Lion of the Desert
By Mike Derderian
Omar Al Mukhtar was a legendry Libyan freedom fighter, whose story was immortalized thanks to Moustapha Akkad’s 1981 Lion of the Desert. Set between the years 1911-1931 Akkad places us in the middle of an unbalanced warfare during which a country and people suffer the atrocities of colonization.
Like many power-thirsty men before him, Benito Mussolini, Il Duce, tried to secure Italy a colony and restore the old glories of Ancient Rome.
When Mukhtar learned that Mussolini assigned General Rodolfo Graziani, the butcher of Fez, as the governor of Libya as the attempts of other governors to suppress Libyan insurgencies failed, he knew war was inevitable.
“They come to us like lions,” Mukhtar, smirking, announced before a fellow tribesman added: “And run away like goats.” But history sadly claims otherwise; for the goats eventually won and Mukhtar was hung after a mock trial.
Lion of the Desert stars Oliver Reed, Rod Steiger, Irene Papas, John Gielgud, Takis Emmanuel, Eleonora Stathopoulou, Rodolfo Bigotti, Ihab Werfali and Anthony Quinn, as Omar Mukhtar, who was 72-years old at the time of his capture.
Anyone watching the film will be stunned after noticing Quinn’s uncanny resemblance to Mukhtar, when a real photo of the resistance leader was placed next to Quinn’s at the end of the movie.
On a personal level I found Akkad’s movie a classic that radiantly shined among the many mediocrities that were produced and are still being produced nowadays under the banner of the Seventh Art. It might have been dubbed a box office failure in the Western world but in this region it has a sort of cult following.
It is philosophical but not flashy for Mukhtar has his flows as any human—in one point of the film he decides that Kufra, a desert village, cannot be defended because it would be suicidal to confront the well-equipped Italian army.
He is to die sooner or later but how and when it is up to God, but defending Kufra is not a choice he would take knowing the consequences. The village was almost obliterated and one of Mukhtar’s colleagues Bu Matari (Takis Emmanuel) decided to go back and defend his hometown and family.
Anthony Quinn’s acting was more than brilliant for he managed to transmit Mukhtar’s patriotism, inner struggles, wisdom and strength. Quinn was also able to capture his intellectual superiority and insight as was evident during his meeting with Graziani (Reed), who as a conqueror lacked the ability to perceive and understand the power of the old man’s words.
Up until this moment in time no one was able to capture Akkad’s affinity and ability to produce extravagant cinematic works supported by brilliant acting moguls the likes of Gielgud, Steiger, who was impressive as Mussolini and Raf Vallone, whose memorable portrayal of the compassionate officer Diodiece proved that there were some Italians, who opposed what was happening in Libya and this is exactly what Akkad, who was renowned for his moderation wanted.
It would be interesting to note that back in 1978 both Vallone and Quinn appeared as brothers in The Greek Tycoon, which is in a very bizarre way the Jackie Kennedy-Onassis story with different names.
But like The Message this movie was no less in delivering its message through its philosophical and revolutionary sub-content, and the power of the images it deployed in depicting the cruelty, vengefulness and the bloodthirsty nature of the fascist regime.
“We will never surrender, we win or we die. You will have the next generation to fight and the next, and the next. As for me I will live longer than my hangman,” Mukthar’s mild voice ripples through the hoards of people streaming across the final scene.
Must-see-scenes: The rebel’s assault on Tomelli’s task force; the Roman execution-punishment system as upheld by the Italian officers; Ali (Ihab Werfali), the little boy, who picks up Mukhtar’s spectacles promising the rise of a new generation of intellectuals and freedom fighters.