The failed drug war and the real significance of 'Dune'

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted December 18, 2000

"A beginning is a very delicate time. Know then that it is the year 10191. The known universe is ruled by the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, my father.

"In this time, the most precious substance in the universe is the spice melange. The spice extends life, the spice expands consciousness, the spice is vital to space travel. The Spacing Guild and its navigators, who the spice has mutated over four thousand years, use the orange spice gas which gives them the ability to fold space. That is travel to any part of the universe without moving.

"Oh yes, I forgot to tell you, the spice exists on only one planet in the entire universe: a desolate, dry planet with vast deserts. Hidden away within the rocks of these deserts are a people known as Fremen who have long held a prophecy, that a man would come, a messiah, who would lead them to true freedom.

"The planet is Arrakis, also known as ... Dune."

Thus begins Frank Herbert's science fiction masterpiece -- tale of a desert religious cult and their long-prophesied messiah.

Kyle MacLachlin and Sian Phillips in 1984's Dune
Kyle MacLachlin and Sian Phillips in 1984's Dune

Most fans are aware of the 1984 film, directed by David Lynch and starring Kyle MacLachlan, Francesca Annis, and a supporting cast out of any director's dreams. Fewer are aware that cult director Alexandro Jodorowsky acquired the rights to the novel and began an abortive attempt to fund a production in the early 1970s -- going so far as to solicit famous Swiss designer H.R. Giger ("Alien") to dream up some custom furnishings of castle Harkonnen (

Recently, from Dec. 4 through 6, cable TV's Science Fiction Channel weighed in with a new, six-hour miniseries version of the classic, starring young scot Alec Newman as Paul Atreides, and William Hurt as his father, Duke Leto.

Promos for the cable TV version ballyhooed it as "better than the film." True, the small-screen version brags a haunting score by Graeme Revelle, and cinematography by the great Vittorio Storaro (who did Bertolucci's "The Conformist," and passed up his chance to lens the 1984 feature version of "Dune" to instead do his friend Francis Coppola a favor, trekking to the Philippines to wrestle with "Apocalypse Now". The Academy Award must have been some compensation.)

And yes, a four-hour running time (not counting commercials) certainly gives the uninitiated viewer a better chance to follow the complex plot structure in the TV version (though I could have done with one less reiteration of the goal of the Bene Gesserit selective breeding program -- I think I've got it now, John.)

Moreover, the length is clearly an advantage in presenting such an epic. Critics panned Lynch's 1984 release -- obviously slashed to an acceptable theatrical running time -- as incomprehensible. But for the record, I'm one of perhaps a few dozen people in the world who believe the David Lynch version was -- though admittedly flawed and truncated -- a masterpiece. Set design and other production elements took us to a truly self-contained alien universe in a way seldom accomplished.

Even the bit parts were filled to brimming with such mesmerizing performers as Jurgen Prochnow as the duke, Max von Sydow, Kenneth MacMillan, Sean Young, Brad Dourif, Patrick Stewart, and even a nice piece of work by (believe it or not) Sting.

Yes, the special effects in this new TV version are better -- technology has advanced a lot in 16 years. (Though for the record, no one has yet been able to convincingly depict scores of desert warriors riding sandworms as big as freight trains.) But while the producers of this new TV version showed the wisdom to place their best performer -- theatrically trained British actress Saskia Reeves -- in the crucial role of Paul's mother, the cast is otherwise fearfully lackluster and uninspired, an outcome for which writer/director John Harrison, who cut his teeth on music videos, has to bear much responsibility. (Admittedly, shooting in Czechoslovakia with an Italian crew and a multinational cast must have been ... interesting.)

Academy Award winner William Hurt seems to have phoned in his somnambulant portrayal, while Giancarlo Giannini as the Padishaw Emperor resembles nothing so much as the mad headmaster of some depraved finishing school for displaced Italian fashion designers, shouting most of his weirdly accented lines to the floor or the furniture while tossing about the folds and curtain rods of an outfit which I believe Vivien Leigh last sported while descending the grand staircase at Tara.

But the real question is: What does the enduring popularity of "Dune" really signify? Remember the reaction when the fine Mel Gibson film "The Patriot" premiered last Fourth Of July? The endlessly dismayed choirmasters of Political Correctness were appalled -- appalled! -- that this revolutionary war hero was depicted taking his young sons out into the woods to shoot Redcoats.

Never mind that it was historically accurate -- how dare anyone glorify the evil firearm, as though it had anything to do with winning this nation's freedom? Now let us measure this for a moment against the total lack of public objection to "Dune," in a nation which claims to be fighting a "zero tolerance War on Drugs."

What is "Dune" about? The future of the human race depends on the ability of a guild of space navigators to mutate in themselves the ability to travel through space, a mutation they can only accomplish by consuming an hallucinogenic substance known as "the spice melange."

Our hero goes to dwell among the desert people on the spice planet, wolfing down this drug like there's no tomorrow in order to gain his religious visions, guidance for his seemingly hopeless jihad against the established political order. The spice is created by the giant sandworms.

In its most potent form -- the bile of a young sandworm drowned in water -- this hallucinogen forms a deadly poison, which can only be transmuted inside the body of a reverend holy mother -- a priestess who has learned to chemically convert the poison into an hallucinogen then consumable by the rest of her tribe.

In Herbert's book -- and now again in this latest TV version -- it's made clear that the tribe then drinks this regurgitated psychoactive drug, leading to a mass sexual orgy and the members' participation in the religious hallucinogenic visions which link them together in their common faith.

Herbert, it turns out, was a pretty good anthropologist. The tribes of the Americas had no need for such complex methods to access psychoactive sacraments -- the peyote cactus and the mushroom psilocybe, while hardly taste treats, are not deadly poison. But as humans spread into northern Europe and Asia, they were not so lucky. The native hallucinogens -- henbane, deadly nightshade, belladonna, foxglove and the mushroom amanita muscaria -- are indeed poisonous.

The ingenuity with which our ancestors devised ways to use these substances in order to achieve their religious ecstasies and guiding visions -- a constant of nearly all religion until recent centuries -- gives evidence of what must be considered a basic and relentless drive.

In Europe, the witches developed their "flying ointment" -- a salve of herbs which would be poisonous to ingest, but which could be safely applied externally and absorbed through the mucous membranes. Stimulants like digitalis were carefully balanced against sedatives and paralytics like belladonna.

While in near Asia, ethnobotanists are now fairly sure the native shaman would indeed build up a tolerance to the hallucinogenic mushroom, until he could consume it in large enough volume to filter the toxins through his kidneys and deliver to his parishioners a purified "water of life" which they could safely consume -- pretty much as Herbert portrays the ritual in "Dune."

So: where are the fearless drug warriors to condemn "Dune," with its accurate portrayal of the use of a natural hallucinogen in the search for religious ecstacy? There are no protests, because Herbert's story seems "right" -- it rings true to human nature.

I conclude that -- while casual political support for the Drug War may remain wide, fed by the media drumbeat to "protect our children" against fictionalized racist stereotype black or Colombian drug dealers -- public support for this failed crusade in economic and religious tyranny in fact enjoys little resonance or depth. Even that hypocrite Bill Clinton, who restored the right of his brother Roger's convicted drug dealer to carry a gun in Arkansas, and had his drug-addled sibling take a bow to ecstatic applause at the Democratic National Convention, now says marijuana possession should be legal. (In fact, the goofball says he thinks it already is -- ignoring the fact his administration continues to jail thousands of young black and Hispanic men for this "crime," and even went so far as to burn down a church full of women and children in Texas after the president's agents swore false affidavits that they believed David Koresh was operating a methamphetamine lab.)

I believe we'll see the War on Drugs collapse, some time in the next 15 years, with the same kind of startling suddenness and wave of public common sense that finally took alcohol Prohibition to its well-deserved grave in 1933.

For the unanswerable question is: In a land that supposedly cherishes individual freedom, why and how can our frenzied modern nanny state punish the possession of any hallucinogenic sacrament as the most serious "drug crime" imaginable, even though our own versions of the sandworm's "water of life" ... peyote, psilocybin, LSD ... are not addictive, and are not nearly as damaging (either to the user, or to "society") as plain old alcohol?

America is supposed to have freedom of religion. But the pursuit of religious vision, spiritual guidance, and a holy way of life can mean much more than singing hymns, or Bingo Night at the church hall. And the fact is, for many Americans today, the search for religious vision and spiritual guidance ... is illegal.

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and editor of Financial Privacy Report (subscribe by calling Niles at 952-895-8757.) His book, "Send in the Waco Killers: Essays on the Freedom Movement, 1993-1998," is available by dialing 1-800-244-2224; or via web site

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