The codpiece that killed Dune: how David Lynch's sci-fi flop made Sting a laughing stock

Ed Power
·11 min read
Sting in Dune
Sting in Dune

In his trailer at the sprawling Estudios Churubusco complex in Mexico City, a milkman’s son from Northumbria was laying out his philosophy on life, the universe and everything. “I always wanted to escape my environment,” he said, idly running a hand through a vast cockatoo of orange hair. “In England…there’s very little social mobility. One of the routes for my escape was to be a pop star.”

Gordon Thomas Sumner had by the summer of 1983 forever broken free of the shipping yards of Tyneside. He had started to transcend pop stardom too. The Police were about to fade to grey. Within the year, with their Synchronicity Tour over, Sting would to all intents and purposes break up the band in pursuit of solo glory. 

It was solo glory that had likewise brought him to the home of Mexico’s film industry. There, in a creaking trailer, he and co-star Sean Young were holding court with a journalist. 

Sting’s movie career wasn’t nearly as stratospheric as his rise to rock stardom. Still, he was finally getting places. In 1982, he’d been thoroughly creepy as the seductive villain in a big-screen adaptation of Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle. He had radiated a lightly-worn charisma. Or at least he had to the extent it is possible to radiate a lightly-worn charisma portraying a Satan-like character who rapes a disabled woman and gaslights her parents. 

The film won Sting rave notices and among those raving was David Lynch, the king of American surrealism. He’d been encouraged to seek out Brimstone and Treacle by Raffaella De Laurentiis, daughter of b-movie mogul Dino. 

Raffaella had pushed for Lynch to cast Sting in the sci-fi epic she and her father had been hired to make – an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, to the shot in Mexico. Dune is once more on the front pages this week as the much-anticipated first trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s a-lister packed remake is released. 

Lynch, assuming Sting to be a dilettante pop star, was aghast. He sat down to Brimstone and Treacle expecting to be unimpressed. Instead, he was captivated. “When I first heard about Sting I said no way do I want a rock star to be in a picture,” he said. “Then I saw Brimstone and Treacle and I saw Sting playing a character and he was fantastic. He’s natural. He’s not afraid. He has this charisma and this intensity. He’s gangbusters.”

Sting may well have warm memories of Brimstone and Treacle. He’s a revelation in it and the feature stands as one of the more interesting things he has done outside of music. 

He is unlikely, however, to look back with fondness on Dune, in which he portrayed warrior princeling Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen and for which he has achieved a permanent place in movie infamy thanks to the scene in which he emerges from a futuristic space sauna wearing nothing but a lovingly sculpted codpiece. Once seen, the sequence is never forgotten. It’s a cinematic nightmare destined to knock around inside your head for all eternity. 

Kyle MacLachlan and Sring in Dune
Kyle MacLachlan and Sring in Dune

Lynch’s Dune is generally regarded as a disaster, though some will argue that it captures the gonzo essence of the cult Frank Herbert novel from 1965 from which it is adapted. It was undoubtedly a commercial failure, with a box office of just $30 million. That’s despite it telling an essentially straightforward tale of clashing royal houses in the far future – a sort of sci-fi Game of Thrones.

Herbert’s big idea is that in the year 10,191 much of the galaxy is addicted to a quasi-mystical spice called “Melange”. It turns the eyes blue-on-blue and has psychotropic properties. And it is found in just one place. The planet is Arrakis, also known as Dune. 

To continue with the Game of Thrones analogy the House Stark-style good guys are House Atreides, headed by nobel Duke Leto, wife Jessica and son Paul. Their mortal foes – the Lannisters in this equation – are House Harkonnen, whose leaders include the evil Baron Vladimir and super-warrior nephew Feyd. 

Their feud is eternal – and ripe for exploitation by other power-players. To that end, the Emperor Shaddam IV – King Robert, if you will – has arranged for the two houses to fight for control of Dune and that all-important Spice (it’s more nuanced than that but only a bit). 

Nobel houses, magic spice, good versus evil – it isn’t necessarily a lot to get your head around. Lynch, alas, found a way to make the premise muddled and sometimes even dreary. That science fiction held little interest for him was painfully apparent. 

“I started selling out on Dune. Looking back, it’s no one’s fault but my own,” he told Extrovert magazine in 2012. “I probably shouldn’t have done that picture, but I saw tons and tons of possibilities for things I loved, and this was the structure to do them in. There was so much room to create a world.”

He wasn’t the biggest loser from Dune, however. That honour rests with Sting. For him, the picture was more than a set-back. It was an exploding Death Star-level calamity.

Feyd-Rautha figuratively tarred and feathered the star. It contributed to the idea of him not as musician who has sold 100 million records but as a silly man who toots a lute and enjoys tantric escapades. The rebirth of Sting as a figure of ridicule began with Dune. And, as he sat there in his trailer, talking about his past and his future, he really had no idea. 

Dune failed for many reasons. Lynch never quite got on top of the story. Filming in the heat of Mexico proved traumatic. Cast members would pass out in their asphyxiating far-future clobber. The local crew knew only how to make sets from wood – which gave the film a weird vintage pall, like a Cecil B DeMille fever dream. 

Kyle MacLachlan in Dune - Alamy
Kyle MacLachlan in Dune - Alamy

Yet for Sting the humiliation could be summed up in that one word: codpiece. If you’ve seen Dune you will remember Sting in the codpiece. Even if you haven’t you will remember Sting in the codpiece. He is introduced as the favourite warrior of the evil Vladimir Harkonnen, basted in steam and sweat and with just a swooping metallic dingle-dangle protecting his dignity. 

“Lovely Feyd,” purrs the creepy Baron (Kenneth McMillan). Sting, to his credit, attempts to “act” his way though, rolling his eyes and flexing his muscles. He is, however, thoroughly outshone by the sci-fi speedos (it is unclear whether Feyd will be in the new Dune – though there are rumours that Ready Player One’s Tye Sheridan has been cast). 

Feyd is handled problematically in the film and not just because he is played by Sting in his short-shorts. Lynch sexualises him through the eyes of the Baron. The head of House Harkonnen is portrayed as gay – but his gayness is presented as a moral failure (Harkonnen’s sexuality is also dealt with questionably in the novel, it should be pointed out). 

The Baron is, for instance, covered in facial sores, which were associated with Aids at the time. And there is a notorious sequence in which he sexually assaults and murders a young male servant. The very next scene cuts to the wholesome Duke Leto (Jürgen Prochnow ) and Lady Jessica (Francesca Annis) in bed. 

“It is a very literal Point-A-to-Point-B association of homosexuality with perversion, violence, and sickness,” writes Emmet Asher-Perrin on Tor.com. Asher-Perrin adds that this is “contrasted immediately with heterosexuality signifying loving, caring bonds and relationships”.

The tale of Sting and his glittering crotch-adornment has, like many great origin stories, become obscured in the mists of history. One account has it that Lynch and Sting had agreed that the star should step out completely naked and with more than his orange hair waving in the air. The suggestion was, however, vetoed by Raffaella. Her logic was that a full-frontal Sting would earn Dune an R-rating, the final nail in any aspirations of it becoming a Star Wars-scale hit. 

This version of the story has it that executives confronted Lynch on set about the codpiece. He backed down. And so the Mexican props team was required to cobble together a pair of dystopian briefs under extreme pressure. The exalted undies were supposedly delivered to Sting, in his trailer, minutes before the camera rolled. 

Kenneth McMillan as the Baron, in David Lynch's Dune
Kenneth McMillan as the Baron, in David Lynch's Dune

It’s a great yarn – far better than Lynch’s take on Dune, if we’re being honest. Is it true though? Potentially not as Sting was banging on about about the codpiece months previously. 

“It's a huge budget movie, it's costing $50 million. It's directed by David Lynch who did Elephant Man and Eraserhead, really weird guy,” Sting had told Sounds in the run-up to the shoot. He added that he would play Feyd – “a villain with a huge codpiece”. 

Sting has several other scenes in Dune including a climatic fight with Kyle MacLachlan’s messianic Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet in the new version). These were immediately forgotten. The codpiece from the very outset was all anyone wanted to talk to him about. 

“We have a picture of you in Dune…it’s an anagram of Nude,” chuckled Russell Harty, when Sting went on his chat-show to plug the film in 1984. 

Still laughing Harty forced Sting to look at himself as Feyd-in-the-codpiece. “There you are indeed,” said the host. “I don’t know if you’re actually wearing that thing or standing behind it…When is it to be released– the film I mean?”

And so the knob gags had started. Sting grinned, or at least tried to. “That’s all there is,” he said with forced jollity. His eyes had turned into bottomless pinpricks of ennui. 

He didn’t sound happy. The Dune shoot was 18 months long. Sting was on set just six weeks and then left to begin the Synchronicity tour. He’d enjoyed himself and struck up an unlikely friendship with Patrick Stewart who, knowing nothing of pop, assumed this lanky Englishman had been in a police band. But he hadn’t tarried for long.

So he was spared the fainting in the desert. Nor was he present for the scenes filmed at a Mexico City landfill which had been cleared of rubbish but where guards needed to be posted to stop locals chucking their garbage in as the cameras rolled. 

As far as he was concerned he was in Mexico for a cameo. Sting was far more invested in his next acting gig, voicing lead character Steerpike in a BBC radio adaptation of Melvyn Peake’s Gormenghast. A lonely urchin who scales the turrets of Peake’s gothic castle, Steerpike was a character with whom he could identify. What was he, after all, but a lowly boy who had climbed to impossible heights?

Dune was already fading memory, then, as he jetted off to join his bandmates for the opening night of Synchronicity in Chicago. Yet 12 months later, he was surprised to wind up front and centre of the marketing campaign. 

The tensions behind the scenes had spiralled during post-production. Lynch had submitted a three-hour cut but Universal, which was bankrolling and distributing the film, insisted on two hours. Wrangling ensued and it dawned on the studio that it had a deep-space clunker on its hands. In a panic it sought to salvage the situation. And then somebody noticed Sting and his intergalactic mullet. 

Sting, hair, codpiece and all, were bumped up to top billing in the promotional campaign. He noticed and wasn’t pleased. Long before the internet, his futuristic underpants went viral. 

Feyd-Rautha would essentially killed off his acting career. But the reputational damage soon metastasised. Sting, the wiry genius behind Walking on the Moon and Message in a Bottle, was no more. In his place stood a pop weirdo with a crazy smile and underpants from hell. Cursed with self awareness – the worst quality a rock star can possess – Sting never got over Dune, Feyd, or the codpiece.

“I’ve done cameo roles that I thought would be interesting, where I've been amazed at the way my name has been exploited. Dune for example,” he reflected many years later. “I’m on for five minutes but when you see the poster it's STING IN DUNE! DON'T MISS IT! I keep a low profile about movies, now.”