Lion of the Desert (1980)


(director: Moustapha Akkad; screenwriters: H.A.L. Craig/Paul Thompson/David Butler; cinematographer: Jack Hildyard; editor: John Shirley; music: Maurice Jarre; cast: Anthony Quinn (Omar Mukhtar), Oliver Reed (Gen. Rodolfo Graziani), Irene Papas (Mabrouka), Raf Vallone (Colonel Diodiece), Rod Steiger (Benito Mussolini), John Gielgud (Sharif El Gariani), Andrew Keir (Salem), Gastone Moschin (Major Tomelli), Stefano Patrizi (Lt. Sandrini), Adolfo Lastretti (Colonel Sarsani); Runtime: 164; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Moustapha Akkad; Anchor Bay Entertainment; 1981-Libya/UK)
It’s one of the best anti-colonial Hollywood film ever (almost on a par with the Battle of Algiers).”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Epic action pic based on history. It tells of Libyan Bedouin freedom fighter Omar Mukhtar (Anthony Quinn), who fought the Italian invaders occupying his country in a David and Goliath battle, from 1911 to 1931. After fighting for twenty years, in 1931, the wily 73-year-old Omar, a Koran scholar, the title character, was captured and hanged by the ruthless egomaniacal fascist, looking for glory and a place in the history books, Gen. Rodolfo Graziani (Oliver Reed). The brilliant general was sent in 1929 by Benito Mussolini (Rod Steiger) to further his expansionist aims (Italy also colonized Somalia and Ethiopia) by ending the ongoing Libyan rebellion with massive troop support, tanks and financial support to run a barbed-wire fence between Libya and Egypt in order to cut off supplies and to isolate the rebels holed-up in the mountains. The Italian atrocities included the butchering of women and children, causing displaced people to be imprisoned in concentration camps (no gas ovens here), burning the fields of farmers, poisoning wells, destroying the food supply and subjecting the Libyans to be second class citizens in their own country.

Director and producer Moustapha Akkad (“The Message”), a Hollywood filmmaker of Syrian birth and a Muslim, keeps things historically accurate, makes it a rip-snorting war story, gets to tell the truth about Islam and gets a superb performance from Anthony Quinn, perhaps his best ever, as the gentle Islamic Bedouin warrior who is a brilliant tactician resisting the occupation by using guerrilla warfare. Omar says throughout that no nation has the right to occupy another and that his people will never surrender: we will either win or die (which proved to be prophetic, since Omar’s death did not end the struggle). It’s one of the best anti-colonial Hollywood film ever (almost on a par with the Battle of Algiers) and one of the few Hollywood films where the viewer freely roots for the Arabs, because their cause is just and they fight bravely against a depraved enemy.

Unfortunately because Muammar Qaddafi‘s regime in Libya bankrolled the film, that seemed to taint it and it was poorly distributed and flopped at the box office. That’s too bad, especially since the Libyans did nothing to alter the film. Also controversial is that Akkad takes Mukhtar’s legendary struggle against the Italian army in the desert of Libya as a model for the Arab struggle everywhere – which is arguable, as it questions Israel and their occupation of Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian lands won in the 1967 war where the Palestinians still live under Israeli rule in those territories. For many the Palestinian situation is a different story because not every occupation is the same. Though, in recent history, America might have learned that occupying Iraq, even to free them of an unpopular dictator, is also not welcomed by all–because it seems no one wants to be under the rule of another country.

The film’s realpolitik Arab theme and the stunning visuals (filmed in Rome and Libya) should remind one of Lawrence of Arabia.