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The Guns of the Film Zardoz

James Bond's hallucinogenic fever dream featured a lot of cool guns.

The Guns of the Film Zardoz

Zardoz is actually kind of a gun movie. Most of the weapons get only cursory exposure, but the Webley- Fosbery revolver is featured throughout. (MovieStillsDB.com) 

It’s the year 2293, and apparently somebody’s been putting LSD in the world’s water supply. That’s the only way I can justify the unimaginably bizarre vision of the future that producer/director/writer John Boorman conjured in his 1974 epic Zardoz. No kidding. I’ve seen a lot of movies, and Zardoz is easily twice as weird as the next weirdest. Zardoz makes The Rocky Horror Picture Show look like a Discovery Channel documentary about astronomy and folk dancing. It’s as though Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam set out to make The Matrix. Don’t believe me? Within the first two minutes of proper dialogue we get the timeless line, “The gun is good! The penis is evil!” The plot kind of goes downhill from there. However, Zardoz yet remains a sort-of gun movie, so my friend and boss Vince DeNiro let me review it in these hallowed pages. What a treat.

The Plot, Such as It is…

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Behold Zardoz, the giant floating head that flies about making evil nonsensical pronouncements while spewing free guns out if its mouth. If there is some deep philosophical meaning behind that, I’m too dim to grasp it. (MovieStillsDB.com)

Spoiler alert—I’m about to do my dead level best to explain the plot of Zardoz. In that effort I fully expect to fail miserably. It really doesn’t matter how many times you have seen the movie. It won’t make a lick of sense unless you are stoned. I tried to follow it. I really did. As near as I could ascertain there has been some kind of universal cataclysm that fractionates humanity into the “Eternals” who cannot die and the “Brutals” who kill each other a lot. Interfacing these two races is this weird floating concrete head that is never really explained. The head flies from place to place, and guns spew out of its mouth. While free guns distributed out of a floating talking concrete head does indeed sound pretty cool, in this case it’s not. A subset of the Brutals called the Exterminators ride around on horseback wearing the most farcical red thongs and bizarre Greek-themed, two-faced masks while shooting people with WWII-vintage British revolvers. If only Chuck Schumer had been there to sponsor a community buyback program and some fresh new gun control laws I suspect Mr. Boorman’s dystopian world would have been instantly transformed into an idyllic garden paradise.

Sean Connery plays the alpha Exterminator named Zed. He stows away in the mouth of the giant floating concrete head and is transported through or to (I never was quite sure on the terminology) the “Vortex.” There, he encounters the Eternals who are quite literally bored to death. It seems that when somebody cannot die they run out of interesting stuff to do eventually. As they are terribly afraid of overpopulation in a world where nobody ages, then sex is flat out. In its place, they substitute meditation and chanting, which easily explains why they seem so darned grim all the time. Inside the big floating head, Zed discovers a bunch of naked people shrink-wrapped in clear plastic. That’s never really explained, either. The actors and actresses who were encased in Saran Wrap were trying not to breathe, but the astute observer might note that they still did a little bit anyway. Once in the land of the Eternals, Zed is subjected to intense scientific study. The lab where the scientist does her work is a big glass affair with a bunch of wet naked catatonic people plastered decoratively all over the outside. They never explained that, either.

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The real star of Zardoz for gun nerds who can look past the rest of this troubling film was the compara- bly bizarre British Webley-Fosbery automatic revolver. The Webley-Fosbery is a mechanically complex contrivance that really seems like a solution in search of a problem. However, its sweet single action trigger pull made it popular in revolver competitions back in the day. (Leroy Thompson photo)

Eventually, the immortal scientist chick reads Zed’s mind. She realizes that the savage Exterminator taught himself to read in a long-abandoned library and knows way more than she thought he did. She figures out that the god Zardoz was inexplicably taken from the title of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 beloved children’s classic, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (ZardOz…Get it?). Nope, no further explanation is offered for that, either. Zed then escapes and leads what is, I suppose, the most sensible and motivated Eternal on a merry chase. Zed is then called upon to impregnate literally half the known universe, a responsibility he seems to embrace stoically. Eventually, the rest of Zed’s fellow Exterminators breach the force field to get into the land of the Eternals and kill most all of them. Don’t feel bad about that, however. They were all really bored and were apparently ready to get on with it. Along the way, we get a protracted montage of people making funny faces into the camera while bizarre shapes are projected onto them. Strange mystic music plays in the background throughout. Eventually the Eternal who is trying to kill Zed instead falls in love with him. They have a son and then inexplicably waste away into skeletons. All that remains in the family cave they called home is a pair of cave drawing-style hand prints and Zed’s uber-cool Webley-Fosbery automatic revolver. Wow.

Who is Responsible For This?

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The Webley Mk VI revolver first saw service in 1915. It was later supplanted by the smaller .38-caliber Mk IV. All Webley revolvers are break-open designs.

John Boorman is a famous British film director who brought us such classics as Hell in the Pacific, Deliverance, Exorcist II: The Heretic, and Excalibur, to name but a few. Boorman wrote, directed and produced this fever dream of a movie. At the time, the guy was clearly mad as a box of frogs. Boorman was coming off of Deliverance, which, though terribly unsettling, was fabulously successful and earned him a nomination for Best Director at the Academy Awards. As a result, somebody someplace thought it would be a good idea to give him a big pile of money and a camera and have him just go at it. I can only hope that person learned their lesson. For his part, Boorman was granted a knighthood in January of 2022. I presume it was either a slow day at Buckingham Palace, or that this was some kind of mean joke. Boorman had hoped to direct the film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, and he corresponded with J.R.R. Tolkien directly back in the 1970’s on the subject. Thank the Fates that fell through so Peter Jackson could do it properly in 2001 without all of the hallucinogenic undertones. As a consolation prize, Boorman did make Zardoz. Zardoz is proof positive you should never drop acid and then get behind a camera.

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The Lee-Enfield No 4 bolt-action rifle was the definitive British service weapon during World War II. The Lee-Enfield No 4 is most easily identified by the stubby barrel protruding out of the nose.

Sean Connery bears some responsibility for this as well. He was coming off of his several profoundly successful James Bond movies and found himself typecast. Unable to find other work in Hollywood or, I suppose, at his local brothel or building supply store, he inexplicably signed on for Zardoz. Connery spends the vast majority of the movie wearing the Red Thong of Shame. During the brief respite we get from that visual assault he is actually wearing a woman’s wedding dress (no kidding). I didn’t know a man could get hungry enough to prance about for 102 minutes on screen dressed like a flamboyant hairy gay toddler. In 1974 when this movie came out, Connery was 44 years old and was indeed still fit. I’ll give him that. His Exterminator uniform was, seriously, a red Sumo butt wrap along with thigh-high go-go boots and a brace of matching red ammunition bandoleers. Considering the costume designer for the film was none other than John Boorman’s wife, Christel Kruse Boorman, I rather suspect nepotism played a not insubstantial role in this travesty.

The Guns

For reasons that were never terribly clear, certain of the Eternals seemed to enjoy watching the Brutals off themselves. That’s why the giant floating concrete head kept gifting the Exterminators piles of firearms and veritable torrents of ammunition. While the Webley Mk VI and the Webley-Fosbery got most of the screen time, there were some other interesting weapons as well. This movie was made in Ireland in 1973, so it used guns available in that place at that time. That included AR-15’s with three-prong flash suppressors, Lee-Enfield No 4 rifles with bayonets, German MP-40’s, and Sterling submachine guns along with some fairly pedestrian side-by-side shotguns. While most of the shooting was done with the big wheelguns, the long guns got enough exposure for positive identification. The AR-15 was born in 1957 out of a tiny little subsidiary of Fairchild Aircraft Corporation called ArmaLite. There the visionary Eugene Stoner and a few others adopted cutting edge aviation technology that had arisen out of World War 2 into small arms design. The end result was a radically advanced lightweight combat rifle.

zardoz-movie-guns-06
The attentive gun geek truly committed to his craft will note that the AR-15 rifles used in the movie Zardoz are early 1960’s vintage with three-prong flash suppressors.

The original AR-10 fired 7.62x51mm. It was produced in the Netherlands and adopted by the Portuguese Special Forces for use in combat operations in Africa. The receivers were aluminum. The direct gas impingement action was little more than a length of stainless steel hydraulic tubing that piped gas back into a bolt carrier that acted like a big gas piston. The subsequent scaled-down .223 version that became so wildly popular was almost an afterthought. Stoner designed the .223 cartridge as well as the AR-15 rifle to fire it. While the lithe little weapon had some well-publicized teething troubles in Vietnam, it has evolved into the most customized combat rifle in human history. Nowadays, the AR-15’s progeny are universally recognized as the most ergonomically perfect assault rifles ever contrived. The Lee-Enfield family of bolt-action rifles first saw service in the late 19th century. These weapons were themselves evolved from the previous black powder bolt-action Lee-Metford. The Lee-Enfield’s action cocked on closing and was magazine fed. These features gave the gun an impressive rate of fire in experienced hands.

The Short-Magazine Lee-Enfield was the primary British service rifle during World War 1 and soldiered on in Commonwealth service throughout the Second World War as well. The definitive WW2 version was the No. 4 that featured prominently in Zardoz. This variant can be distinguished at a glance by the stubby bit of barrel protruding out the end. The 9mm Sterling submachine gun was an evolutionary development of the wartime Sten gun. The early Sterling Patchett versions actually saw some action in Operation Market Garden during WW2. An open-bolt design renowned for its reliability, the Sterling remained in service until it was supplanted by the SA-80 bullpup assault rifle in 1994. The follower on the Sterling magazine is equipped with roller bearings and is likely the most reliable SMG magazine ever created. The Webley revolver was first introduced in 1887 and went through several different Marks. All variants featured a tip-up action and automatic ejection along with a single action/double action trigger. The Mk IV fired the relatively underpowered .38/200 round, while the Mk VI ran the big fat .455 Webley rimmed 
cartridge. Most Mk VI Webleys encountered on this side of the pond have had their cylinders shaved down to accept .45ACP rounds on moon clips. However, pressures from standard .45ACP rounds generally exceed those of .455 Webley proof loads and should not be fired. If you reload, it is a fairly easy thing to whip up underpowered .45ACP rounds for use in this gun.




zardoz-movie-guns-07
In the years immediately following WW2, the German MP40 was arguably the most readily recognized SMG in the world. The gun found its way into a wide variety of Hollywood productions.

The real star of this freaky weird movie was the comparably freaky weird Webley-Fosbery automatic revolver. As near as I could tell, only Zed packed one of these, but it was undeniably cool. Designed by Victoria Cross recipient LTC George Vincent Fosbery, this eponymous wheelgun harnessed the recoil forces from the cartridge to advance the cylinder and cock the action. Produced from 1901 through 1924, the Webley-Fosbery, while a fascinating design, was expensive and a bit fragile. These old guns command astronomical prices today. The key to the Webley-Fosbery’s action was a sliding upper assembly that contained the barrel, part of the frame, and the cylinder. When fired, this assembly slid backwards on rails cut into the frame. A cam slot in the cylinder engaged the frame and indexed the action automatically. The Webley-Fosbery was popular with the speed shooters of its era, as the auto-cocking action automatically allowed for a light crisp trigger experience. I’m told by friends who know that the Webley-Fosbery will not function in traditional double action mode. Operation of the gun is dependent upon recoil forces from firing a live round. As a result, in the action scenes where Zed fires his revolver more than once it seems they likely used a Mk VI. The two guns look quite similar at a distance. In one compelling scene early in the film, Zed shoots directly into the camera for dramatic effect. As he does, the astute gun nerd can see that the rest of the gun’s cylinders are empty.

Metaphysical Musings

John Boorman had this to say about his outlandish movie, “I wanted to make a film about the problems of us hurtling at such a rate into the future that our emotions are lagging behind.” Of the central character he said, “He’d be mysteriously chosen. At the same time he would be manipulated. I wanted the story to be told in the form of a mystery, with clues and riddles which unfold, the truth slowly peeled away.” Zardoz is indeed a bit like an onion in that regard, the stinky sort that has been left out in the sun while slathered in mayonnaise for about three days. Boorman claimed to have been influenced by T.S. Eliot, Frank Baum and J.R.R. Tolkien as well as the medieval Arthurian legends. He said, “It’s about inner rather than outer space. It’s closer to the better science fiction literature which is more metaphysical. Most of the science fiction that gives the genre a bad name is adventure stories in space clothes.” I’d say he was more profoundly influenced by his drug dealer, but that’s just me.

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Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, Sean Connery’s character Zed inexplicably dons a woman’s wedding dress to make his spectacular getaway. Making the movie Zardoz was clearly a bold career move for Sean Connery in 1973. If you can get past the radioactive thong, you will note that Connery’s character Zed is wielding an eclectic Webley-Fosbery semiautomatic revolver. (MovieStillsDB.com)

It seems most of the world agrees with me. The film returned $1.8 million from a $1.57 million production budget. Much of that likely turned on word of mouth once people started talking about 007 sporting radioactive underpants. Of the film the famed movie critic Roger Ebert opined, “A genuinely quirky movie, a trip into a future that seems ruled by perpetually stoned set decorators…The movie is an exercise in self-indulgence.” His partner Gene Siskel gave it one star out of four. Zardoz is not just a movie made in the 1970’s. Zardoz in the kind of movie that seems to physically transport you back into the seventies. The blank stoner faces and the psychedelic fashions seemed to be somehow anxiously longing for the coming emotional release that would be disco. I realize I have been pretty hard on Sir John Boorman in these pages, and the guy is still alive as of this writing. It’s all in good fun. Sir John likely teaches Sunday School and has never once done hallucinogenic drugs. However, my brother is a really disciplined guy, and he could only make it through about twenty minutes of the film before giving up and going back to something else. The movie is available on Amazon…if you dare. There will apparently be a fair number of naked people in the year 2293, so I wouldn’t invite the kids to a viewing. However, if you want to experience psychedelic mushrooms without the hassle of running afoul of the law, failing drug tests, and getting addicted to something that will invariably wreck every single thing in your life, just brew up some popcorn and settle down in front of Zardoz. It’s a real trip, baby.

Recommended


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The action in Zardoz is compelling enough, I suppose. It is simply that not a whole lot of the film’s narrative makes a great deal of sense. (MovieStillsDB.com)

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