Chilean film director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version of the movie Dune had a cast and crew lined up that included H.R. Giger, Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, David Carradine, Gloria Swanson and Orson Welles, with music by Pink Floyd. Unfortunately, it was never made. The question remains: What if he had succeeded?
Some have called it “the greatest movie never made.” Others have gone so far as to insist had it been made in 1975—when the director wrote the screenplay—it would have turned George Lucas’s Star Wars debut to a pale imitation two years later. (Indeed, these same folks say Lucas stole some of his ideas from it).
That film was Dune—at least the version of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic written, directed and starring the Chilean visionary Alejandro Jodorowsky. Never heard of “Jodo”? Well, he’s well-known to serious film buffs for two main things:
El Topo, his psychedelic-existential Western made in 1971 that became one of the first midnight cult films, playing at one Boston “art cinema” house for five consecutive years. I saw it in Atlanta as a teenager and had to go back two more times just to make sure I saw what I THOUGHT I saw. Then I went out and bought the soundtrack, which Jodorowsky also composed, an album I still listen to regularly 40 years later.
Here’s a trailer for El Topo that pretty much sums it up with this line, “El Topo is miraculous…and terrible.”
His failure to make Dune, the epic tale of a desert planet that would eventually fall into the lap of David Lynch. For reasons that now seem, at best, ill-advised, Lynch was allowed to try his hand at a big budget sci-fi extravaganza ($40 million in 1984; $95 million in 2018 money) based entirely on the strength of Elephant Man, a black and white film that cost $5 million to make. The result was, predictably, dreadful. It was not only a box office bomb, it was something worse: boring. David Lynch made a boring film. Deal with it.
Jodorowsky’s version of Dune promised to be anything but boring. Mind-blowing, yes. Inscrutable, yes. But boring, no. If El Topo and his other epic film TheHoly Mountain (1974) are any guides, Dune would have broken the filmic paradigm but also its producers’ bank accounts.
Which brings us to the 2013 documentary film Jodorowsky’s Dune by Frank Pavich. The film, which won several top prizes at festivals around the world, opens with a scan of the office of the amazingly spry and cheerful Jodorowsky, now an octogenarian.
“For me, movies are an art more than an industry,” he says, with an enigmatic smile. “For Dune, I wanted to create a prophet. Dune will be the coming of God.”
Note that he did not say “about the coming of God.” He said it “will be the coming of God.”
Cut to one of the original French producers of that aborted 1975 project: “Dune had too much madness in it.”
Ah, but did it? If madness this be, then there’s method in it, as Shakespeare put it in Hamlet.
In fact, on evidence presented by Pavich’s extraordinary documentary, the failure of the producers and, ultimately the Hollywood money-men, to back Jodorowsky is one of the enduring disgraces of film history.
Because: he had assembled a team of what he called “spiritual warriors” that included such superb artists and special effects wizards as Jean Giraud (aka Moebius), Dan O’Bannon, Chris Foss, H.R. Giger and Salvador Dali (who’d agreed to portray “the mad emperor of the galaxy”). He also had commitments from Mick Jagger (as an actor, not a singer), David Carradine (then a major star of the TV show Kung Fu, inspired by El Topo), Gloria Swanson (yes!) and the morbidly obese Orson Welles, who agreed to portray Baron Harkonen if he could have his personal chef on location with him. For the music, he had Pink Floyd and the avant-garde group Magma ready to go. He even “sacrificed” his son, Brontis, to become Paul Atreides, the messianic martyr whose death turns the entire planet Dune into the “Messiah of the universe.”
Needless to add, Alejandro Jodorowsky took massive liberties with Herbert’s novel. Indeed, he hadn’t even read the novel when he started to make the film. None of his artists read the book either; as Foss explains, in Jodorowsky’s Dune, “I’ve never read the book. Dune is whatever Alejandro told me it was.”
Each day on the set, “Jodo” would give his crew an inspiring speech, like a coach pumping up his team before a championship game. He would tell them, “You are on a mission to save humanity.” And they came to believe him.
Pavich’s documentary is the story of an obsession on the level of Ahab for the white whale, or Charles Foster Kane for Rosebud. It was on the same level as Werner Herzog’s need to make Fitzcarraldo, his ill-fated epic about a madman who tried to scale a mountain in the rainforest with a steamship. As Herzog said, in Burden of Dreams (1982), a documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, “I live my life or I end my life with this film.”
Jodorowsky echoes that sentiment in Jodorowsky’s Dune, “If I have to cut my arms off, I will do it to make this film,” he tells Pavich.
After seeing Jodorowsky’s Dune and all of the preparation work that was done for Dune, all the sketches, mockups and shooting scripts, all you can do is sigh and ask: Why were we never allowed to see this film?
And, as a follow-up, you can simply acknowledge: It’s an enduring disgrace to the film industry that Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune was not made in 1975, when all it lacked was a few million dollars in funding in order to start shooting in Algeria. And you can take some consolation that Hollywood got its just desserts with David Lynch’s Dune, an unwatchable piece of gibberish that lost millions of dollars and wasted the time of everyone involved with it. It didn’t waste any talent, though, because none was evident in the finished product.
This trailer for Dune reveals the production values of early Dr. Who and the fine dialogue of a Space Family Robinson episode.
Jodorowsky feels no bitterness, at least not now, over Dune. He, in fact, felt that David Lynch was the only director, besides himself, who had a chance of making a decent Dune and was briefly excited when he learned that Lynch had been hired to take it on. Jodorowsky’s reaction to seeing Lynch’s version is one of the highlights of Pavich’s film. He admits to being scared when he entered the theater because he was certain Lynch would make a masterpiece and his own efforts would be forgotten. But, about five minutes into the film, he said, “I became happy because…the picture was AWFUL!” He doesn’t blame Lynch; he blames the Hollywood money men who cut him off at the knees.
This trailer offers a hint of Jodorowsky’s charisma, vision and good humor:
Another trailer about the artists involved with Jodo’s Dune:
Jodorowsky’s Dune closes by revealing that copies of his script, storyboards and concept art were sent to all of Hollywood’s major film studios back in 1975. In this manner, then, his vision was seen and admired by countless filmmakers and film technicians. Echoes of his work, through such exposure, would later be found in Star Wars, the Terminator series, Bladerunner and, of course, Alien (Jodorowsky’s team had included O’Bannon, Foss, Giger and Giraud, all of whom went on to create Alien four years later).
Here is “Jodo” talking about his dreams and visions for Dune: