I have just seen the new Dune movie (2021) and I really liked it, but I do not understand the Emperor's actions completely. Note that I have not read any of the books, and I still wish to more-or-less blindly experience the second part of the movie (hoping it gets made) so if the answer hinges on crucial plot points or striking revelations from the second half of the book, I would appreciate a disclaimer before you get to it :-)

The Emperor (I am told he is named Shaddam) is getting the mighty houses Harkonnen and Atreides to go to war and exhaust their resources so he can stay on top himself. To do that he grants Atreides stewardship of Arrakis, and then supports Harkonnen to take it back in a massive planetary invasion, ending the Atreides and rendering the Harkonnen in financial trouble. To support that invasion, he lends the Harkonnen his elite throat-singing soldiers, the Sardaukar.

But as the invasion occurs, on several instances people recognise Sardaukar and understand that the Emperor has violated his neutrality. This is a big deal and enough for Paul to start discussing a "holy war" against the imperial authority, which he implies many houses would join particularly because the Emperor is no longer impartial.

So sending Sardaukar seems like a great misstep on the part of Shaddam. Why did he do that? I understand that in the book these soldiers are disguised as Harkonnen, but I'm sure that they are still recognised. Why would Shaddam not support the Harkonnen in a way that cannot be traced back to him as clearly? E.g., buy them generic mercenaries, or just provide financial means?

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    "The Atreides are building a secret army," the Emperor said. "And the Duke is becoming too popular with the other Great Houses of the Empire ... He could be a threat to me. I have ordered Duke Atreides to go to the planet Dune ... His people will take over and mine the spice, replacing their enemies the Harkonnens. The Atreides think this is a victory for them.
    – Valorum
    Oct 25, 2021 at 9:27
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    They think it will give them great power. But once they are on Dune, Baron Harkonnen will return and make a sneak attack on them. He will get rid of the Atreides for me. I have promised him five legions of my Sardaukar terror troops" - Dune (1984) Storybook.
    – Valorum
    Oct 25, 2021 at 9:27
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    Re: "I still wish to more-or-less blindly experience the second part of the movie" -- and the third part, and the fourth. Oct 26, 2021 at 14:39
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    Btw: "Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures officially greenlit Dune: Part Two on October 26, 2021, with a scheduled release date of October 20, 2023" Oct 27, 2021 at 7:05
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    @TylerH in my recollection, the plot point of "Sardaukar present = emperor is involved = emperor is not neutral" was mentioned it at least twice, the latter time to Kynes right before she went and got herself killed.
    – KeizerHarm
    Oct 27, 2021 at 21:36

7 Answers 7


There are schemes within schemes going on here. The Emperor fears Duke Leto and his heirs as possible contenders to the Corrino throne, the Harkonnen want their ancient enemy (the Atreides) dead and the Spacing Guild see a vergence in the Force centred around a boy.

The Emperor and the Baron hatch a plan together. The Emperor will order the Harkonnen off the planet, allegedly in disgrace for failing to harvest enough Spice. Leto will be ordered to take over the planet, leaving him open for a counter-attack. The Guild will offer passage to the planet (for a fat fee paid in spice) and in return for attacking the Atreides, the Emperor will give the Harkonnen permanent control of Arrakis as well as an indefinite seat on the CHOAM board and various other considerations.

Note that on their own, the Harkonnen don't have enough troops to destroy the Duke's troops (or they would have invaded Caladan years ago), but supplemented with hidden Sardaukar, there'll be enough of an advantage to kill the Duke's men and capture him and his family.

“The main point,” Piter said, “is this: since House Harkonnen is being used to do the Imperial dirty work, we’ve gained a true advantage. It’s a dangerous advantage, to be sure, but if used cautiously, will bring House Harkonnen greater wealth than that of any other House in the Imperium.”

“You have no idea how much wealth is involved, Feyd,” the Baron said. “Not in your wildest imaginings. To begin, we’ll have an irrevocable directorship in the CHOAM Company.”


In the novel Leto was expecting a small number of Sardaukar to be used against them and was hoping to counter them with a force of Fremen soldiers. He could then show the captives to the Landsraat to further weaken Shaddam's position and cement his own.

“Four or five battalions all told, Sire. No more. Guild troop-transport costs being what they are.”

“Then five battalions of Fremen plus our own forces ought to do it. Let us have a few captive Sardaukar to parade in front of the Landsraad Council and matters will be much different–profits or no profits.”

What he didn't count on was that the Harkonnen would be willing to bear the cost of bringing quite so many troops to Arrakis and that the Emperor would commit so many of his own crack troops to their destruction. The Emperor, on the other hand seems to feel that if he's in for a penny, he's in for a pound, especially if he's not paying the transport costs.

“Expensive,” the Baron sneered. “The damnable Guild monopoly on space would’ve ruined us if I hadn’t planned for this expense long ago. You should know, Rabban, that we bore the entire brunt of it. We even paid for transport of the Sardaukar.”

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    So in the novel Leto was expecting the attack, including imperial support? That's quite a departure from was seen on the screen!
    – KeizerHarm
    Oct 25, 2021 at 10:02
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    Small correction: the Harkonnens COULD have enough force to defeat Atreides on Caladan. But transporting troops by the Guild is prohibitively expensive. IIRC Harkonnens could afford to send to Caladan few brigades at most, before going completely, totally and instantly broke. Remember that Hawat was estimating total of 10 brigades or so (IIRC) as a maximum of what Harkonnens could afford. He made a mistake, but I believe that without Sardaukar, Atreides could hold out against full force of Harkonnens. Depending on factors, of course.
    – AcePL
    Oct 25, 2021 at 10:06
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    @KeizerHarm - Movie has to make shortcuts somewhere. Good place as any. But yes, Leto knew there will be Sardaukar in Harkonnen livery in the attack. He literally says so in the book: “Disguised in Harkonnen livery, no doubt,” the Duke said. “But the soldier fanatics nonetheless.”
    – AcePL
    Oct 25, 2021 at 10:17
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    Worth mentioning the line from the book that mentions Gurney, Duncan and Thufir had trained a small force of men to be as good as Sardaukar. That was another motive for the emperor to try to remove the Atreides in a non-quite-head-on confrontation, and before they could train more.
    – Darren
    Oct 25, 2021 at 17:18
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    Just to mention, I don’t think there was a “reduction in rates” by the guild. In the books I seem to remember the Baron stating “if you exploit this world for spice for the following 50 years it will not begin to cover the expenses we’ve had”. This is also while he explains the Harkonen have paid the full transport including Sardaukars. Oct 26, 2021 at 19:16

The Atreides were a threat to Imperial power

Duke Leto was popular in the Landstraad, the council of noble houses that acted as a counterbalance to Imperial power.

In addition, he had built a cadre of troops who were almost as good as Sardaukar and, if left on Caladan, would undoubtedly train more. It’s possible they were better, Sardaukar training had declined under Shaddam’s rule. The entire reason that all 81 Emporers were Corinos was because of the mythic fighting quality of the Sadaukar. Mythic is used deliberately - yes, elite fighting units are elite due to training, leadership and equipment but the mythos is also important: knowing you are fighting Royal Marine Commandos, or US Navy Seals , or French Foreign Legionnaires, or Australian SAS is not good for your morale.

From the Emporer’s point of view Leto and the Atreides had to go.

It didn’t matter what people knew, it mattered what they could prove

Leto underestimated how much Baron Harkonnen wanted him dead and his line destroyed. He expected raids possibly with Sardaukar involved and he saw this as an opportunity to expose the Emperor. He thought that he would be in a fight he could (possibly) win. He didn’t know that the Baron was prepared to virtually bankrupt his House to bring overwhelming force to bear. The Emperor did.

Many people would be able to report the presence of Sadaukar but no one on the Atreides side would be able to prove it.

This is a positive benefit to the Emperor, not only has he disposed of a powerful and dangerous rival, he has shown all the other Houses Major that he can do so with impunity. Everyone would know he broke the rules, but no one would be able to do anything about it for fear that disguised and plausibly deniable Sadaukar would be on their doorstep next. One of the most important targets for this “lesson” was Baron Harkonnen himself. It was not lost on the Baron that the Emperor was a dangerous ally.

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    2021 film Nitpick: Sardaukar are not disguised Oct 28, 2021 at 5:35

The Harkonnen are not mere puppets for the Emperor to order about as he pleases. They need an incentive to be part of his trap, assurance that he won't just betray them in turn.

It's precisely because the risk of committing Sardaukar is so great, that the Harkonnen demand them. It assures them that the Emperor is serious, and not just playing games.

They're also a nearly unparalleled fighting force, much better than mercenaries.


I'll address one side of the question: not why the Emperor sent the Sardaukar, but simply how he planned on getting away with it.

This is an excerpt from the book, when Baron Harkonnen gives instructions to Rabban after reconquering Arrakis:

“M’Lord….” Rabban hesitated, frowning. “I’ve always felt that we underestimated the Fremen, both in numbers and in—”
“Ignore them, boy! They’re rabble. It’s the populous towns, cities, and villages that concern us. A great many people there, eh?”
“A great many, m’Lord.”
“They worry me, Rabban.”
“Worry you?”
“Oh… ninety per cent of them are of no concern. But there are always a few… Houses Minor and so on, people of ambition who might try a dangerous thing. If one of them should get off Arrakis with an unpleasant story about what happened here, I’d be most displeased. Have you any idea how displeased I’d be?”
Rabban swallowed.
You must take immediate measures to hold a hostage from each House Minor,” the Baron said. “As far as anyone off Arrakis must learn, this was straightforward House-to-House battle. The Sardaukar had no part in it, you understand? The Duke was offered the usual quarter and exile, but he died in an unfortunate accident before he could accept. He was about to accept, though. That is the story. And any rumor that there were Sardaukar here, it must be laughed at.
“As the Emperor wishes it,” Rabban said.
“As the Emperor wishes it.”
“What about the smugglers?”
“No one believes smugglers, Rabban. They are tolerated, but not believed. At any rate, you’ll be spreading some bribes in that quarter… and taking other measures which I’m sure you can think of.”
“Yes, m’Lord.”

So the Emperor and the Baron know they can't really hide the whole matter, there are simply too many witnesses. Instead they take countermeasures, by taking hostages, spreading lies, and bribing. Some people will know it, but no one will dare to speak. Especially because the Houses Minor are too weak without the Atreides.


The Emperor believes that House Atreides represents a political threat and wants the Atreides destroyed before they gain too much support, so he entices the Harkonnens to attack their favourite enemy and sweetens the deal by promising a guaranteed victory with his support. It doesn't take much effort since the Atreides and Harkonnen have been mortal enemies for the past 10,000 years.

With that in mind, the Sardaukar's role in the Harkonnen's assault on the Atreides holdings on Arrakis is to ensure the job is done quickly and thoroughly, and as a lever to get the Baron Harkonnen to agree to do it.

In the book and previous adaptations, the Sardaukar explicitly wore Harkonnen uniforms for deniability, but if you leave no survivors, you don't need to be deniable...

From the Emperor's point of view, it's a safe bet.

  • House Harkonnen aren't going to bite the hand that feeds them.
  • House Atreides will be destroyed and in no position to comment if they even figure out what's going on.
  • The Smugglers on Arrakis are irrelevant
  • The Fremen aren't even in his head

And nobody else is going to be in a position to see or say anything to anyone who can do anything about it.

Nobody considered that the Heir to House Atreides would survive, learn the truth, join the Fremen and.. Do the things that will be revealed in Part 2 :)


This is another case of Hollywood dumbing down. In the book, the Sardukar take great pains to not be identified, by all being dressed in Harkonnen uniforms and taking every other possible precaution.

As to why hatch the whole scheme in the first place: Herbert cribbed the political system of the Empire(broadly speaking) from that of the historical Holy Roman Empire(e.g. the Landsrad, position of powerful guilds, etc), with a far-from all powerful Emperor and the Great Houses standing in for the Prince Electors(in power roughly, obviously in Dune the Emperor isn't elected) and the minor houses for the myriad smaller players in the HRE. So having the Emperor discretely help one of them to take out his main potential rival, leaving the former indebted to him, while publicly keeping his hands clean is rather mundane actually.


There was never a good reason either for throwing the Harkonnens off Dune, or for giving Dune to the Atreides, as such.

It was never properly stated, but the reader might be supposed to discern that the Emperor - for no clear reason - feared the Atreides.

More clearly, Shaddam was happy to use Harkonnen to help bring down Atreides, solely because afterwards Harkonnen would be a much lesser threat, if any.

Remembering that power is not wisdom, the Emperor is projected as dumb enough to hope the Great Houses in council wouldn't think Harkonnen had no place meddling with Atreides' management of Dune and if they did, wouldn't notice a few (thousand) Sardaukar boosting the Harkonnen ranks.

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    From my recollection of the books, there was good reason to throw the Harkonnen off Dune, even if the Atreides weren't a threat: spice production was well below expected. This was partly a pretense for the Emperor to replace them, but was also part of the Baron's plans: he put the brutal Rabban in charge, which decimated production and made the population desperate; Feyd could then oust Rabban, gaining the Fremen's loyalty. The Baron suspected Sardaukar were a product of their harsh Salusa Secundus environment; Dune was harsher, making the Fremen even more fearsome warriors.
    – Warbo
    Oct 28, 2021 at 14:55
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    @Warbo wasn't it that because of Rabban production plummeted AND ADDITIONALLY they "displaced" a rather large chunk of it, without anybody knowing (which was then sold on the black market for pure profit for the Harkonnens). Or am I high right now om the Water of Life?
    – D. Kovács
    Oct 28, 2021 at 15:28
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    @D.Kovács Good point! Production had to appear low, but that's no excuse for idle harvesters ;)
    – Warbo
    Oct 28, 2021 at 16:40
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    The goal of throwing the Harkonnens off Arrakis and putting the Atreides in charge was several-layered. The Harkonnens weren't performing as well as expected, so publically, placing the Atreides in charge was a measure to improve spice-production, which everyone in the universe is in favour of. It also importantly forced the Atreides to extend themselves. They could never afford to send much of their military at a time to Dune, and the Duke and his Heir would be at least temporarily far from their seat of strength and vulnerable to a decapitation strike. Nov 1, 2021 at 9:41
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    @RobbieGoodwin That's why I said "publically". The official explanation for why the Harkonnens are being kicked off Arrakis and replaced with the Atreides is that they were underperforming. The perfect excuse for getting the Atreides out of their seat-of-power and into a position where they can be destroyed, and the harkonnens are the perfect patsies to do the dirty-work since they already want to! Nov 8, 2021 at 8:57

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