclusion. Cooking fires drifted smoke up from the holes in the rooftops. A stockade of pigs was by the walls. The children, if males, were taken from their mothers at an early age and trained in all the martial arts. The females became, as their mothers, chattels and slaves of the camp. Life was drear for them. Each warrior had as many wives as his station could support. As a warlord, Zed’s father had many. If Zed was strong enough he too would warrant many wives and concubines. He too could be the paramount chieftain of the hill.
Zed became a zealous soldier and fearless fighter in the name of Zardoz. A great Crusader in his name. He killed and grew and in the growing multiplied his deaths. He was, like Zardoz, insatiable. When he took women, it was in the same mad lust in which he slaughtered. The only meaning of his life was to be found in the service of Zardoz, in absolute obedience to the one and only force. For had not this God given him the right to mate, the means to kill? What else could there be that was meaningful? Zardoz made him, and Zed was a willing instrument of that will. As the years passed, he became, as his father had become, the leader, the archpriest, the knight-supreme of the holy order.
Upon their war-horses they were one with the beasts they rode. Bridled and saddled with red leather the Exterminators rattled with old trophies, scalps, fingers, bone, rings, and trinkets from the dead. Paint zigzagged on the legs of the horses, dazzling the eye when they galloped.
The warriors sat tall in the saddle, moustaches drooping below their chins, long hair sometimes tied back, or knotted atop their heads and set with long bone pins. To strike fear in the hearts of Brutals, they wore red masks in the image of Zardoz.
Zed was more starkly dressed. His long hair was tied back, a moustache dark against his swarthy skin, a leader who scorned finery and decoration. His huge horse was as blue-black and glittering as his hair, fleet as raven’s wings.
Zed wore long boots that rose up to his thigh tops, a breechclout, and swathes of encircling ammunition belts across chest and waist. A rifle hung in a bucket holster at his saddle bow, a long six-shooting revolver sat high on his right hip, and a saber was scabbarded at the saddle. His hand gripped a slender steel-tipped lance from which fluttered a red pennant. Blood-red like all they wore, but casting a black and deadly silhouette against the sun.
After each full moon, they would gather to do homage to their king. They would offer up live sacrifices, a few fortunate Brutals who would be lucky enough to see the Mighty One before death came. Then they would receive new supplies with which to carry on their unending campaign of carnage. Revitalized and renewed they would return to their duties.
He had to ride many miles in his search, through strange dead forests, through weird places where once many Brutals dwelt, encampments that had long borne the scars of the Exterminators. And at other times, the hooves of their horses rang on stone. They chased the dead and dying through strange free-standing caverns, empty for ages. Zed knew no fear for, although it was said these buildings were haunted, indeed cursed, by the spirits of the long-dead giants that had built these ingenious dwellings, he knew that Zardoz was always by his side.
No fear, no compassion ever crossed his mind, for he knew that he was but a vehicle, the angel of death, inspired by Zardoz.
In killing, as in the final moment in the act of love, he was supreme. That was his purpose. For he knew that he was but an instrument of the Almighty, the Unmerciful, the All-Seeing.
Many roads were ridden in the cause of Zardoz, many routes crossed and recrossed, through the traces of the old times that were still left, and out into the barren lands beyond. Often his sword rose and fell in the cause; many times his guns roared death and confusion on the subhuman host that ran below the hooves of his war-horse. They were a ghastly and awful host that fell to his sword, so unlike his followers as to seem a different breed. Some ran on monstrous distorted limbs, were many-headed; some slithered; others, eyeless, sensed his presence with antennae; still more gazed at him with red and green eyes, mottled skins blending them with the earth. These were not men, and yet they all echoed that frame.
He rode relentlessly over the dead-lands, taking little rest, for everything was to be reduced and smitten. From this sterile loam some evil life eked out, clinging as life will in its most perverse extremity. A slime lived on the trees, a many-legged worm burrowed through the soil and sucked life from the slime, long-tusked pigs dug for sustenance in the dead copses and found enough strength in the worm-bodies to kill any man on foot. These boars fed larger life—great cats and dogs and bears and man himself—while over all the wasteland vultures flew, waiting.
All the life, whether it crawled, dug, buzzed, or flew upon the earth, was dark as the dust—except for subman. He was sallow but still not blackened by the poisonous pigment. The world was to become as Zardoz wished. The model was the sterile, ashen wastes over which the exterminating horde swept; where the black earth crumbled underfoot. Everything was to be as Zardoz ordained: empty, bleak, and dead, except for the warriors who would ride out forever on the black wastelands of their God. This had to be accomplished, for Zardoz had so ordered things. The hammer of his will were the Exterminators, the Brutals were the anvil, the ragged remnants of that which had once encompassed the Earth and engulfed it…humanity.
Zed was mighty. None was more zealous in the praise of God nor more talented in carrying out his will. His wisdom outshone the others, no eye was truer, no arm stronger, no mind mightier. The others feared his thoughts more than the man himself. Zed himself was pursued, by constant dreams. He saw things that were not visible.
He could have been driven from the tribe and killed as an evil spirit were it not for his proven greatness as a warlord. His sword and gun were the most potent of the group; did this not demonstrate that he was possessed by Zardoz? The powers of the God himself? Zed’s following grew, no other groups of killers could match him. None could exceed his harvest. And then it was that Zed found there were others like him.
Only a few; three other warlords like himself. They met at a gathering of the tribes. He recognized they were all brothers in intellect and intuition. Few words were spoken but their hands were joined briefly, in a lasting bond of more than friendship. He was not alone, these were brothers in mind and spirit. Even as a superior son of Zardoz, he had indeed found kindred fellows. These were not only soldiers, they had the same strange and frightening powers as Zed. Their intellect outshone their physical prowess.
As Zed grew and formed his inner circle of brothers, so Zardoz grew. The mighty God, no less deadly, began to temper his edicts with a new wisdom. Zed was disturbed, but dissolved his doubts in his passion for obedience. The new orders concerned growth. Just as Zed him- self and a special few could breed, so Zardoz gave a new seed to the landscape. Zardoz commanded that prisoners be taken, not to be sacrificed in his name, but to work, to plant the soil, to grow grain.
Disgusting as it was distasteful, Zed was obedient. The slaves planted the soil with grain that came from Zardoz’ mouth and in time that grain grew and multiplied, was reaped and then returned to the mouth from which it came, the jaws of Zardoz. Crops would not grow in the sour soil but Zardoz gave them new seeds, proof against the poisons of the blighted earth.