Watching the video for Duran Duran’s “Union of the Snake” is like coming into the middle of some obscure science-fiction film, where you have no earthly idea who the characters are or what they’re supposed to be doing, or even whether the film is any damn good. Still, you keep watching, because the images are intriguing enough to hold your attention, even as the cogs in your brain spin in vain, trying to make coherent sense of it all and coming up with… I don’t know, marshmallow fluff.
Yeah. It’s sort of like that.
While “Union of the Snake” (1983) has all the hallmarks of a Russell Mulcahy video (heavy on plot, plenty of evocative imagery, totally bonkers), it was actually directed by Simon Milne. Apparently, Mulcahy came up with the story concept, but when outside commitments prevented him from directing it, Milne stepped in. And where I write “apparently,” go ahead and read that as “According to Wikipedia” and thus proceed under the assumption that the preceding information may be, as is so often the case with Wikipedia, nothing more than a passel of lies. Example: Just last week, some wag altered Nick Rhodes’s Wikipedia entry to describe him as a “blonde synth princess” from a “planet made entirely of waffles,” which is rubbish; everybody knows Planet Nick is composed of all things shiny and sparkly. Point being, if you’re working on your doctoral thesis on Duran Duran, maybe this blog shouldn’t be cited as a primary reference.
In the opening scenes, John, Roger and Simon trudge across a sandy, barren, post-apocalyptic wasteland (which is also known by the name “Australia”). A green-painted naked guy with spiky green hair and vaguely snakelike prosthetics glued to his face slinks around on all fours, mugging for the camera while dogging the boys across the desert. He’s making no attempt to hide, but either they don’t notice him, or they’re too cool to care. Naked green snake-man. Whatever.
The boys scramble down a sandy bluff and discover a stalled pickup truck with a dead body in the front seat.
I really like John’s outfit. Based on the individual components, it should be a mismatched monstrosity—glossy black button-down shirt, blue striped shawl, shiny silver belt, red leather gloves—but somehow when it’s all put together, it looks comfortable and stylish and flattering.
That may have more to do with the wearer than the ensemble, actually.
In the distance, Simon spots a mysterious brunette riding a horse. Fair warning: This video is teeming with mysterious brunettes.
While investigating, Roger starts to look woozy, then crumples to the ground in exhaustion. Shortly thereafter, John conks out in the front seat of the truck. It’s all a wee bit abrupt and random. Oh, sure, they’ve been trudging across a sun-baked wasteland, and it’s not hard to imagine they’d be dead on their pretty feet, but they both look as dewy and fresh as English roses. No sweat-drenched hair, no sunburned noses, no icky pit stains.
Night falls. Simon drags Roger into a makeshift shelter and is preparing to haul a still-zonked John out of the truck when he’s accosted by Mysterious Brunette #2. This one is dressed in a sexy red bellhop uniform. Like every woman who’s ever appeared in a Duran Duran video, she looks like she just stepped out of a Nagel painting.
So Simon cheerfully abandons his (unconscious, defenseless) friends and follows the sexy lady to a glass elevator in the middle of the nowhere. The snake-man, by the way, is now hanging out on top of the elevator. Simon? Doesn’t notice, doesn’t care.
There’s a small flock of colorful birds inside the elevator. A quick nod to Barbarella, yes?
Simon and the sexy bellhop take the elevator down into a vast underground structure. They pass by lots of: a) rickety scaffolding, and b) loincloth-clad dancing men. Between this video and “Wild Boys,” this seems to be Duran Duran shorthand for “post-apocalyptic lair.” In fact, in many ways, this video seems like a low-key dress rehearsal for the full-tilt gonzo lunacy of the “Wild Boys” video, which would be released the following year.
A small, white-robed urchin throws open huge double doors and ushers Simon and the sexy bellhop into a spacious temple of some sort, which is filled with nonsensical crap: tents, dressmaker dummies, open umbrellas, more loincloth-clad dancing men, more small urchins in white robes, and, yes, a mime, who’s juggling with a set of gigantic dice.
There’s a high-backed chair at the far end of the room, like a throne, with a man holding a scepter seated upon it. We never see him clearly—in fact, apart from a blurry glimpse in one long shot, we never see him at all. And hey, there’s Nick! Nick strolls the length of the room and sits across from the man, his back to Simon.
Nick, more waiflike and ethereal than ever, appears to be swaddled in a gigantic tweed Snuggie®, and his hairstyle can only be described as mullet-ish, and yet he still manages to look regal and aloof and impossibly glamorous. Nick is magical.
Nick and the unseen man are deep in earnest discussion about the contents of some scrolls. Since we never see Nick’s conversation partner, it gets a little confusing (really, “it gets a little confusing” is a statement that can be pretty much slotted into any place in any description of any Duran Duran video). The first time (okay, first few times) I watched this, I assumed Our Nick was babbling to himself, which also seemed to make a certain amount of sense. But no, he’s definitely talking to someone, someone who keeps tossing around one of the mime-juggler’s giant dice in a fingerless-gloved hand, and the video is taking pains to make sure we never see who it is.
At one point, Nick glances over his shoulder and spots Simon, who’s looking around the chamber with due caution.
Nick looks down at a stylized… map? drawing?, and grows visibly agitated.
Behind him, Simon becomes alarmed and starts backing up toward the doors. Alarmed at the sight of Nick? Of the map? Of whomever Nick’s chatting with? We’ll never know.
The loincloth-clad men start prowling toward Simon, who, led by one of the urchins, bolts for the exit. Nick rolls up the map and stuffs it inside the unseen man’s scepter, which also functions as a sort of poster tube. Unclear-yet-dramatic things start happening: A nearby candelabra has been extinguished, and flickering lights flash across Nick’s pretty face.
Simon and the urchin make it to the elevator.
The loincloth-clad men in the scaffolding keep leaping into each other’s arms while fighting—or, really, “fighting”—n this weird, stylized, balletic manner. You know one staple of 1980s music videos that really hasn’t stood the test of time? Dance-fighting. Big dance-fighting numbers are never a good idea, unless they involve a switchblade-wielding George Chakiris squaring off against Russ Tamblyn. Still, you used to see this sort of thing a lot in music videos—“Beat It” and “Love is a Battlefield” are the chief offenders, but “Union of the Snake” certainly stumbles into the trap, too. It was fine at the time. Almost thirty years on, it’s a little dorky.
Oh, look, there’s Andy. I have no idea what Andy’s role is in this video. Andy has no idea what his role is in this video. He’s just sort of… hanging out in the scaffolding. At one point, he whisks one of the white-robed urchins out of the way of the dance-fighting loincloth guys, so… that’s sort of a purpose, right? Andy, it must be said, looks like hell: sunglasses on, long hair greased back and winched into a tight ponytail. I don’t think it’s coincidence that in most shots he’s at least partially obscured by the scaffolding. It’s like he decided the best way to rebel against the sophisticated, glamorous, meticulously-groomed, luxuriously-coiffed Duran Duran image was to show up for the video shoot with really bad hair.
Sometimes I doubt Andy’s commitment to Sparkle Motion.
As Simon rises up in the elevator, he passes Mysterious Brunette #3, who wears a sexily tattered dress and poses with colorful birds. She writhes at him in a sexy and mysterious manner. This video might overdo it on the Mysterious Brunette front, actually.
And for some reason we don’t get to see, Simon can’t take the elevator all the way up to the surface. All of a sudden, he’s climbing up through a tangle of plastic exhaust tubes to freedom.
On the surface, Roger and John, who, thankfully, haven’t died of exposure or been eaten by the snake-man while they were out cold, load up the pickup truck with supplies. They see Simon wriggle out of the tubes and collapse in a heap.
While John sticks with the truck, Roger goes to lug Simon to safety. He’s interrupted by a series of pretty pink explosions coming from the underground lair.
Pink rocket trails light up the sky. Mysterious Brunette #1—that’s the one on the horse, remember—rides by.
Simon staggers to his feet and watches the explosions. He starts to stagger back in the direction of the underground lair, then collapses again.
A lot of people collapse for no particular reason in this video.
Daylight breaks. Simon regains consciousness. The scepter with the map hidden in it, which we last saw in Nick’s possession, is resting beside him. Roger and John have taken off in the pickup truck without him. I’d label them callous bastards, but Simon did leave them behind, unconscious and defenseless, when he went down the rabbit hole.
Mysterious Brunette #1 gallops up again and gives Simon a lift up onto her horse. They trot off together into the horizon.
Okay! That was the whole thing! It’s weird, right? Lots of unanswered questions, starting with “What did I just watch?” and ending with “What the heck was Andy’s problem, anyway?” Don’t get me wrong, I like the video, but it’s a mystery, a single lonely piece in a board game that got sold at a yard sale thirty years ago. And we’ll never know the solution.