It’s clear that in writing his 1965 novel Dune, Frank Herbert was inspired, in part, by the career of T. E. Lawrence. The over-arching themes and character traits are obvious: both Lawrence and Dune’s protagonist, Paul Atreides, are outsiders from foreign empires who lead native populations in revolt against their current imperial occupiers. Both are portrayed as 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 Herbert didn’t just borrow from the historical exploits of T. E. Lawrence, but that he 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:

The 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. He overtakes an Arab caravan on camels and looks back for his friends. 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 the same perspective of his death, which we’ve already seen. These two scenes framing the entire epic make for an unusual, striking, and visually explicit depiction of prescient vision, the central mysticism explored in Dune.

Before he is assigned his mission to Arabia, Lawrence holds a burning match, unmoved by the pain as he snuffs out the flame with his fingers. Lawrence calmly explains, “of course it hurts … the trick is not minding that it hurts.” Demonstrations of self-control via trial by pain—specifically fire applied to the hand—foreshadow that Lawrence and Paul Atreides are different, and especially suited for what is to come.

Early on, a British diplomat explains “big things have small beginnings”, 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 is echoed in both Paul’s and Duncan Idaho’s dual loyalties.

Once in the desert, Lawrence and Paul adopt the tribesmens’ discipline with water. Lawrence: “I’ll drink when you do.”

When they first meet, Sherif Ali kills Lawrence’s Arab guide on sight for trespassing on his well, then asks Lawrence’s name. Lawrence responds “my name is for my friends.” Paul likewise trespasses on Fremen territory; they threaten to kill him and take his water. Paul is forced to fight and kill one of them, who he then eulogizes, calling him a friend. After, Paul takes a Fremen name.

Ali to Lawrence: “The well is everything.”

Lawrence to Ali: “So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe they will be a little people.”

Lawrence describes his homeland, Oxfordshire, to Ali: “Not desert country. Fat country.” Paul’s home, Caladan, is a water-rich world; offworlders like him are seen by Fremen as “water fat.”

Ali asks why Lawrence does not have his father’s last name. “Because he didn’t marry my mother,” Lawrence explains. “Then you are free to choose your own name” Ali responds. Lawrence’s new allies call him by the name Al-Aurens, or Aurens. Likewise, Paul’s mother and father are not married, and once in the desert he takes a new name.

The first time Lawrence and Paul Atreides kill, they are forced into it; ritualistic killings of  fellow tribesmen to resolve a dispute, with the rest of the tribes gathered and watching.

Ali explains that killing the man after having saved him means that while his destiny may be written, it is written by Lawrence’s own hand.

Like Paul, Lawrence, now known as “Aurens,” dresses like the tribesmen and is given a ceremonial dagger.

Lawrence is compared to the prophet Moses. Paul is a prophet, “the voice from the outer world.”

After a Turkish aerial attack on his people, Prince Faisal explains, “my people are unused to machines”; in Dune, the Turks are the Harkonnen occupiers, and frequently raid the desert-dwelling Fremen from the air.

Lawrence spends a night in a trance. When he wakes, he has an audacious plan to strike the Turks, using the desert terrain to his advantage to take the city of Aqaba in a way only the native tribesmen can execute. Paul assumes full leadership of the Fremen tribes after his own trance, and directs a similarly ambitious assault on Arrakeen.

After his successful surprise attack, Lawrence explains “there’s been a lot of killing,” and admits “I liked killing. I enjoyed it.” Paul comes to embrace his own interplanetary jihad.

When Lawrence fully embraces war and killing, he cynically takes a personal guard; a contingent of ruthless killers; Paul’s Fedykin.

While crossing the desert, without warning the sand swallows a boy from below as Lawrence watches. Dune’s sand worms swallow people and machines from below.

The surprising, incongruous sight of a large cargo ship passing through the Suez Canal, seemingly gliding above the dunes, surely inspired Dune’s floating spaceships and massive Heighliner transports.

Trains, of course, are sandworms.

And then there’s Peter O’Toole’s striking blue eyes…


September 15, 2020