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Lion of the Desert

Movie and history often make recalcitrant, coldfooted bedfellows - famously, the former compulsively exploits and reshapes the latter for its own purposes, while history plows on obliviously. But not always - sometimes, there is reciprocity, and sometimes history sheds light on films in ways we had no knowledge of at the time of their release. Sometimes, new history provides an old film with fresh context, as it is this year in Libya, where a battle for citizen-fueled independence still rages on against a universally despised psycho-autocrat, forcing into our headlines and nightly news the plight of a "Third World" people we, as Westerners, have given precious little thought to for decades running. We forgot as well that in 1981 there was an internationally released epic film titled Lion of the Desert (1981), one of the very few films centered on Libyan history, in this case a saga of insurrection against oppressive occupying powers, circa 1931. That was when Italy, under Mussolini, devoted a massive military surge to finally, after 20 years of fighting, defeat the native Bedouin guerrillas as led by aging Muslim cleric Omar Mukhtar.

When they say that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, it seems clear that the first "man" in that equation is the man with power to lose. But, even if we were to play the "fair and balanced" game of realpolitik, who can't get behind the indigenous resistance fighters going up against European colonialism? And Fascist colonialism at that - in Moustapha Akkad's big-budgeted film, guest star Rod Steiger blusters and fumes his way through the vast Euro-palaces as Il Duce, providing us with far less ambivalence than there was in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962) about the potential beneficence of the Europeans in relation to prewar Arab peoples. Here, the Europeans may well all be Nazis, as indeed the Italians were close to being in the '30s, despite the general amnesia today about that country's participation in Axis atrocities. Certainly, in Libya and the rest of the Mideast, this is an uncontroversial portrayal, just as Mukhtar himself, who was hanged by the Italians in 1931, is beloved as a national icon, adorns Libyan money today, has been touted by Muammar Qaddafi as a mentor, and reappeared, with a new urgency, on protest banners and flags of 2011.

Akkad, a Syrian dabbler who became rich by way of a stake as executive producer of every single one of John Carpenter's Halloween movies, only directed a few films, all of them anthems for Arab sovereignty (including the troublemaking 1977 epic Mohammad: Messenger of God, which tried to slalom around Islamic proscriptions about depicting the prophet's likeness by making the camera Mohammad and the film his P.O.V.). Here, he takes Mukhtar's 50-year-old legendary struggle against the Italian army in the desert of Libya as a paradigm for Arab struggle everywhere - which in the late-'70s-early'80s meant resisting the neo-colonial role of Israel, as it occupied Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian lands won in 1967, and continued its subjugation of the Palestinian people.

Mukhtar's crusade, doomed as it was, could stand in for any number of insurrectionary struggles since, from Central America to Indonesia to Iraq, and that's probably the best way to see Akkad's film - as a political action, a call to arms. (A common and evergreen refrain is heard: that the colonial power is not fighting an individual rabble-rouser, but "a population!") Of course, the film is overlong and self-important - characteristics that are practically staples of the genre. Akkad is no Lean, despite his film's truly massive scope (scenes of the Italian-installed concentration camps and visions of troops going into battle recede for miles into the distance, back in the day before the invention of digitally-generated crowds), and despite the use of both Lean's composer Maurice Jarre and the cinematographer of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Jack Hildyard. But, it should be said, neither was Richard Attenborough (whose Gandhi [1982] came out the following year), and Akkad's patient, angry film is not the lumberer that critics marked it as in 1981. It is righteous, straight-forward and passionate, with Anthony Quinn, as Mukhtar, delivering his quietest, subtlest performance in decades. Oliver Reed, as arch-nemesis Gen. Rodolfo Graziani, is also quiet, in his melodramatic-muttering way, but manages to overact as pungently as any superhero-movie villain.

There's also the film's sense of authentic reality to recommend it - shooting in Libya, Akkad captures the landscape vividly, especially the southern deserts, so endless and uniform that you search in vain for perspective cues. (That is, unless they are covered with hordes of weird, small Italian tanks, rampaging along in tracking shots that suggest sequences left out of The Road Warrior, 1981.) You can't say Akkad didn't get his budget up on the screen, or that he didn't pay scrupulous attention to real Libyan history, which is certainly something in which Western audiences aren't fluent, whether the director knew it or not. (Having worked in Hollywood, he probably knew all too well.) There's every reason to believe Libyans and other Arabs loved Lion of the Desert as thoroughly as Americans did not; this is not really a Hollywood film, after all, but an international production with a distinctively Arab memory, intended for Arab eyes. It couldn't have mattered very much that the stars are not Arab (even John Gielgud shows up as an old Bedouin) - most of the Italians are also Englishmen, and besides, the frame is filled, relentlessly, with real Libyans, cast by the thousands as themselves.

Producer: Moustapha Akkad
Director: Moustapha Akkad
Screenplay: H.A.L. Craig; Paul Thompson, David Butler (additional material)
Cinematography: Jack Hildyard
Art Direction: Bob Bell, Maurice Cain, Giorgio Desideri
Music: Maurice Jarre
Film Editing: John Shirley
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).
C-163m.

by Michael Atkinson

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