Dune stunt coordinator breaks down Duncan Idaho's epic battle with the Sardaukar
Frank Herbert's Dune is well known for its psychedelic philosophy, cosmic world-building, and complicated politics. But the best-selling science-fiction novel is also a story of warriors, and when director Denis Villeneuve and his many collaborators set out to adapt Dune into last year's critically-acclaimed film, they knew they had to nail the fight scenes just as much as the costumes and soundscapes. Above, you can watch an exclusive clip from the Dune DVD (out this week on Digital Now and 4K Ultra HD) about one of the film's key battles.
Tom Struthers, the supervising stunt coordinator and second unit director on Dune, tells EW in an exclusive interview that he put different people in charge of coming up with a unique fighting style for each of the major factions of Dune's story: the valiant House Atreides, the sinister House Harkonnen, the desert-dwelling Fremen, and the unstoppable Sardaukar. House Atreides' battle techniques derive a lot from ancient Greek and Roman warfare, which makes sense since Herbert elaborates in Dune's sequels that the Atreides' ancestry stretches back to the House of Atreus (a.k.a Agamemnon and Menelaus from The Iliad).
This Greek-derived fighting style can be seen clearly in the climactic battle towards the end of the movie, when Atreides soldiers are defending their stronghold from an invasion by Harkonnen and Sardaukar forces. The defenders move in sync, wielding their spears like a phalanx formation. Though Dune is set in the far future, technological advancements like the Holtzman shields make ancient weapons relevant again since only a slow-moving blade can penetrate the protective shields worn by almost everyone.
"I did reference the ancient Greeks and the Romans too, to see where their weapons were held and the different lines and the shields and everything," Struthers says. "It did play a major part because it's also something that the audience can then relate to. It's something they've seen before, consciously or subconsciously. As soon as they see that, they know 'oh, that's a defensive position' or 'that's an attack.' So I bled that into the storyline, even though it's a thousand years from now. We've been doing the same with a lot of our battles for the last 3000 years. Things do evolve — the weapons, the armor, the technology — but they're still using swords and spears. It's gone full circle in a way. It's very hard to get around or get away from what's been proven to work very well over the last 3,000 years."
Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) is the Atreides' best warrior, in charge of both leading troops in battle and training future house leader Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet). Villeneuve has compared Idaho to a samurai in interviews with EW, and Struthers says the parallel was intentional.
"He's a standalone character who is supposed to be honorable and supposed to be able to deal with a large number of opponents, so giving him that futuristic 'last of the samurai' individual feel was part of what we did try to do. It didn't happen by chance," Struthers says. "When I was speaking with Denis, we agreed that we needed this guy to be standalone and honorable, but at the same time, he can go berserk. That's why it's a very good analogy that he is the futuristic version of a modern samurai that lost his way and is still trying to find his way through the different universes and different characters and different allegiances that he has."
Towards the end of the film, Idaho performs a heroic last stand to save Paul and his mother, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), from an onslaught of Sardaukar troops. The Sardaukar are the ruling Padishah Emperor's personal fighting force, supposed to be the most unstoppable warriors in the galaxy — but Idaho manages to take down 19 of them before finally falling.
"They're really good with their weapons, and they're really good at fighting, but their fighting style is immediate and head-on," Struthers says of the Sardaukar. "They don't think about, 'oh, I should outflank somebody' or 'if I'm attacking this guy, I need to be aware he's got two weapons.' Their whole approach is like berserkers, they just want to mow down the enemy, and they don't worry about their own lives. So they just keep coming and coming. It's just like the Russians in World War II, they had massive numbers, and they just kept pushing forward and pushing forward. The Germans were fast and furious soldiers, but they just couldn't stop them; the onslaught was too much. That's kind of how I had it with Jason: He could not cope with the onslaught, although he killed a hell of a lot of them and piled the bodies up. He is the alpha of his fighting style."
The lineage of House Atreides goes back to The Iliad, and Struthers knows something of The Iliad himself, having worked on Wolfgang Petersen's 2004 movie adaptation, Troy. He does not look back very favorably on that film — especially in comparison to Dune, which has earned raves both from long-standing fans and viewers who had never read Herbert's book.
"If you read The Iliad, then you watch the movie Troy, there are parallels, but it didn't do the original text and book a lot of credit," Struthers says. "That's just a personal thing. Some people don't care. They say, 'okay, we buy a script, we don't care, we're going to make it what we want and what we think the audience wants.' I was so pleased to actually do this project with Denis because we really tried to keep a lot of the feeling and the essence and the authenticity of what was written. That's a big thing. I think a lot of audiences, when they go to a project, and they see that people have worked hard towards that, they're less critical, and they're more complimentary."
Struthers continues, "It's very much a win-win for cinema. Because listen, when we depart this world, unless you're a president or a king, no one remembers you. But when we do what we do in entertainment and some of the projects, like this project with Denis, in 100 years' time people will look at that and go, 'wow who did the action?' Or things like that. That's how we'll be remembered: How well we do our job."
Dune is available on Digital Now and 4K Ultra HD now.
A new adaptation of Frank Herbert's classic sci-fi novel about the son of a noble family tasked with ruling an inhospitable but crucially important planet.