It’s clear that in writing his 1965 novel Dune, Frank Herbert was inspired, in part, by the career of T. E. Lawrence. The overarching themes and character traits are obvious; both Lawrence and Dune’s protagonist, Paul Atreides, are outsiders from foreign empires who lead nomadic, desert-dwelling native populations in revolt against their imperial occupiers. Both are natural leaders, but enigmatic, complicated, and unknowable.
But there’s much more.
Anyone familiar with Dune who watches David Lean’s 1962 epic historical film Lawrence of Arabia will be struck by how many specific, important scenes, lines of dialogue, and images from Lean’s film appear in Herbert’s book, often with very little alteration. Watching Lawrence of Arabia, it certainly appears that the author didn’t just borrow from the historical exploits of T. E. Lawrence, but that Herbert specifically studied Lean’s film and adapted it for science fiction.
An exhaustive scene-by-scene comparison of Lean’s film and Herbert’s novel would be hours long. My video, above, highlights just a few examples by pairing Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia with the September, 2020 preview of Denis Villeneuve’s forthcoming Dune film adaptation, which appears to be faithful to Herbert’s novel. For the purposes of my video, I’m using Villeneuve’s film as a proxy for Herbert’s book.
Below are more of Lawrence of Arabia’s major events, dialogue, and visuals which resonate in Herbert’s Dune. Many are partly drawn from the historic Lawrence, but several are Lean’s film’s own visualizations, emphases, and dramatic inventions, which Herbert adapted for his book:
Lean’s film begins with Lawrence’s death in a motorcycle accident in England, after he’s returned home from war. It ends with Lawrence on a road leaving Damascus, on his way home.
Sitting in the passenger seat of a car, Lawrence overtakes an Arab caravan on camels; he looks back for friends who aren’t there. A faceless man on a motorcycle passes Lawrence; Lawrence watches him recede into the distance before him. The film’s first-person vantage of the desert road stretching before Lawrence is prelude to his same view of his death, which we’ve already seen. These two scenes framing the entire epic film make for an unusual, striking, and visually explicit depiction of prescient vision and destiny, the central mysticisms explored in Dune.
Self-Control During Trial by Pain
Lean’s film shows Lawrence, before he is assigned his mission to Arabia, reviewing maps of the terrain, then holding a burning match. Unmoved by the pain, he snuffs out the flame with his fingers. Lawrence calmly explains to his doubting colleagues, “of course it hurts … the trick is not minding that it hurts.”
Immediately before his arrival on Arrakis, Paul Atreides reviews what little is known of the world, and submits to a similar test; placing his hand in a nerve induction box, holding motionless while experiencing searing pain.
Demonstrations of self-control via trial by pain—specifically the sensation of fire applied to the hand—are narrative devices that signify and foreshadow that Lawrence and Paul are different, and somehow especially suited for what is to come.
Early on in Lean’s film, a British diplomat explains “big things have small beginnings”. This is echoed in Dune by Princess Irulan’s epigraph “A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct,” and Jessica’s lesson, “beginnings are such delicate times.”
Lawrence’s dual loyalty to the British Empire and the Arabs is echoed in both Paul’s and Duncan Idaho’s dual loyalties to House Atreides and to the Fremen.
In Lean’s telling, once in the desert Lawrence remarks to his Arab guide: “I’ll drink when you do”, and Lawrence is shown taking care with his ration of water. Like Lawrence, in Dune Paul is shown to adopt the tribes’ discipline with water.
Trespassing and Killing Over Water; Names and Friends
Lean’s film shows Lawrence’s first encounter with Sherif Ali, played by Omar Sharif, who kills Lawrence’s Arab guide on sight for trespassing on his well. Lean depicts Ali asking Lawrence’s name; Lawrence objects, saying “my name is for my friends.” Ali explains to Lawrence “the well is everything.”
Ritualistic First Kills
When Paul likewise trespasses on tribal territory, the tribe threatens to kill him and take his water. Soon after, to keep the peace, Paul is forced fight and kill one of them, who he then eulogizes, calling him a friend.
The first time Lawrence and Paul kill, they are forced into it. They are ritualistic killings of fellow tribesmen to resolve disputes that threaten tribal alliances. The tribes gather and watch Lawrence and Paul prove themselves.
Free Will, Destiny, and Killing
After Lawrence ritualistically kills the same man he had earlier befriended and risked his own life to save, Lean’s film has Ali explain that this means that while Lawrence’s destiny may be written, it is written by Lawrence’s own hand. In Herbert’s version, Paul was reluctant to kill, at first, and is tormented by his visions of the future and his violent destiny.
Lawrence is shown later admitting he “enjoyed” killing the man; Lawrence and Paul come to embrace violence and become prolific killers. After Lawrence’s successful surprise attack on Aqaba and slaughter of the Turks, Lean’s film depicts Lawrence explaining “there’s been a lot of killing,” and admitting “I liked killing. I enjoyed it.” Likewise, Paul comes to embrace violence and his own interplanetary jihad.
Like Lawrence, Paul dresses like the tribesmen and is given a ceremonial dagger.
Lean shows Lawrence frustrated by the Arabs’ feuding and telling Ali: “So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe they will be a little people.” When Paul’s ascendancy is clear to the Fremen, he refuses their custom of fighting each tribe’s leader, refusing to weaken his own cause by killing his best fighters. Instead, he tells them “ways change.”
Lean’s film has Lawrence describing his homeland, Oxfordshire, to Ali: “Not desert country. Fat country.” Paul’s home world, Caladan, is a water-rich world; offworlders like him are seen by Fremen as “water fat.”
Unmarried Parents, Choosing One’s Own Name
The only biographical detail Lean included about Lawrence’s life before his adventure and fame was the fact that his parents weren’t married. Ali asks why Lawrence does not have his father’s last name. “Because he didn’t marry my mother,” Lawrence explains. Lean shows Ali understanding what this means to Lawrence and kindly responding, “Then you are free to choose your own name.”
Lawrence’s new friends and allies call him by the name Al-Aurens, or Aurens, and like him, once in the desert Paul also takes on several new names.
In Herbert’s retelling, though, this simple scene and the subject of Lawrence’s parentage are reworked into the most important biographical details in the Dune universe; Paul’s mother and father are not only not married, but his complicated lineage is central to his destiny, what he becomes, and the events that unfold.
Voices from the Outer World
Lean’s film shows Lawrence being compared to the Abrahamic prophet Moses. Paul is also a prophet to his followers; the Islamic Madhi, “the voice from the outer world.”
Threat of Machines, Aerial Attacks
Lean’s film features an elaborate staging of a Turkish aerial attack on an Arab encampment, after which Prince Faisal, played by Alex Guiness, explains, “my people are unused to machines”.
Herbert adapts and expands on this dialogue; throughout the universe of Dune complex machines are viewed with suspicion and there is a quasi-religious abhorrence of machine intelligence; it is seen as an unacceptable threat to humanity and is expressly forbidden.
And like the Turks in Arabia, Herbert’s Harkonnen occupiers frequently raid the desert-dwelling Fremen from the air.
Revelation, Battle Plans via Trance
Lawrence’s historic, audacious assault on Aqaba changed the course of the war by taking advantage of the Arab’s singular mobility, riding camels, crossing an expanse of open desert the Turks thought impassable and left unguarded. Lean’s film dramatically depicts Lawrence conceiving this attack at the end of night spent in a prolonged trance.
Paul assumes full leadership of the Fremen tribes after undergoing a prolonged trance, after which he plans and directs an ambitious assault on the occupying forces garrisoned behind the cliffs protecting Arrakeen. Paul and the Fremen use “desert power”—worms, a sandstorm, mobility, surprise, and an unconventional atomic strike on the terrain itself—that only the Fremen could muster.
After Lawrence’s transformation into an eager warmonger, Lean’s film makes a point of noting the cynical nature of Lawrence adopting a personal guard of unaffiliated Arab mercenaries. When Paul embraces his role as leader in the mass violence to come, he takes a personal guard sworn to him; a contingent of ruthless killers and zealots known as Fedykin.
Swallowed by Sand
Lean’s film shows Lawrence crossing the desert with two boys; without warning the sand swallows one of them from below as his friend and Lawrence watch. This imagery and danger is replicated in Dune, as giant sandworms swallow people and massive vehicles from the sand below, posing a constant threat that can strike with little warning.
Massive, Floating Ships
The surprising, incongruous sight of a large cargo ship slowly passing through the Suez Canal, carefully framed by Lean’s camera to seemingly glide above the dunes, surely inspired Herbert’s floating spaceships and massive Heighliner transports.
Trains and Worms
Lean’s visuals of the trains coursing through the Arabian desert, were, of course, Herbert’s inspiration for the giant sandworms of Dune.
And then there’s Peter O’Toole’s striking blue eyes, which Lean’s camera lingers on and which are the mark of an outsider. His are the color that inspired the spice-addicted Fremen’s blue-within-blue eyes; Herbert’s recurring visual motiff that signals identity, allegiance, place, other-worldliness, and mystery throughout Dune.
September 15, 2020