This is my current favorite of any paper that I have ever written. I took this class, Film 160: Film Genres, the Western and the Melodrama, taught by Prof. Edward R. O'Neill in the Winter of 2002. Prof. O'Neill is, in my opinion, the greatest film professor on this planet. And I loved this class. The prompt for this 8-10 page (mine was 8 and a quarter pages all told) was to choose a favorite film or any film that we had not seen in class and write a paper using the reading as well as any outside reading to prove that it is or is not a western and/or a melodrama. So I found a great essay on science fiction and melodrama and went from there. There was never any question in my mind that I would write on Dune. I also used some of my David Lynch books as references to write on Dune and the absolutely marvelous online essay on masculinity issues in Dune. By the way, I got an A+ on this paper. Muwahhahaha.

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Dissecting Dune: Where Science Fiction, Melodrama and the Classic Western Intersect

    A genre is a grouping of works, in this context a grouping of films, that are somehow similar or related in content or style. Genres are not strictly uniform over a period of time and do allow for growth and adaptation of their definitive characteristics. As the film industry has developed through the past century, various genres of films have emerged and are still evolving. Aspects of genres have been redefined and intermingled through the history of film. There have also been, throughout the progression of filmmaking, films which do not strictly fall into one genre or which combine elements of several genres. David Lynch’s 1984 film Dune is a fascinating case study of a film which blends together principles of several genres. Initially the film is and has been classified as science fiction, but through closer observation it is revealed to contain strong characteristics of melodrama or even those of classic western films. Dune, in several ways, closely resembles the family and aristocratic melodramas of the 1950’s such as Written on the Wind and The Cobweb. Additionally, the oppositions which William Wright delineates as being integral to the western film are present in Dune as well as most of the defining plot devices of Wright’s classic western. In this respect, Dune bears some small resemblances to the film Shane. Thus, neither the melodrama nor the western are static genres of film, for they can clearly be seen to develop and change over time and to commingle with other genres. Further, Dune functions as an illustration of a film which falls into the genre of science fiction yet also serves as a melodrama and, in certain ways, a western. The film also adapts the rules of these genres to redefine them for its own purposes.

    Gary Westfahl states that “Of all modern forms of fiction and film, none seems more closely linked to melodrama than science fiction” (193). Melodrama, as a film genre, is deeply rooted in the institution of the family and various incarnations and evolved states of the family unit. Familial issues arise more often in science fiction than has been widely acknowledged. The futuristic universe of Dune and all of the action of the film is motivated by inter- and intra familial conflicts and resolutions. Science fiction, at times, appears to be merely a scientific or futuristic setting for the same kind of melodrama film that has been made for years. However, according to Westfahl, “science fiction reconstructed melodrama in a manner which complicated and undermined its traditional clarity” (193). Thus whereas in a melodrama such as The Cobweb, the initial conflict of the narrative is merely left unresolved (but on an optimistic beat), in the science fiction melodrama, the film is ended with “a hopelessly compromised happy ending” (Westfahl, 203). Such is the case with Dune: as the film closes, rain pours down on the desert planet. The rain is meant to represent a positive miracle and something that is desirable, but the fact that rain would turn the desert sand to mud, potentially drowning and killing the giant worms and thus ending all spice production is ignored. The ending leaves the film on a happy note, but the ending has not resolved the film: it had added more conflict to be resolved. Dune is only a science fiction film in that it is set in a time that is meant to be following the present and in an alien universe where different technologies are present. Beyond its setting and the manner in which that affects its plot, Dune is not a traditional science fiction film. In the world of Dune, technology is used sparingly and no machine may be created which replicates a human’s thinking patterns. So in this technologically advanced age, simple computers are forbidden, leaving room for focus on issues of the family. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith specifies that in melodrama, “The locus of power is the family and individual private property, the two being connected through inheritance” (71). While Dune is misleadingly about a ruling royal family and how its members are attempting to rest control of the ‘known universe’, the entire film ultimately focuses on the institution of the family and how it functions in the lives of the characters. The film focuses on the Atreides family and the son’s quest to fulfill his role as inheritor of his father’s place. Traditionally in melodrama, the place that must be taken by the child is a social one, and on some level the role of Duke, while a position of power, is merely a social place for Paul to take. The Atreides family is doomed from the outset because the Duke and the Lady Jessica are not married. As in traditional melodrama, the characters are punished for their desire: “It is [the Duke’s] desire for a son (Paul) which leads to his death” (Mahoney). While it is the Duke’s desire for a son which ultimately leads to his death it is Jessica’s desire to fulfill that desire which more fully brings about the fall of the great house. Jessica has been instructed to bear only daughters to the Duke and thus allows her desire to take her away from her role as obedient social servant.

    Thus it is evident how Dune follows the model of the 1950’s bourgeois family melodrama. Schatz says of The Cobweb that it is “a sustained indictment of the social pressure which have reduced the well-meaning patriarch to a confused, helpless victim of his own good intentions” (239). A similar statement is made in Dune. Duke Leto is shown as the well-meaning patriarch who, due to his own desire to reproduce his family and circumstances of social pressure is left helpless as his family is torn asunder. The punishment that the Atreides suffer comes from their inability to form a proper nuclear family. Jessica and Leto have disrupted the birth order of their offspring and thus the family suffers. The motivating conflict in Dune is the feud between the Atreides family and the Harkonnen family. The Atreides family is shown to be an imperfect nuclear family, one that cannot quite form itself together due to a lack of legal marriage and tempering with destiny. The Harkonnens, though, are shown to be a completely inappropriate and wrong family, lacking any female presence and implying homosexual incest. Nochimson writes of the Harkonnens, “Their planet, Giedi Prime, is... the home of... mutilated masculinity” in that the planet is “diseased by a lack of receptivity” or a rejection of the feminine (128). While Nowell-Smith acknowledges that in melodrama the feminine is “unknowable”, it is not generally rejected in melodrama (72). In a melodrama, feminization of the male characters is read as castration and is shown to be a problem without a solution. In this science fiction melodrama, the solution of acceptance of the feminine is offered through Paul’s example. Following his father’s fall, it falls on Paul to live up to society’s expectations for a successful family leader. However, due to the manipulation of genres, Dune does not establish Paul as “a hero cut loose from feminine associations and traits” as a melodrama would necessitate (Nochimson, 131). In melodrama, as Nowell-Smith declares, “‘Masculinity’, although rarely attainable, is at least known as an ideal” and the same would appear to be true for the science fiction film, but in Dune it is through a bonding between Paul and the women of his family and his acceptance of the feminine, or receptivity, within himself that Paul is able to achieve a position of social power (72). However, the reality that Paul must assume his father’s place is unshakeable. When Paul takes the ‘Water of Life’ (as his mother did before him) and his “subconscious awakens” he cries out to his father although it is through his “bond with his mother” that he is able to achieve this awakening (Nochimson, 130). Ergo, despite the narrative scope, the families of Dune are essentially like the families of such melodramas of the 1950’s as Written on the Wind. Many of the conventions, however, are transformed in Dune: Schatz writes that in the traditional melodrama “the woman’s dilemmas is that she must opt for either socioeconomic security or emotional and sexual fulfillment”, but in Dune it is the Duke who must make this decision and because he chooses not to marry he is punished and therefore shown as an impotent patriarch who is overtaken. Schatz notes that “The Cobweb is a typical Hollywood melodrama in that it traces the identity crisis of an individual whose divided domestic and occupational commitments provide a rational basis for confusion and anxiety” (243). Similarly, Dune follows the identity crisis of an individual whose divided domestic and occupational identities and duties provide a basis for confusion, anxiety and thus melodrama. Paul’s confusion as to his social standing after his exile, his identity as a potential patriarch, and his questioning of his own possible status as the Kwisatz Haderach (the Super Being) provide the foundation for much of the action and melodrama of the film. Another item of note is that the Kwisatz Haderach in the world of Dune is defined as one who possesses traits of both the masculine and the feminine.

    In all three genres which Dune finds itself a part of (science fiction, western, and melodrama), there are certain oppositions and contradictions dealt with that are prescribed to these genres. Westfahl lists three oppositions which are common between science fiction and melodrama: “intellect versus emotion.... indirect action versus direct action.... elite versus the common man” (196). These can be seen as variations and perhaps more specific versions of Wright’s four recurring oppositions or points of conflict which he ascribes to the western film: “those who are outside society and those who are inside society....good and bad.... the strong and the weak.... wilderness and civilization” (49). The struggle of intellect and emotion is often analogous to that of wilderness and civilization as good and bad and strong and weak are closely related to indirect versus direct action. And the inside/outside of society affair is a broader version of elite versus common man in that once one is inside of society, one can have conflict with regard to one’s social status. These oppositions are, of course, also hierarchical, where a particular film or style of the film will value one end of the spectrum over the other. In Dune, intellect and cool reasoning are valued over emotions, indirect or politically subtle action is desired at times, but is effectively overpowered by the direct action of the villains and, ultimately, by the heroes. Dune closely resembles a western in that the film juxtaposes the bad and strong (the Harkonnens) with the good and weak (the Atreides) but the definitions of society are more complex than those in the traditional western film. The society which Paul finds himself attempting to assimilate into is that of the Fremen, a society not recognized by the society of the Empire. In this manner Dune resembles the social structure of the film Shane: the Fremen society is like unto that of the homesteaders, the Empire is the society of the ranchers, and Paul is like Shane, moving between the two. The Fremen are clearly depicted in Dune as the good society which is weak only because of the oppression of the bad, stronger society. This stratification is accomplished by structuring the film to exploit the messianic legend of the Fremen and fulfill that prophesy through Paul. In the end, the Fremen people triumph over the bad society (or is it a triumph, won’t the rain kill the worms?) and so the narrative of the film is established to preserve audience empathy with the Fremen as the underdogs who should be supported, as with the homesteaders in Shane. In Dune Paul is tested by the Reverend Mother Mohiam in order to establish his humanity. The Reverend Mother holds Paul at bay with a poisoned needle that ‘kills only animals’ and threatens to strike him with it should he remove his hand from a box which will cause him pain. Paul is indignant but ultimately proves his humanity by not succumbing to his instinct to remove his hand from the box. Thus a binary opposition is instituted between animals and humans or wilderness and civilization as in a western. The Harkonnens are shown to be animalistic (Rabban “eats the raw flesh from a cow”) while the Atreides are depicted as human (a servant “goes to the trouble of saving Leto’s dog during the Harkonnen assault on Arrakis”) and therefore as good and people with whom the audience is meant to sympathize (Mahoney). Hence it is clear how the science fiction melodrama Dune also possesses qualities which throw it into the wide pool of the western film’s definitions yet manages also to adapt and twist its traditional oppositions to realize a unique and fascinating end.

    The plot structure of Dune follows almost every point of William Wright’s classic western tradition. The film shows Paul Atreides, as the hero, entering a social group, the Fremen. He is indeed unknown to the society and he and his mother are both revealed to to have an “exceptional ability” (the ‘weirding way’) which sets them both up as having a unique status (Wright, 48). In this manner the Lady Jessica can also be seen as the hero of Dune as a western film. As in the classic western, the Fremen society does not immediately accept Paul completely. This is evident in the film when Paul undertakes the conquering of the sandworm in order to become capable of truly leading the Fremen into victory. Martha P. Nochimson refers to Paul’s antics in this endeavor as his way of “playing cowboy” (130). Thus Paul’s mastering of the worm is comparable to a hero of a western film mastering of a horse or a similar act of achievement. A “conflict of interest” is apparent between the Fremen (and thus Paul) and the Emperor and the Harkonnen family: the Fremen desire agency and ownership of their home world and thus their destiny while the Empire desires to retain control of the homeworld of the precious spice melange (48). However, contrary to the classic western, in Dune Paul needs no help in joining the cause of the Fremen. In fact, he is the put forth as the champion of the Fremen and incites their formal and very active rebellion and undermining of the enemies. This deviation from the classic formula of the western is symptomatic of the fact that the film is not, strictly speaking, a traditional, classic western film. It does, however, closely resemble the classic western film which Wright does not prove to be a plot sequence exclusive to the western. Dune further deviates from Wright’s model in that no “friendship or strong respect” exists between the hero and the villains. The villains, the Emperor and the Harkonnen family, have been illustrated as so barbaric and evil, or just bad, that no respect would appear to be possible between Paul and his enemies. But in furthering the semblance of Dune to Wright’s list of functions, Paul does not personally become involved in the vendetta between his family and the Harkonnens until his father is killed and he and his mother exiled. That is the point at which he becomes personally involved in the struggle of the Fremen (as in Shane when his friend is attacked). Paul then proceeds, as the classic western hero, to fight the villains and defeat them, supposedly making “society... safe” (49). Here again, though, Dune differs somewhat from the classic western formula. It has already been established that the future of the Fremen society in Dune is left in optimistic uncertainty. But Paul’s position in the society is elevated to that of a god-figure, he does not and likely will not step down or “lose... his special status” as the western hero will do (49). These modifications of the western tradition are understandable in Dune as it comes also from a background of futuristic science fiction as well as melodrama. Not every genre’s formula can be strictly adhered to by this film in that it is a combination of so many.

    Science fiction, as a genre of film as well as literature, is relatively young and therefore a fertile playground for the coming together and parting ways of all other genres that have been established before it. Therefore it is understandable that a science fiction film, especially one as untraditional as Dune, would be capable of synthesizing the genres of melodrama and the western into its already complex structure of traditions and signifiers.


This page last updated July 26th, 2002

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