This week’s pick is from the forgotten pages of colonial history which deals with the Italian colonization of Libya before WWII. Anthony Quinn stars as famed guerrilla leader Omar Mukhtar in Moustapha Akkad’s Lion of the Desert (1981) which was shot on location in Libya and was actually funded by Muammar-al-Gaddafi’s government. Other actors include Rod Steiger as Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, Oliver Reed as Governor Gen. Rodolfo Graziani, Raf Vallone (Col. Diodiece), and John Gielgud (Sharif El Gariani).
Lion of the Desert shows the audience the twenty year long war that had begun when Italy was trying to rebuild an empire across the shores of the Mediterranean ‘The Fourth Shore.’ Beginning in 1911, Italy poured men and materials into Libya in order to establish a colony in North Africa just as other European nations like the French in Algeria and the British in Egypt had. The local populations which was comprised of mostly desert tribesmen fought against the Italian invaders and conflict soon escalated.
Hoping that rebellion would be put down swiftly, the fighting in Libya proved disastrous for an army that was not prepared to fight a guerrilla war. When Mussolini and his Fascists came to power in 1922, the triumphant Caesar god proclaimed that Libya would belong to the Italians and that the glory of a new Roman Empire would be recognized in the world.
The film opens up with an old fashion news reel which shows the chaotic situations which were occurring in 1929. Rod Steiger (Mussolini) appoints a six Governor Gen. (Graziani) to Libya in hopes that his reputation for ruthless tactics will put an end to this costly war for the Italian nation. Once in a power of authority, Graziani implements plans for concentration camps, the killing of livestock, burning of crops, and other brutal tactics in order to break Mukhtar’s will and to cut off aid which was given to him by many Bedouin tribes across Libya.
Mukhtar was a teacher by trade, and a guerrilla fighter by obligation. He hates the war and that it has gone on for over twenty years. When he learns that Graziani has come to put an end to the rebellion once and for all, Mukhtar and his men fight even harder, as more men and new machines such as aircraft and tanks are deployed across the Libyan desert to destroy Mukhtar’s force of Bedouin freedom fighters. At first Graziani underestimates his foe and his forces suffer terribly at the hands of the Arab fighters who stage an elaborate ambush in the desert against an Italian force which decimated an entire peaceful village.
The scope of the film is wonderful and the costumes and weaponry are fantastic. Akkad stages epic battle scenes much like many of the scenes from Lawrence of Arabia. Quinn, Steiger, Reed, Vallone, and Gielgud are fantastic and add a significant presence to the film. Maurice Jarre’s musical score is sweeping as well as haunting in most cases, such as in the scene when thousands of Bedouins are being interned in the massive concentration camps in the desert. The film cuts to actual stock footage of the camps during the scene while the music is playing to show the audience the atrocities that were committed by the Italians while the world and the League of Nations looked on and did nothing.
The film was banned in Italy following its release in 1982 because the Italian government believed that the movie was “damaging to the Italian Army’s honour.” It would be nearly thirty years until the film was actually shown on Italian television. Akkad and crew spared no expense during the making of the film. Gaddafi himself granted that the cast and crew be made comfortable and welcomed in Libya and that full cooperation was granted to construct sets in the desert on actual battlefield locations. Akkad even hired Mussolini’s barber to shave Rod Steiger’s head to make it more authentic.
I have always respected the film and have loved the performances in the film especially Quinn and Reed who play two opposing forces who are committed to their causes. Quinn wants to see an end to the war and that the Italians will depart and allow the Libyans to take charge of their own affairs. Graziani and his officers care nothing for the plight of the Bedouin and hope to make Libya their strongest colony. The film is the perfect representation of post WWI and pre WWII colonial hegemony which led to the demise of European imperialism by the second decade of the twentieth century. WWI mostly ended European dominance over many sovereign nations, but it was still a common practice that died hard during the 1920 and 1930s with the rise of despots and tyrants throughout the world.
Lion of the Desert is available on DVD through Anchor Bay/Starz Home Entertainment and can be rented through Netflix.