Sep. 15, 2011
Lion of the Desert (1981)
Grade: 46/100

Director: Moustapha Akkad
Stars: Anthony Quinn, Oliver Reed, Rod Steiger

What it's about. A biopic of Omar Mukhtar, a man obscure in the West but the most venerated hero of Libya. It is circa 1930, and Italian dictator Mussolini (Rod Steiger) is unhappy about the costly occupation of Libya. He puts general Graziani (Oliver Reed) in charge of the campaign to end the guerilla warfare in the colony, led by elderly Muslim Mukhtar (Anthony Quinn). Famous actor John Gielgud has a tiny role as a Libyan traitor in the service of Italy.

Graziani intends to crush resistance at all cost. Libyan villages are destroyed, and Muslims are herded into internment camps, where many starve. The border with Egypt is sealed with strips of barbed wire, and tanks, planes, and poison gas are used against the guerillas.

Mukhtar continues to fight, though his forces are dwindling. Despite thrilling victories (this is a propaganda movie) against the Italians, Mukhtar is eventually captured, convicted in a puppet trial, and executed. Such is history: might equals right, and resistance is usually futile.

How others will see it. Lion of the Desert is notorious for several reasons. It was a bomb nearly on the scale of Heaven's Gate, but this time Hollywood was unharmed, since the financing came from Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi. Thus, the movie was deemed anti-West propaganda, and despite its aging A-list stars, was generally ignored by its target audiences in England and America.

Decades later, however, revisionist thinking has beset the epic failure. At, the user ratings are remarkably high at 7.8 out of 10. There is a decline with age, from 8.6 under 30 to 7.2 over 45. My belief is that the theme of injustice is embraced by the young, but older audiences are more cautious. There are ways to fight an occupation without having much of your population exterminated.

A moderate gender gap also exists, 7.9 for men versus 7.3 for women. Men likely have greater appreciation for the war scenes and the "power" conversations involving Steiger and Reed.

How I felt about it. I don't believe that the film can be discounted simply because Gadaffi funded it. Movies should be judged by their own merits, just as dictators should be judged by their actions. Propaganda films can be outstanding. For example, Casablanca is anti-Nazi, yet is widely considered among the greatest movies ever.

It is also true that the Middle East has a history that deserves greater Western consideration. What Italy did to Libya was nearly as great a war crime as what Germany did to the Jews. The scale was smaller and less thorough, but it was genocide nonetheless. And the West could not care less, then or now, just as the massacres between Tutsis and Hutus were ignored aside from such minor cultural blips as Hotel Rwanda.

But Lion of the Desert has its problems, big and small. I understand why Mukhtar is a national hero, even though his resistance was disastrous for Libya. The film implies that fighting continued after his death, but the truth is that Libya remained an Italian colony until after World War II. In fact, tens of thousands of Libyan troops fought for Italy during that war.

So, perhaps, Gielgud's cagey Arab character was right, after all, and Mukhtar was wrong. When faced with overwhelming force, it is better to negotiate terms of surrender rather than get ground into dust.

The small problems involve propaganda aspects. For example, a few Italian officers are given "Good German" roles, that is, they exist to show that Italians aren't bad people, only their fascist government is. But racism and a hard government don't produce many "Good German" officers. Sorry.