LION OF THE DESERT

Director: Moustapha Akkad
Year: 1981
Country: Libya

Film production in Libya has historically been very rare, despite the prodigious output of its neighbour Egypt. A few small scale documentaries and shorts have emerged in the years since the 2011 civil war, but in terms of fully fledged Libyan feature films, there is only one real option: 1981’s Lion of the Desert.

The film is a biopic of the iconic Libyan revolutionary Omar Mukhtar, who lead a twenty year campaign against Colonial Italian forces between 1911 and 1931 in a determined fight for Libyan independence. Grand in scale and packed with spectacular battle scenes, Lion of the Desert stretches across an enormous three hour runtime and rivals the great Hollywood desert epics like Lawrence of Arabia and Ben-Hur.

The film follows Mukhtar through the last years of his life, still leading a band of plucky Libyan rebels against the Italian armed forces well past the age of seventy. It begins in 1929, when Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (played with gusto by Rod Steiger as the film’s snarling, menacing villain) appoints a new governor to finally eradicate Mukhtar’s rebels and discredit their cause once and for all. The governor, Rodolfo Graziani, proves to be a dangerous and formidable enemy, and Mukhtar is forced to use every scrap of cunning to overcome the Italians’ superior numbers and equipment. Mukhtar’s eventual capture and execution forms the emotional climax of the film, as he chooses death over surrender.

Screenshot (311)
Mukhtar (left) lays out a battle plan.

But the adventure and spectacle come with strings attached. Much like my previous entry, North Korea’s PulgasariLion of the Desert was funded almost entirely by an infamous dictator. In this case, it was Colonel Muammar Gaddafi who commissioned, produced, and bankrolled the vast project. Oddly, Gaddafi chose non-Libyan actors for most of the film’s speaking roles – most notably the screen legend Anthony Quinn as Omar Mukhtar himself. It has been speculated that the dictator hoped such famous faces would help the film succeed overseas. If so, he was unsuccessful, since Lion of the Desert never became the international sensation Gaddafi obviously hoped it would.

Much like Pulgasari, Lion of the Desert is a testament to the epic and bloated scale that a film can reach when it is backed with the financial and logistical support of an entire government. Filmed on location in the Libyan desert, the battle scenes showcase hundreds of extras, scores of vehicles, and massive co-ordinated movements that put even the highest-budgeted Hollywood war movies to shame. Mukhtar and Graziani’s historical clashes in Libya were the first time that tanks had ever been used in the desert, and it’s awe-inspiring to see them advancing in formation across the sand.

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Graziani’s troops cross the desert.

Often considered the father of modern Libya, Omar Mukhtar has been used as a symbolic figurehead by many different factions – including both Gaddafi and, paradoxically, the rebels who fought against him in 2011. I don’t know enough about the real Mukhtar to gauge the film’s authenticity, but the character as he is presented in Lion of the Desert is a deeply compelling one. Mukhtar is complex and divisive, renowned among his countrymen and enemies alike for committing himself to a war which he knows could not possibly be won in his own lifetime. A devout Muslim, he preaches peace and mercy whenever possible and fights only whenever necessary to protect his homeland. Quinn’s performance strives to embody this compassion, wisdom, and sheer determination. In one scene, he refuses to execute a captured Italian soldier, instead gifting him an Italian flag and freeing him. A man of great depths and internal conflict, he is a fascinating presence on-screen. I cannot help but wonder, though, whether a man with such a strong sense of national identity wouldn’t have preferred to be depicted on-screen by a Libyan.

Screenshot (308)
Mukhtar chooses death over surrender, becoming a martyr for the cause of Libyan independence.

Its value as a propaganda piece is evident in nearly every scene, as Mukhtar and his Libyan revolutionaries resist the foreign invaders in a massive display of patriotism and brotherhood. The snarling, menacing Mussolini makes a delightfully wicked villain. And the grandeur and harsh beauty of the Libyan desert landscapes gives the story a mythic quality that makes the film feel like a universal tale of good versus evil. But, like in Pulgasari, there is genuinely entertaining and impressive storytelling here, for those who can look past the film’s behind-the-scenes ties to real world dictatorship.

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