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This article contains Dune spoilers.
At a glance it feels like we’ve seen this song and dance before. An army of white-armored soldiers stand in perfect square formations beneath the comings and goings of Offworld spaceships. They’re soldiers; the supposed elite; the Emperor’s very own Sardaukar hit squad. But to anyone who’s watched a Star Wars movie or nine, they’re not that threatening, right? This supposed scourge off the Empire—excuse me, Imperium—is built up to be unbeatable until our protagonists start mowing them down by the dozen.
Well, as it turns out the Sardaukar of Frank Herbert and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune are no Stormtroopers, and anyone who thinks otherwise can ask the ghost of Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) for proof. Yes, the loyal Atreides man stood bravely against the Sardaukar until the end, and even took a solid handful of them to the afterlife with him for company, but as he said earlier in Dune, “When you cross swords with a Sardaukar, you know it.” And in Duncan’s case, it was the last thing he ever knew.
We similarly saw the Sardaukar battalions wipe out most of Duke Leto Atreides’ armed forces and finally eradicate an entire Fremen stronghold (although not without incurring heavy losses themselves). More ruthless and violent than Stormtroopers, the Sardaukar really are, as one of their officers boast, “The Emperor’s blades. Those who stand against us fall.”
This gives added creepiness to that brief snapshot we get of their homeward on Salusa Secundus where men look to be “trained” while being crucified upside down, and as some gravelly-voiced figure provides a deeply unsettling religious chant from on high.
If you’ve never read Herbert’s 1965 novel or any of the Dune sequels, trust us, the Sardaukar are so much worse than you realize.
How Sardaukar Are Made
In truth, Sardaukar are not from the planet Salusa Secundus; or at least their ancestors weren’t. Many centuries ago, Salusa Secundus was the home of House Corrino, the royal family which has ruled the Known Universe for thousands of years under the crown of the Padishah Empire. From the brutal living conditions of Salusa Secundus, House Corrino consolidated its power as the greatest and most dangerous family in the universe.
However, after the Corrino House moved to a more glorious planet on Kaitain, they transformed their former homeworld into a prison planet. Think where Sigourney Weaver winds up in Alien 3—or really just the penal colony of Australia. Anyone whom House Corrino decreed seditious or vile was sentenced to live out their remaining days in vicious conditions.
But what happened to them after they were exiled to the Imperium’s best known hellhole? It is unclear because the Padishah Emperor forbade any sort of survey or open records to be kept of the occurrences on Salusa Secundus. That’s because the Corrinos’ victims were not only sentenced to suffer: convicts, and convicts’ children, and their children’s children, and so on for eternity were sentenced to be assimilated and brainwashed into a warrior culture’s cult. Like the Spartans of the old earth, the weak were filtered out from the strong at birth, and the healthy from the sick.
It is said six out of every 13 children born on Salusa Secundus die before the age of 11 due to the unforgiving and fanatical training regiment of their forefathers, who were in turned raised by their fathers to have a religious-like deference toward all members in the House Corrino. In the royal family’s favor, they’re raised to be peerless swordsmen and warriors (and to have a decent middle class lifestyle, apparently), to the point where one wonders if they influenced the Unsullied in George R.R. Martin’s “A Sword of Ice and Fire” as much as they did Stormtroopers in Star Wars.
Why the Sardaukar Use Swords
The Sardaukar and their foes all favor blades over projectile weapons. This is due to the invention of the defensive Holtzman shield you see utilized throughout the movie. Thousands of years ago, these personal defense shields were built to protect users from any type of object that could be fired from a weapon like a gun, laser, or presumably a bow and arrow.
Overnight, this invention reinvigorated warfare in Dune’s universe, leading to a renewed interest in the old ways of swordplay where new techniques were cultivated that could allow a blade to move slow enough to slip through the shield’s protective barrier. Villeneuve helpfully visualized this for viewers by having the shield glow blue when it successfully blocks an attack and glow red when an object penetrates its protection.
It is said there are no finer warriors in the whole Imperium at eliminating the usefulness of a Holtzman shield than the Sardaukar. And yet, according to Duncan Idaho, the Fremen appear to be better fighters. The Fremen certainly grew up in a landscape as merciless as Salusa Secundus. But I suppose we’ll find out who truly is the better warrior culture when we get that anticipated Dune Part Two.
Dune is playing in theaters and on HBO Max now.