DUNE (2021): Romance of the Three Kingdoms meet Star Wars ala Outwitting Marvel’s Martial Arts

Dune Jason Momoa
DUNE/ Legendary Pictures

Dr. Craig's Martial Arts Movie Lounge

When I was reading Frank Herbert's Dune (1965) during a 1973, high school science fiction appreciation English class, it was a tough read. Yet one of the first books I read as a grad student in 1979 Taiwan, which was required reading in all Chinese schools, was Luo Guan-zhong's kung fu novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms (late 1300s; English version) and one of the first things that hit me was that the basic plot of Dune was similar.

Set in the Three Kingdoms Era (A.D. 220-280), though the novel chronicles the battle of the Shu, Wei and Wu kingdoms for supremacy of China and control of the salt trade and spice routes, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a tale about brotherhood between real-life heroes Guan Gong, Zhang Fei and Emperor Liu Bei of the benevolent Shu, where Guan and Zhang were Liu's protector warriors. Though Wu Emperor Sun Quan allied with the Shu against the despicable warlord Cao Cao of the Wei, the Wu and Wei had secret pacts to work together. Guan is famous for his guan dao, a large-bladed pole weapon.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve and set in 10191, though Dune: Part I (2021) chronicles the intergalactic power struggle of the Houses of Atreides, Harkonnen and Corrino for control of the harsh desert planet Arrakis, its indigenous Fremen inhabitants and the planet's Spice trade, it's also a tale about the interconnections of the heroes Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), Paul Atreides (new head of the benevolent House of Atreides) and Paul's mother and spiritual guide, the warrior priestess Lady Jessica, where Idaho and Halleck are Paul's protector warriors. Though the Padishah Emperor of Corrino cedes the duty of producing Spice to Atreides House from the despicable Baron Harkonnen's House, Corrino and Harkonnen have secret pacts to destroy Atreides. Idaho is a famous Swordmaster from the Ginaz school and is fiercely loyal to Paul.

DUNE cast

DUNE/ Legendary Pictures

Spice, which in the book is called mélange, is a rare, valuable, hallucinogenic natural resource that has become the essence of commerce, knowledge, space travel and human existence. Yet harvesting Spice is more dangerous than living inside a murder hornet nest covered in 4-heptyl butyrate (a chemical that triggers the insects' alarm response) as minersmust also survive Arrakis' hostile heat that can suck out all of one's water in minutes, violent sandstorms that make hurricane Katrina look like a sneeze, and God-like revered colossal sandworms that resemble the planet eating Doomsday Machine from Star Trek: The original series.

The premise of Dune began in 1957 when Herbert became interested in the desert ecology of the Oregon Dunes, noting that the moving dunes could swallow cities, rivers, and highways. Herbert was also influenced by the British army officer T.E. Lawrence's (aka Lawrence of Arabia) role in the Arab Revolt (1916-1918) against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Herbert also realized that desert environments gave birth to major Messianic religious idealism such as Judaism and the rise of Jesus, and Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.

The final piece of Dune'spuzzle, the Spice and sandworms, evolved from Herbert experimenting with psilocybin (a psychedelic mushroom) where the Spice is associated with the fungal spores and the beetle maggots that feed upon the mushrooms. Yet my logical thought about the sandworms could be additionally influenced by the giant lugworms inhabiting the Oregon Dunes. It's worth noting that the adult tenebrionid sand beetles popping up in the film are references to the Fremen's ability to hide under the sand and rise up to ambush their enemies like as seen in Ching Siu Tung's amazing ninja-based film Duel to the Death (1982) and that the way the beetle climbs up onto Idaho's finger before his final battle to save Paul, represent Idaho's spiritual connection to the Fremen, which is somehow related to Paul's visions where an adult beetle will altruistically fight to the death to protect its young or in social insect societies, its leader, i.e., the queen.

Which comes to two important reasons why I like Dune's fights: the use of minimal special effects; and that the fight cues come directly from the source material and though while embellishing the fights with innovative zeal, they still mostly stick to the organic visions of Herbert.

The title denotes that the fights of Dune outwitted the martial arts of Marvel films and here's why. Most special effect brazened big-budgeted Marvel films feature similar weapon and hand-to-hand fights using the same old-hat skills, flips, superpower strikes and smashing into things combat and camera choreography. Don't get me wrong, they're superbly entertaining, but they're rarely unique. The fight choreographers either haven't been given the opportunity or are unable to create different physical fighting styles for the different characters. The point being that without wowee-zowee special effects, the fights have devolved into complacency. Watch any of the Shaw Brothers Five Weapon Guys films, like the pop culture classics Five Deadly Venoms (1978) or Kid with the Golden Arm (1979), each actor uses different weapons and fighting styles.

Once case in point. In Black Panther (2018), one of the film's most hyped-up fighting characters were the Dora Milaje(adored ones), strong fierce, statuesque bald women bodyguard warriors who protect the king and the royal family. They fought with simple staff moves and used weapon formations from 1970s Hong Kong films. It's a common copy-cat mentality, but here's the complacency.

The Dora were undoubtedly modelled after Africa's most ruthless and savage women warriors, the Women Soldiers of Dahomy that were created in the mid-1600s by King Houebadji. Their bravery legend peaked when they crushed the French Colonial army at the battle of Contonou in 1890. The most feared of the five regiments were the Reapers, their weapon of choice was the two-hand gripped, 22-pound, 18-inch razor-sharp blade used to slice men in half with one strike. The opportunity to feature a weapon solely African passed by the wayside.

The book details the Fremen's most important weapon that Paul is destined to become an expert of, the crysknife, a personally-tuned blade borne from the crystal tooth of a sandworm, a double-edged curved knife that is used in important ritual fights to the death, outsiders are forbidden to possess one and similar to the samurai codes of sword conduct, if a Fremen unsheathes their blade, it must not be re-sheathed until it draws blood. Thus, it makes sense for the film's fight choreographer Roger Yuan to have Idaho tap smartly and subliminally into using some of the ultra-samurai skill combinations featured in the current popular Japanese Rurouni Kenshin film franchise.

It may be just a neat coincidence, yet getting back to the desert Messiah trope, the Fremen are obviously Islamophilic, and Paul is their Messiah. One the prophet Muhammad's nine noble sword possessions was the wavy bladed weapon qal'i, which when Islam spread into Sumatra in 674, the qal'i became a symbol of Muhammad and the forerunner for the Southeast Asian kris.

Toward the end of the film Paul is given a crys by a Fremen female he's had visions about throughout the film. He is then plunged into the middle of a ritual fight to the death against one of the Fremen's best fighters. The low awkward fight stances used are unique and are akin to the 132 B.C. Persian martial art varzesh-e pahlavani, an art that features low stances and kicks. Though the stances are inelegant, they're logically effective during the combat that is shot using many different close to wide snapping camera angles and because there are no sound effects used to enhance the knife skills, the fight feels spiritually obsequent. The wrist deflections and traps during the fights have a wing chun sensibility yet still feel Middle Eastern and not like a Chinese stylized weapon thrashing.

There's something similarly seen in an important earlier training fight sequence between the sword wielding mentor Halleck and the dagger-armed student Paul that introduces Herbert's personal body shield (PBS) system. Yet in this instance the deflections and traps are more akin to the gun fu choreography used by Christian Bale in Equilibrium (2002). The scene also establishes Paul's prowess in using short-bladed weapons.

DUNE Timothy Chalamet

DUNE/ Legendary Picture

Paul is taught that when using PBS, only a slow-moving weapon can penetrate the shield thus the importance of using knifes, swords and similar weapons to be used in fights as opposed to guns, laser pistols, etc. The fight is wittily shot to emphasize the different colors of what the body shield reveals: blue for blocks, parries, and successful counters to an attack; and red indicates successful body strikes or a death blows. The colors show the audience what to look for during the fight and conversely if you try not to look at the shield color, in essence you can clearly see the purpose of the skill.

This is a handy concept because now the fights don't need to be fast, they must be precise. Yet on the flip side, because Fremens aren't trained to slow down their knife and sword skills during battle they have an advantage over body shield-trained combatants. In a sense, Herbert has unwittingly given fight choreographers clues and hints on how to go about creating different fight scenes based on who is fighting who and the dynamics involved during the combat.

One of Herbert most memorable fights is the fray where while using his body shield technology, Idaho chivalrously battles to save Paul's life by killing an "unheard-of 19 Sardaukar," the Padishah Emperor's crack supersoldiers. According to Momoa, he's never had to fight 19 stuntmen at the same time.

The scene opens with 19 ominous Sardaukar sliding down into a building's lower level like spiders preparing to seize and kill its prey. With a final Ginaz school style sword of respect salutation to Paul, Idaho heroically locks himself into a hallway of death, prepares his long needle-like swords and awaits to fulfill his prophecy; protect the new Atriedes emperor at all costs. He charges in the mayhem Wonder Woman style, sliding on his knees, does several simple Rurouni Kenshin combos of blocks and parries, while using exaggerated swords swishes and overemphasized lunges that amid the blue and red flashing body shield colors make the movements faster than they really are. No need for blood and gore, the blue and red colors reveal the fight score.

As you're watching Dune, the similarities between Paul Atreides and Luke Skywalker are as obvious as martial artist Kareem Abdul Jabbar playing basketball against the little hooded Jawas in Star Wars. Both are borne out of the desert (Arrakis and Tatooine), have two mentors that taught them their fighting ways and that each one had a mentor that sacrificed their lives to save them. Additionally, Paul and Luke both have specialized swords, were taught mind control skills and most importantly they were both Messiahs for the good guys.

At the end of the day, when Luke fights using his triceps and biceps, and wants to further put the squeeze on the villain, he uses his Force-eps. Paul, on the other hand, although he uses his triceps and biceps, his knockout skill comes from using his Spice-eps.

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