This is a fascinating documentary about a movie based on Frank Herbert’s Dune, which never got made. It was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s dream to create a spiritual movie that would change the perspective of young people in a significant way. To him, the goal of life is to create a soul within oneself, and he believes that film, as in art and literature, is one of the ways to search for that soul. His dream resembles Timothy Leary’s hope that LSD would be a powerful change agent among the young. Jodorowsky said he wanted to create an experience similar to that of LSD, to provide a “cinematic god” for young people that would make them free with a new perspective.
Jodorowsky was a theater director in Mexico when he decided to turn to filmmaking, and in 1967, made Fando y Lis. His theater works were avant-garde, and he envisioned doing the same in film, but Fando y Lis was so radical and violent, it caused a riot when it was premiered in Acapulco. Mexico ended up banning it, partly because he was supposed to get permission from the movie industry’s union, which he refused to do. He believed strongly that art should never have such restrictions.
His next film in 1970, El Topo, was also extremely violent, and became the first “midnight movie” and a cult classic. This earned him $1 million, which funded his next film, The Holy Mountain, in 1973. He had become friends with Michel Seydoux, a filmmaker in France, and he gave it to him to distribute around Europe. It did indeed become a hit; in fact, it was just behind a James Bond film in its popularity in Italy.
After that, Seydoux invited him to make any movie he wanted in France. He moved to Paris, and chose Dune—not that he had read the Frank Herbert work, but based on a friend’s assessment that it was the most important science fiction book of the time. It is the first in a series of stories set in the distant future when space travel and life on planets is a way of life. Aristocratic families control individual planets, but owe allegiance to the Padishah Emperor. One planet, Arrakis, is the only one that has a coveted spice, the most valuable substance in the universe and the cause of many a political, religious, technological, and emotional conflict. When the series begins, Duke Leto of the House of Atreides is in charge of Arrakis. His son Paul is an important figure in the story. When the emperor begins to fear the popularity of Duke Leto, he pits Leto’s house against that of an old rival, Baron Harkonnen. The emperor is counting on the Baron to defeat Duke Leto.
Jodorowsky becomes ecstatic about creating a visual rendition of the novel and intends for it to be spiritually powerful. He begins by recruiting men who are considered tops in their field. First is Jean Girard (“Moebius”, his sci-fi pen name), famous for his comic books. Moebius more than meets his expectations in the rapidity of his work and in capturing what “Jodo” visualized. Soon, 3,000 drawings are completed to make up a storyboard, and they want to start shooting right away.
Thereafter, Jodo is imminently successful in recruiting talent, whom he regards as his “spiritual warriors”, such as Dan O’Bannon from the UK for production design and special effects; Chris Foss, the illustrator of science fiction book covers; H. R. Giger from Switzerland, another artist, to draw Baron Harkonnen and his henchmen; David Carradine, the American actor, to play the role of Duke Leto; his own son, Brontis, for Paul Leto; Salvadore Dali, for the mad emperor of the galaxy; Mick Jagger for Feyd Rautha, nephew and heir-apparent of the Baron; Udo Kier from Andy Warhol’s Factory for Piter De Vries, also of the Baron’s house; Orson Welles for Baron Harkonnen; and two music groups, Pink Floyd to provide music for the House of Leto and Magma for the Harkonnen.
Much of the charm and interest in the documentary is in Jodorowsky’s accounts of how he recruited his team and some of their demands. The only thing that came of the project, however, is a large tome filled with detailed drawings and shooting instructions; no studio was willing to produce the film, even after they were all sent their own copy of it and despite the fact that some of the best filmmakers (specifically, George Lucas, but also many others) have clearly been influenced by their examination of the book. This ends up being a very sad tale by a fascinating, obviously talented filmmaker, about “the greatest movie never made.” There is reassurance in learning that much of his creation can be recognized in the works of major filmmakers today.