Lion of the Desert
Libya - U.S.A. - U.K. / 1981
Directed by Moustapha Akkad
Anthony Quinn
Oliver Reed
Rod Steiger
Color / 173 Min. / PG
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC / 2-disc set)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
    6   10 = Highest Rating  
It's sadly ironic that Moustapha Akkad, the Syrian-born filmmaker whose cherished goal was to bring historical figures of Islam to worldwide audiences, would ultimately die at the hands of Muslim extremists. Only a few days ago (as of this writing) Akkad succumbed to wounds he received in the November 10 terrorist attack on the Radisson Hotel in Amman, Jordan. Ironically for me, I had literally just finished watching his 1981 epic Lion of the Desert when I learned of his death.
    Best known as the producer of Halloween and the long-running franchise spawned by its tremendous success, Akkad also directed three films during his career, of which
Lion of the Desert was the last. The $35 Million production generated controversy because most of the financing came from Libyan strongman Muammar Khaddafi — who fortunately had no 'creative' input on the project despite his substantial investment — and for its less-than-flattering portrayal of the Italian military. (According to the IMDB it remains banned in Italy to this day, for "defamation.") The nearly three-hour film was a massive box-office bomb. That Akkad populated his principal cast with known Western actors and shot it in English in the style of a conventional Hollywood epic didn't make a lick of difference to audiences at the time, for whom historical spectacles had become passé.
    The script, written by Irishman H.A.L. Craig (Airport 77), is certainly not a polemic against non-Muslims. Lion's protagonist, guerrilla leader Omar Mukhtar (Anthony Quinn), is shown deriving strength and wisdom from the Koran, yet the film sagely concentrates on the universality of its story, that of freedom fighters resisting foreign invasion and exploitation... In modern-day pitch jargon it'd be called Braveheart of North Africa. It's a handsomely mounted throwback to the likes of Lawrence of Arabia and Khartoum (only this time with an Muslim hero), which does not deserve its near-total obscurity.
Lion of the Desert opens with a newsreel-style prologue giving us a thumbnail sketch of Italy's seizure of Libya from the Turks prior to World War I and the subsequent colonization of that North African nation. A low-level insurgency among Bedouin tribesmen has been a thorn in Italy's side ever since assuming control. With the rise to power of Mussolini greater emphasis is placed on crushing the rebels once and for all, but success proves as illusory as the dictator's dream of a new Roman Empire. Tougher measures are needed, along with the right man to carry them out.
    Mussolini (Rod Steiger) has that man in General Rudolfo Graziani (Oliver Reed), an experienced field commander and staunch supporter of the fascist regime. Appointed military governor in 1929, the general arrives in Libya to plan his strategy. His predecessors, Graziani feels, were too soft on the natives. The rebels must be cut off from their support, pinned down and then annihilated. He orders a ruthless campaign of punitive reprisal against villages aiding the insurgents: civilians are executed, crops destroyed, dwellings burnt, precious wells filled in with cement. Yet the tempo of rebel attacks only increases. In retaliation Graziani has the entire Bedouin population rounded up and herded into concentration camps; a massive barrier of barbed wire is constructed along the border with Egypt, from where the rebels receive supplies of arms and ammunition. Reinforced with tanks and additional troops from Italy, Graziani launches a two-stage offensive to first drive the rebels into the southern mountains, trapping them far from the colonized areas along the Mediterranean coast, then ultimately crush them there. All the implements of mechanized war — to include aircraft and poison gas — will be used in this pre-WW2 desert blitzkrieg.
    Against the might of a modern European army stands Omar Mukhtar and his small force of mounted guerrillas. They may be poorly equipped and totally lacking in heavy weapons but Mukhtar, a master of the ambush, makes the enemy pay dearly in blood and treasure. A teacher by profession, the now elderly Mukhtar has been fighting the Italians for two decades and his will to resist remains undaunted. In all those years of conflict, however, he has never faced an opponent as skilled, relentless and utterly ruthless as Graziani "the Butcher"...
    Briskly paced for a nearly three-hour movie, Lion of the Desert will engage and entertain any action movie fan who's also a military history buff. (A small niche audience perhaps, but I'm a member.) Think Lawrence of Arabia, just an hour shorter in length and with more battle scenes and less talking. While the 'freedom fighters take on impossible odds' formula comes with its own set of seemingly unavoidable clichιs, Lion's setting — Italy's inter-world war colonial conflicts — is extremely rare for an historical film. (Actually, this is the only such flick I'm aware of.) Great attention and expense was paid to getting the details of 1930s weapons, vehicles and uniforms as accurate as possible. Producer Akkad strove to put every penny up on the screen and handily succeeded. With his director's hat on he's somewhat less successful, content to helm the picture in the style of Hollywood spectacles of the 1950s and '60s; his approach is completely conventional and old fashioned, though this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Quinn (Zorba the Greek) and Reed (Curse of the Werewolf) make for well-matched adversaries whose single scene together, near the end, nicely underscores the reasons why each man fights for his respective cause. Lion deserves a small amount of credit, too, for resisting the urge to paint things in stark black and white terms — a trap very easy to fall into with stories like this, fact-based or not. Not all the Italians are depicted as brutal oppressors, as exemplified by the colonel (Raf Vallone) who works for an honorable settlement and despairs at Graziani's iron-fisted policies. Nor are the Muslims all virtuous fighters for freedom; Sir John Geilgud cameos as a sheik and former friend of Mukhtar's who is quite content to submit to Mussolini in exchange for gold.

Originally released on DVD by Anchor Bay in 1998, at the dawn of the format, Lion of the Desert was reissued by the company this month as a two-disc set. Disc 1 contains the uncut 173-minute* version of the film with an optional audio commentary by Akkad and a making-of documentary. The second disc is exactly the same except that the film, featurette and commentary are in Arabic. Given the times we live in this is a highly unusual move on Anchor Bay's part; I extend kudos to AB for making Lion as culture-friendly as possible to Arab-Americans and their counterparts in Canada. The film itself is presented in 1.77:1 AR (apparently cropped) and enhanced for 16x9 TVs. A grainy sheen is present throughout the picture, looking its worst in the opening minutes, but otherwise the transfer is blemish-free with strong, solid colors. The main audio track is in basic Dolby stereo, which does a fine enough job with sound effects and Maurice Jarre's majestic score, but unfortunately some passages of dialog — notably by Reed, who plays Graziani as a soft-spoken man — are simply too weak in the mix. (I strongly advise cranking up the volume whenever Reed appears in a scene set indoors.) Although I don't understand Arabic, I sampled chapters from the film on Disc 2 and was surprised at the quality of the Arab voice actors and how good the dubbing looks — nobody's still talking even though their lips aren't moving, as is the case in Asian movies dubbed into English. Dialog audio levels are higher and clearer-sounding in the Arabic version, too... Not that this did me much good, as English subs are not provided.
    The 32-minute featurette is a somewhat worn-looking promotional piece put together during the film's production. It's completely uncritical, of course, but still provides some interesting behind-the-scenes glimpses into the staggering logistical feat of shooting such a large-scale movie in the African desert. Much the same ground is covered in Akkad's audio commentary (delivered in Arabic on Disc 2), which suffers from some rather lengthy gaps. (To be fair to the man, it's a long film for which he had to record two separate tracks.) A few anecdotes concerning the cast are offered, though: Quinn greatly enjoyed living among the Bedouin for a month prior to the start of shooting; minders were hired to keep Reed — who did not get along with Steiger (and vice versa) — from drinking. 11/15/05
* A typo on the packaging lists the running time as only 93 minutes!