Like its sister release, The Message (1976), Anchor Bay's Lion of the Desert - 25th Anniversary Edition (1981) is a fascinating look inside a facet of Arab culture profoundly significant yet virtually unknown outside North Africa and the Arab world. Produced and directed by the late Moustapha Akkad, the film was notorious for reportedly losing most of its $35 million investment, and especially for having been partly bankrolled by none other than Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Of course, neither of these facts have much to do with the quality of the picture, which is somewhat disjointed and flawed, but overall quite engrossing, an epic with much to recommend it.
The film traces the campaign of Libyan freedom fighter Omar Mukhtar (Anthony Quinn), who for 20 years beginning in 1911 waged a hard-fought guerilla war against Libya's Italian occupiers, with Mukhtar's greatly outnumbered rebels on horseback successfully fending off Italy's modern tanks, better-equipped infantry, and poison gas. The film mainly contrasts the hard-line strategies favored by Major General Rodolfo Graziani (Oliver Reed), who was appointed governor of the colony by Benito Mussolini (Rod Steiger) in 1921, with those of scholarly humanist Mukhtar. (However, Mukhtar does not "[defend] Libya against Benito Mussolini and Italy's attempted conquests during World War II," as reported by Jeff Shannon in his embarrassing review for Amazon's website. Mukhtar was executed in 1931.)
Lion of the Desert - actually, its onscreen title is Omar Mukhtar - Lion of the Desert - stars out a bit sluggishly, partly to offer Steiger a guest role as Il Duce. Steiger reportedly had his head shaved by Mussolini's old barber, but doesn't have much of a handle on the character. Worse, from the poor sound during these scenes it appears as if Steiger refused to loop any of his dialogue during postproduction. The film has impressive, fully directional Dolby Stereo sound, but Steiger's dialogue, recorded in cavernous, palatial war rooms, is full of echo and at times hard to make out.
At 2 hours, 53 minutes, Lion of the Desert is long-winded without offering much insight into either Mukhtar or Graziani, and the first hour or so is generally uninvolving despite some nice vignettes. Eventually though, the film works like a fascinating history lesson, about a struggle generally not very well known outside North Africa and Italy, and this by itself is pretty compelling, particularly in the very dark second half, when thousands upon thousands of Libyans are rounded up and put in Nazi-style concentration camps.
Quinn's Mukhtar makes an interesting contrast to his larger-than-life Arabs in Lawrence of Arabia and The Message. His approach to the character is low-key and thoughtful, patient and methodical, contrasting his often hot-headed and sadistic conquerors, which burn their crops, seal their wells, and torture and rape their women. (Unsurprisingly, the film was and perhaps still is banned in Italy.)
The singularly British Oliver Reed is impressively believable as an Italian general, adopting an intimating, quiet authority uncannily like actor Raf Vallone. Oddly enough, Vallone himself is in the picture, as Diodiece, a career military man with a lot more respect for Mukhtar's bravery than Graziani is for a long time willing to give. Besides Quinn, Irene Papas and Robert Brown return from The Message, joined by a fine supporting cast that includes John Gielgud (very good as Mukhtar's childhood friend, who betrays him and allies with Graziani) and Andrew Keir. On the technical side, screenwriter H.A.L. Craig, composer Maurice Jarre, DP Jack Hildyard and others worked on both pictures.
The film may have been expensive, but the money's there up on the screen. The battle scenes are on a spectacularly extravagant scale, with some shots appearing to use several thousand costumed extras. The battle scenes are exceptionally well done, partly because director Akkad makes certain his audience understands the military strategies each side is using, resulting in several surprising battles with big payoffs.
Somehow the film got away with a PG rating, also a surprise considering the level of violence, both on the battlefield and behind the barbed wire at the massive concentration camp. The film offers a nicely conceived montage introducing the camp, impressively photographed by Hildyard and scored by Jarre. Animal lovers be warned, however: Mukhtar's horses take quite a beating, with falls that would seem to violate current Hollywood standards.
Video & Audio
As with The Message, Omar Mukhtar - Lion of the Desert is presented in a 16:9 enhanced transfer that unfortunately crops the side of the 2.35:1 Panavision image to 1.77:1. This doesn't seem to too much damage, as was the case for countless CinemaScope movies 4:3'd for television broadcast beginning in the 1960s. Beyond that, the image is reasonably sharp with good color and good grain. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, derived from original 4-track magnetic recordings, actually quite impressive. There is no subtitle or alternate audio options.
The main supplement is a 31-minute, 1981 documentary, The Making of "Lion of the Desert", which includes interviews with Akkad, Hildyard, Editor John Shirley, and stars Quinn, Reed, and Steiger. The show is 4:3 but presented in 16:9 anamorphic, and is badly converted from PAL.
Director Moustapha Akkad provides two Audio Commentary tracks, one in English, the other in Arabic on the second disc that comes with the film. In light of his recent murder in a Jordan terrorist attack, we can be thankful that his comments on this and The Message have been preserved.
That second disc also contains the Arabic version of the film. Quite unlike The Message, which shot two versions simultaneously with separate casts, the second disc of Lion of the Desert is simply the same picture dubbed into Arabic, including the Italian sequences. And like the second DVD of The Message, it's not subtitled into English and thus is of no value, except to Arab speakers, that is.
Lion of the Desert is a Spartacus-style, David vs. Goliath tale that deserves more respect than it has to date. It's not a great film, but by the end it becomes a compelling one.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.