Is ‘Dune’ white saviour propaganda?

The sci-fi epic brings to mind colonialist tales like ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, but its ultimate message may be more complex

Sajid Ahmed
Published : 24 March 2024, 01:30 PM
Updated : 24 March 2024, 01:30 PM

After watching Dune: Part Two, one of my friends said that the whole story, like so many typical American films, served the propaganda of the ‘white saviour’. But I disagree. Though many of the beats and ideas line up on the surface, something different lurks underneath.

The colonialist aspects and ideas in Dune are obvious. After all, the Fremen see protagonist Paul Atreides take up the mantle of the Lisan al Gaib, a prophesied messiah who will lead them to paradise. And Paul does step into the role of their leader, taking on a nearly mythic role in the narrative. However, at the end of the film, I would argue that Paul doesn’t become a saviour, but rather a power-hungry monarch.

From the perspective of the Fremen, Paul is a heroic outsider who fulfils the specifics of their religious narratives, inspiring them to embark on a war through the stars that will save them from their terrors. This fits well with the old colonial story of a white man living among the savages, mastering their culture, and then leading them to glory against their oppressors.  

But, when we shift our gaze from the breathtakingly beautiful landscape of the Arrakis desert to the shadowy chambers of power and family dynamics, it becomes clear that Dune is telling a story on multiple levels. As the investigations of Paul and his mother Lady Jessica reveal, the story of the foreign messiah has been perpetuated among the Fremen by the Bene Gesserit and other external forces as a possible tool of control over the native populace.

Throughout the second film, Paul struggles with the question of whether to embrace this place that has been carved out for him in history. He must decide whether he will use the power of this narrative to manipulate the Fremen to further his ends, regardless of the consequences. And that leads to the major decision at the end of the film.

Consider the moment when Lady Jessica, pregnant and touched by the spice, speaks to her unborn child. The child who, through the mystical, hallucinogenic property of spice, communicates to her brother and tells him a tale of destiny.

This could be the Manifest Destiny of colonial ideology. But I think Frank Herbert, the writer of the original Dune novel was drawing on an older literary form – the Greek tragedy. Is Paul a straightforward man of greatness – like those of white saviour stories? Or is he more like the complex and flawed figures of Oedipus or Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Tragic heroes for whom fate and destiny are darker and more restrictive?

Though I disagree with my friend’s perspective, I think it speaks to how our modern-day interpretations of power can spread and influence our thinking. The capitalist propaganda of achieving a ‘greater’ and ‘more modern’ world through technology has been propagated throughout the third world. This is why even we in Bangladesh feel it is necessary to urbanise even our hill areas in the name of modernisation. The political consequences of this line of thought are obvious.

A similar form of exploitation can happen if we submit ideologically to the white messiah narrative.

In Dune: Part 2, behind the beliefs of the Fremen, we encounter a dramatic irony. They know our protagonist as the chosen one. In a way, he is chosen. But his own chosen course of action is to secure the legacy of his ancestors through the creation of an empire.

In this story, what is more urgent than the scene where it seems that the blood flowing through the veins of an unborn child speaks to this heritage and its supremacy? And what can be, simultaneously, more funny and dramatic when this unborn child and the weight of their connection to destiny and heritage dictate the fate of our protagonist, effectively snatching the agency away from the crown?

In a way, the gorgeous yet terrifying visuals of the desert are the key to Dune: Part 2. They bring to mind a few lines from a poem by Rilke:

“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror

which we are barely able to endure, and it amazes us so,

because it serenely disdains to destroy us.”

The desert looks beautiful. But behind that mask, lurks death.

This article is part of Stripe,'s special publication focusing on culture and society from a youth perspective.