Max von Sydow, Patrick Stewart, Kyle MacLachlan and Jürgen Prochnow

Dune. Not Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 behemoth, that pleasure still awaits. But David Lynch’s 1984 version, the only film in his career that he wished he hadn’t made and will not talk about in interviews, except to say he shouldn’t have made it.

And not the theatrical version either, but the “extended” one worked up for TV so it could be shown in two 90 minute chunks. Lynch hated this one so much he had his name taken off the credits. So welcome to another “Alan Smithee film”.

Acutally Lynch originally had a four-hour cut in mind but had managed to get the running time down to three hours. Not short enough for his producers, who were worried that anything over two hours and 17 minutes would mean one fewer showing per day in the cinemas. And so two hours 17 minutes it is, and comprehensibility be damned. Which is why I turned to the TV version, hoping against hope that three hours would fill in some of the gaps.

The vastly sprawling plot can be distilled down to: the Emperor Shaddam IV (Jose Ferrer), anxious that his barons are gaining in power, sets two houses – Harkonnen (boo) and Atreides (hooray) – against each other in a divide-and-rule contest over who will control the mining and trade of Spice, a magical substance with bitcoin-meets-crack allure found only on the planet Arrakis (aka Dune), a sandy waste where killer monster sandworms hold sway.

Think of Harkonnen as the Empire and Atreides as the Rebel Alliance, if you want a Star Wars hook to hang this film on, and young Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan in his debut) as a Luke Skywalker type growing in stature from callow youth to mighty warrior as he faces down the Harkonnen and uncovers the Emperor’s treachery.

On the planet Arrakis, aka Dune
On the planet Arrakis

Both Star Wars and Dune are in hock visually to the 1930s Flash Gordon films but David Lynch seems to have been drinking deeper from the cup than George Lucas ever did. The faintly militaristic look, the art nouveau styling, the hair just so, the way everyone speaks in awed sci-fi tones about concepts that must be everyday to them, that all connects directly to the era of Buster Crabbe’s Flash and Jean Rogers’ Dale Arden.

Lucas, his scrolling preamble aside, found clever narrative ways to explain the who, what and where of what was going on in his film in a way that Lynch never manages. This film is heavy with explication, with a voiceover narrator (some of it added for the TV version, admittedly), internal monologue from characters and a tendency for every new interaction between people to begin with an explicatory preamble contextualising what the characters are about to discuss.

Villeneuve’s film has broken Frank Herbert’s original novel into two halves, and watching Lynch trying to get all of its plot onto the screen in 1984 you can’t help feeling he (or the De Laurentiises, who produced) would have done better to do the same. This Dune is drowning in guff.

Blame Herbert’s book, if you like. Personally, reading it was the moment when I broke with sci-fi, which until then I’d associated with pithy, ideas-driven stories from the likes of Asimov, Le Guin, Dick, Heinlein and Bradbury. Dune, by contrast, was a soap opera in space. And long. The original book was 400 and something pages, with more volumes forming a traffic jam behind. Call it an attention span disorder but I gave up around the halfway mark.

This is not a good film, not at any level. Lynch is not an action director, the look of it is shonky, even with the great Freddie Francis as DP, the sets are frequently wobbly, and though vast amounts of money have clearly been spent on the mostly practical effects (there are some crude early CG moments), it’s been wasted. Toto’s soundtrack is senseless – it brings to mind the vamping Lynch would get from a later musical collaborator, Angelo Badalamenti, which is fine for odd open-ended dramas but does not work here, where a bit of ta-daa and boom is needed rather than airy blah.

There are good things to be found. MacLachlan is fantastic as the wide-eyed youth growing into the nobility already possessed by his father (Jürgen Prochnow). Francesca Annis as his mother has that fatalistic Lady Macbeth thing going on. Siân Phillips is a fantastically swivel-eyed priestess. Max Von Sydow in warrior attire is dignity incarnate. Sean Young, underused but welcome in a Princess Leia-ish role as Paul Atreides’ love interest. Jose Ferrer, not in it half enough, makes a great and commanding Emperor, and Kenneth McMillan as Baron Harkonnen, face covered in pustules and with a tendency to float off into the air, seems to be enjoying himself in his pantomime role.

Imagine if Ridley Scott had made this, as was mooted at one point (he made Blade Runner instead). That would have freed David Lynch up to make Return of the Jedi, which he turned down to make this. Right there, two alternate-reality sci-fi scenarios.

Dune – Watch /buy the theatrical version at Amazon

David Lynch box set at Amazon – Includes Dune, Blue Velvet, Eraserhead, Lost Highway, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Das Boot

Jürgen Prochnow in Das Boot


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



1 November



Death of Jacques Piccard, 2008

On this day in 2008, Jacques Piccard, one of the pioneers of really deep deep-sea exploration, died, aged 86. The son of Auguste Piccard, a balloonist who had ascended higher than any other human in the early 1930s, Jacques initially started out working on bathyscaphes as a favour to help out his father, who had switched from high altitude to the depths. Together, between 1948 and 1955 they built three bathyscaphes. But Jacques was only a hobbyist – by day he was a professor of economics. It was only after governments started to become interested in the development of the bathyscaphe that Jacques abandoned teaching to work full-time on the submersibles. By the late 1950s Jacques Piccard had become a consultant for the US Navy and was planning the first of his deep dives. In January 1963, along with Lt Don Walsh, he descended to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, the deepest place on the face of the earth, over seven miles down. The descent took five hours but Piccard and Walsh stayed a mere 20 minutes at the bottom. Piccard abandoned the mission (whose only purpose was to see if it could be done) when he noticed cracking in one of the 19cm thick observation windows. The bathyscaphe returned safely to the surface. Shortly before the Apollo 11 launch in 1969, Piccard embarked on another remarkable mission, when his “mesoscaphe” was dropped into the Gulf Stream where the current was strongest. At a depth of 1,000 feet, Piccard and his crew drifted 1,444 miles with the Gulf Stream, a journey which lasted four weeks and which went largely unreported, on account of Neil Armstrong et al’s landing on the Moon. A native Swiss who spent most of his life in the country, ironic considering it is landlocked, he continued designing and diving in submarines into his 80s.



Das Boot (1981, dir: Wolfgang Petersen)

Das Boot remains the best film Wolfgang Petersen has ever directed, perhaps because as a German born during the Second World War he felt some affinity for the poor saps whose job it was to serve on U-Boats. And it’s as poor saps that he portrays them, the 42 men packed into the tiny space that Petersen cannily shows us before letting the drama unfold. Claustrophobic it undoubtedly is, though this is not a film about claustrophobia. Instead it’s about men toiling together, cheek by jowl, in a precise ballet that only works when everyone is dancing to the same tune. Jost Vacano’s hurtling camera is crucial to the understanding of what’s going on in this tin can as the submarine sets about harrying a convoy of Allied ships with torpedoes. Then the reverse, as the submarine itself is beset by depth charges while the crew sit silent below, knowing that even talk can be picked up on the destroyer up top’s hydrophones. Then finally the situation reverses again as the destroyers move on and the submarine surfaces to finish off a stricken tanker. At the centre of the manic camera, the wild-eyed crew, explosions above and below, is Jürgen Prochnow as the rock-solid captain, the sort of man other men will die for. The film was a hit in Germany (West Germany, as it was then), and was an early instance of the Germans coming to terms with the Second World War (it helped that the U-Boat captain makes it clear early on that he is not a Nazi). In many respects it is a standard submarine movie – a Run Silent, Run Deep for a new generation – but in Das Boot it’s not what happens that’s important, it’s the way that Petersen, Vacano, Prochnow and the actors dressed in filth-smeared T shirts present it.



Why Watch?


  • All that action in such a tiny space
  • To get the claustrophobia right no walls were removed from the submarine mock-up
  • Six Oscar nominations – a record for a foreign language film. It won none
  • Look out for the director’s cut (3 hours 29 minutes) or even the mini-series created from the same original material (4 hours 53 minutes)


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Das Boot – at Amazon