Image Source: Amazing Stories.
For every generation, there is a window of opportunity to create what Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky's son Brontis called, "a dreamed life." This is the Beautiful Alternative, the path not followed, the epitome of achievement not attained due to failure, impediments, lack of resources or similar circumstances. In cinema, Jodorowsky's 1970s' adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune (1965) is considered by director Richard Stanley as "the greatest movie never made." A 2013 documentary on the subject argues that, at a critical time in the 1970s, this film marked the dividing line between what really matters artistically and real world limitations. And the fact that this particular film was not made because of monetary problems, and the unwillingness of the studios to bring such a radical vision to popular audiences, changed Hollywood and the entertainment industry forever.
Jodorowsky's Dune was an artwork that should have been made at any cost and it wasn't. This film - it would have been between twelve and twenty hours long - would have established a different industrial cinematic model. Director Nicholas Winding Refn believes that had this version of Dune been completed, it would have set the epic standard instead of Star Wars and "the whole megabucks blockbuster structure would have been altered." Alejandro Jodorowsky himself, reflecting on his unmade film, commented that money is shit. And for that shit, his film was not made.
The black box scene. Clip from David Lynch's Dune (1984) © Universal Pictures. Video Source: Youtube.
With this film, it is as though Hollywood, instead of Paul Atreides, had a hand in the Reverend Mother Helen Gaius Mohaim's black box, recited the Bene Gesserit litany against fear,
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
And then Hollywood failed the test and pulled its hand from the box. Before David Lynch directed the 1984 version, Arthur P. Jacobs, producer of Planet of the Apes, and director Ridley Scott also tried to make Dune.
It was not just the money that made Dune difficult. It was the threatening subject matter. Rather like Carl Jung with his Red Book, the combination of Herbert's message and Jodorowsky's surreal imagination scared people. The Atlantic remarked that the complex story made the book daunting to adapt: "Dune was like the anti-Star Wars, undoing everything Lucas's trilogy did to make sci-fi a friendly place." More precisely, Dune is the ultimate saga of our world of the past 70 years. Dune's spice - the universe's indispensable resource - is a thinly-veiled metaphor for our world's addiction to oil. The planet Dune is our Middle East in microcosm. Herbert's whole Dune series speculates in a vast way on the fraught connection between energy and modernization. Herbert embraced western theology, power and business, Middle Eastern religion, Asian philosophies, and global economies, lifestyles, politics and societies. Everything that is wrong with our world, and all its greatest potential, is in Dune. Not everyone can face a harsh appraisal of that reality, which Herbert presented in the long fate of the Atreides family.
Some may question the Chilean director's abilities, but perhaps Jodorowsky looked at Herbert's uncomfortable appraisal without wavering. And perhaps his surreal, radical and true vision of our world was another reason why the film was not made. But the film had a curious afterlife: the surreal radicalism trickled into other films. The documentary, Jodorowsky's Dune, maintains that the unmade film had a huge impact sci-fi, fantasy and noir genres of cinema. Its cultural footprint is perhaps not so deep much as one would expect in Lynch's version. But other directors knew of Jodorowsky's ideas and used them. Ridley Scott confirmed in an interview that because of his brush with making Dune, he agreed to make Alien and Blade Runner. The Verge:
the whole [of Jodorowsky's] team went on to do Alien. Alien might not have happened if these people had not met in Paris under Jodorowsky. Dan O’Bannon never would have suggested to Ridley Scott, "Hey, you need to hire this guy H. R. Giger, his work is amazing." They never would have brought on Foss, never would have brought on Moebius … [O]nce we had the storyboards and we really went through them, then certain things popped out. "Look at this opening shot, that sounds familiar from Contact," and "This scene looks a lot like Raiders," and so on and so forth.
The Cast[M]any of the visual ideas in the Dune storyboards turned up in several other movies including Flash Gordon (1980), Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981), Contact (1997) and the Alien prequel Prometheus (2012). Some are more persuasive than others but one fact is indisputable. When the project collapsed and the creative team scattered, Dan O’Bannon wrote the screenplay for a monster in space movie, took H. R. Giger, Jean Giraud and Chris Foss with him as conceptual artists, and made Alien (1979), the film that established Ridley Scott’s directorial reputation after The Duellists (1977). Without Alien, Scott doesn’t direct Blade Runner (1982) – perhaps the most influential film of the last 35 years – and so films like The Matrix (1999) don’t get made.
Jodorowsky's casting and production staff choices were impressive. Of (later) Alien fame, Dan O'Bannon was hired for the script with H. R. Giger for designs, along with Chris Foss and famed French comics artist Jean Giraud for further set and character designs; Pink Floyd and Magma for the music; and Salvador Dalí as the Emperor, with Orson Welles as the Baron Harkonnen; with Gloria Swanson, David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Amanda Lear, Charlotte Rampling also in the cast.
Brontis Jodorowsky, the director's son, was cast as Paul Atreides.
Amanda Lear (in a 1970s' photo) was Salvador Dalí's muse and cast as Princess Irulan.
Salvador Dalí (pictured with Italian Princess Maria Gabriella de Savoia at the 1972 Dîner des Têtes Surréalistes) was cast as the Emperor.
Orson Welles (in F for Fake (1974)) was cast as Baron Harkonnen.
Alain Delon (in La prima notte di quiete (1972)) was cast as Duncan Idaho, the Atreides swordmaster.
Gloria Swanson (photographed by Allan Warren in 1972) would have played the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim.
Mick Jagger (photographed by Ken Regan in 1975 for Rolling Stone) was cast either as Feyd-Rautha, the Harkonnen prince.
Giger's design of Harkonnen castle, a large scale version of the Baron. Image Source: UK Horror Scene.
Giger's designs and artwork by Chris Foss. Images Source: The Verge.
Perhaps what is most intriguing about Jodorowsky's Dune is not what we do know about it, but what we don't. Beyond Herbert's book, beyond the Hollywood studios, beyond the film versions of Dune that were made, this unmade film gauges the cultural impact of something that - because of its time, place, people and circumstances - could not be accomplished. It could not be brought into being. The cultural footprint of Jodorowsky's Dune is the artistic legacy of something never created. That impact of the lost, the unattained and the missing has its own poignancy. How do you trace the value of an absence? How do you extrapolate beyond failure and defeat to the dreamed life? How do you measure the influence of the path not followed?
See all my posts on 60s' Legacies.
See my other posts on paths not followed from this time period, here, here and here.