David Carradine in Dune Warriors (1991)

Roger Corman once planned to film Frank Herbert’s Dune in communist Czechoslovakia

You’ve heard about Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s Dune. But what about Roger Corman‘s Dune? The legendary B-movie producer was reportedly the very first to purchase the film rights to Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel, and planned to film the movie in 1972… in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia.

After being published to wide acclaim in 1965, cinematic versions of Herbert’s Dune have a long and storied history. They begin with a November 3, 1971 report in Daily Variety which announced that Corman’s New World Pictures had acquired the film rights to Dune, and that principal photography was slated to begin in Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1972.

Precious little is known about how far along Corman had gotten in the pre-production process. A year later, Variety reported that the film rights to Dune had been optioned to Planet of the Apes producer Arthur P. Jacobs, whose legacy with the project is much better documented.

Jacobs’ contract for the film rights to Dune could provide some clues to what happened with the Corman adaptation. HIs company APJAC secured the rights for Dune with a $10,000 one-year option against $100,000, with an option to renew for a second year at $10,000.

One could theorize that if Corman did indeed hold the rights to Dune in 1971 and had a similar contract, he may have allowed them to lapse after not beginning production on the film the following year. Corman would later become notorious for acquiring film rights to various properties and holding onto them for as long as possible; most famously, he produced a 1994 Fantastic Four film for the sole intent of maintaining the rights to the Marvel characters.

How serious was Corman in his attempt to make Dune? And what might it have looked like? Corman himself was most famous for directing B-movies such as The Little Shop of Horrors and Vincent Price-led Poe adaptations like The Pit and the Pendulum, but had soured on directing films after a negative experience on one of his biggest-budgeted films, 1971’s Von Richthofen and Brown.

Instead, he turned his attention to producing, and would help start the careers of dozens of filmmakers who would go on to much greater success, including Francis Ford Coppola, who directed new scenes for the American version of Corman’s Soviet acquisition Battle Beyond the Sun, and James Cameron, who did special effects and art direction for Battle Beyond the Stars.

A Corman-produced Dune might have been directed by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) or Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs), both of whom began their filmmaking careers working for Corman and made their directorial debuts on New World Pictures films in the early 1970s. Corman also produced Martin Scorsese‘s Boxcar Bertha in 1972, but a Scorsese version of Dune is a little harder to imagine.

A cast for Roger Corman’s Dune? David Carradine collaborated with Corman on numerous projects over the years, beginning with Boxcar Bertha, and was a natural Paul Atreides: even Jodorowsky wanted him for the role. Pam Grier was a staple for New World Pictures at the time, and might have been cast as Chani. Another longtime Corman staple, Warren Oates, would have made a fine Leto Atreides, maybe next to Barbara Steele (Demme’s Caged Heat) as Lady Jessica. Jack Nicholson began his career on Corman projects in the 1960s, but was on the verge of superstardom by the early 1970s; still, maybe Corman could have nabbed him for the flashy role of Feyd-Rautha.

What about filming in Czechoslovakia? Hollywood had (literally) been chased out of the country during the 1968 Soviet Invasion; cast and crew for The Bridge at Remagen, which had been shooting in Most and Prague at the time, were forced to flee the country, and the remainder of the film was completed in Italy and West Germany.

But an independent production from Corman’s New World Pictures probably wouldn’t have caused much of a stir. In fact, while Dune did not film in Prague in 1972, another adaptation of a classic sci-fi novel filmed in Czechoslovakia just before the Corman announcement in Variety. George Roy Hill, coming off the Oscar-winning Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, shot his adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five in Most and Prague, including Barrandov Studios, the previous winter. The Czech locations stood in for Dresden during World War II.

And while Corman wouldn’t make Dune in Czechoslovakia, New World Pictures would distribute another classic Czech-produced science fiction film: Fantastic Planet, which was directed by French filmmaker René Laloux but largely made in Prague by Czech animators.

Jacobs was slated to begin production on Dune in 1974, but would pass away at the age of 51 in 1973. His wife then sold the rights to French producers who unsuccessfully attempted get Jodorowsky’s vision off the ground for years. Eventually, the cinematic rights to Dune would pass to Dino De Laurentiis, who produced David Lynch‘s version in 1984. Read more about the history behind how Lynch’s version came to the screen in Max Evry’s comprehensive new book A Masterpiece in Disarray: David Lynch’s Dune, now available on Amazon.

In 1991, Corman’s company Concorde-New Horizons released Dune Warriors, which was filmed in the Philippines. While the finished film really owes more to Mad Max than Dune, the title and setting are both clear references to the classic sci-fi project. And David Carradine was even cast in the lead role.

A version of Dune would finally be made in Prague with the production of the 2000 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries, which was primarily filmed in Barrandov Studios. Two decades later, Denis Villeneuve has done Herbert’s novel justice with 2021’s Dune and 2024’s Dune: Part Two, now playing in cinemas worldwide.

Lead photo: David Carradine in promotional artwork for Dune Warriors.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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