Image: Giger's rendering of House Harkonnen from Jodorowsky's Dune
In 1974, the Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky set about turning the classic sci-fi novel Dune into a major motion picture. He recruited Orson Welles, Pink Floyd, H. R. Giger, David Carradine, Salvador Dali, and Mick Jagger to the project, completed 3,000 pieces of story art, and spent millions of dollars preparing for production. Investors balked when he asked for more—and when they realized the script would account for a meandering 14-hour film—and it was ultimately shelved.
David Lynch would famously take up the mantle and go on to turn Dune into an epic flop. So today, Jodorowsky's effort remains one of the most famous movies never made. A documentary about the lost film debuted at Cannes, and it's getting rave reviews—it's essentially a prolonged bull session with Jodorowsky about the aborted project.
But it's whetting sci-fi, Dune and Jodorowsky diehards' appetites for a glimpse of the fabled production. I mean, how insane was this thing going to be? Well, I have a bit of a spoiler here: the answer is "very."
A few years back, Jodorowsky evidently published a piece in Metal Hurlant, a French comic/culture mag/inspiration for Heavy Metal called "Dune: Le Film Que Vous Ne Verrez Jamais"—that's "Dune: The Film You Will Never See." In the piece, he explains at length his ambitions and inspirations for turning Dune into an avante garde sci-fi carnival of insanity.
Here's a taste:
In film, the Duke Leto (father of Paul) would be a man castrated in a ritual combat in the arenas during a bullfight (emblem of the Atreides house being a crowned bull...) Jessica - nun of the Bene Gesserit -, sent as concubine at the Duke to create a girl which would be the mother of a Messiah, becomes so in love with Leto that she decides to jump a link in the chain and to create a son, Kwisatz Haderach, the saviour.
By using her capacities of Bene Gesserit - once that the Duke, insanely in love with her, entrusts her with his sad secret [that he's castrated, remember] - Jessica is inseminated by a drop of blood of this sterile man... The camera followed (in script) the red drop through the ovaries of the woman and sees its meeting with the ovule where, by a miraculous explosion, it fertilises it. Paul had been born from a virgin; and not of the sperm of his father but of his blood...
Not a sentence of that is in the original novel, of course. Frank Herbert, the author of Dune, notoriously disavowed Jodorowksy's project—which may have been part of the reason investors cut off funding. It's not hard to see why; Jodorowsky didn't just deviate from the source material—where there was no castration, no blood-Christs, no virgin births—he obliterated it, leaving only the names and, occasionally, some of the characters' thematic hallmarks intact. And H.R. Giger, the Swiss artist who would go on to achieve worldwide fame by designing the titular creature in Alien, admitted to not basing his art on the book at all.
And it only gets stranger from there. The main character of Jodorowsky's Dune wasn't even going to be Paul, in fact, but the Emperor; only a minor character in the novel. Bear in mind as you read Jodorowsky's thoughts, that he intended the Emperor to be played by Salvador Dali, for an alleged rate of $100,000 an hour.
In my version of Dune, the Emperor of the galaxy is insane. He lives on an artificial gold planet, in a gold palace built according to not-laws of antilogical. He lives in symbiosis with a robot identical to him. The resemblance is so perfect that the citizens never know if they are opposite the man or the machine...
In my version, the spice is a blue drug with spongy consistency filled with a vegetable-animal life endowed with consciousness, the highest level of consciousness. It does not stop taking all kinds of forms, while stirring up unceasingly. The spice continuously produces the creation of the innumerable universes.
Imagine for a moment a God-Emperor Salvador Dali and his attendant robot clone taking spongy blue drugs on a planet made of gold, and you shall understand precisely what the world was robbed of when Dune came crashing down.
The end of the film, would climax with Paul's throat getting cut and the hero announcing, "I am the collective man." Then Dune the desert planet is transmuted into a verdant paradise with "three columns of light" shining from on high, and rainbows, and forests. It ends with Dune "now a world illuminated, which crosses the galaxy, which leaves it, which gives it light - which is Consciousness - to all the universe."
And however did Jodorowsky come up with that ending? Glad you asked.
To conceive this final sequence of transmutation of the matter, I was likely to come into contact with true alchemists... Mysterious beings (one of them seemed to be more than one hundred of years, advanced age which however enabled him to move with an energy of young teenager) which approached me because Dune could be a philosopher stone, the stone which changes into gold all other metals...
You're getting the point. Jodorowsky's Dune was a colossal undertaking by a wild, bizarre, and visionary director who had little regard for conventional narrative, studio demands, or staying faithful to a widely beloved sci-fi story.
But his Dune wasn't a total loss. Jodorowsky salvaged some of the story, and turned it into a series of comics called the Incal with the French artist Moebius. That incarnation was on the verge of getting transformed into an animated feature, but it too was ultimately canned. Enough footage was left over to piece together this trailer:
Still, it's a pale shadow of what could have been a fantastic mind-fuck of a film—unlike any ever attempted and one unlikely to be attempted again. World-class surrealists, international rock stars, top-billed actors, and one of the most enigmatic directors of all time, all trying to adapt a space opera set on a desert planet loaded with drugs and man-eating worms. No wonder the saga of Jodorowski's Dune saga has captivated cinephiles and sci-fi aficionados for so long—and why we're actually anticipating a feature-length documentary about a movie that was never even shot.