This epic portrait of resistance hero Omar Mukhtar – the titular “Lion of the Desert” – was funded by Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi who had plenty of money to spend, so he could afford Anthony Quinn to play the interwar Libyan rebel hero, along with Rod Steiger as Benito Mussolini, Oliver Reed as Rodolfo Graziani and John Gielgud as Sharif al-Ghariyani.
In 1929, Benito Mussolini (Steiger) decides to crush the Libyan rebellion and sends Rodolfo Graziani (Reed) to take over the governorship.
Against Italian tanks and aeroplanes, Omar Mukhtar (Quinn) and his guerilla fighters numbering between 1,000 and 3,000 – mounted on horseback and for the most part lightly armed – trounce Mussolini’s armed forces almost on a daily basis, fighting more than 250 skirmishes and engagements in a year.
Graziani realises that he cannot defeat Omar Mukhtar with conventional methods. “I propose to concentrate the Bedouin,” he says. “Put them behind wire in camps and keep them there until we find it prudent or safe to release them.”
The film’s depiction of the policy itself is accurate. In 1930, up to 100,000 Bedouin men, women and children – about half the tribal population of Cyrenaica at the time – were herded into desert camps. The official Italian statistics are unreliable. Even so, it is plain that by 1933 only between one-third and half of the people in the camps had survived.
Gaddafi’s money certainly bought the filmmakers some impressive battle scenes – filmed, of course, in real Libyan locations – and Gaddafi loaned the production 5,000 Libyan military personnel to portray Bedouin fighters and Italian soldiers.
An entire makeshift village was created in the middle of the desert about six hundred miles from Bengazi to house the production.
Omar Mukhtar is eventually brought down when his horse is shot. He is captured and taken to Benghazi where, in the movie’s best scene, Graziani interviews him.
Quinn conveys Omar Mukhtar’s steadfastness and dignity while Reed somehow captures the tone of the real Graziani’s 1932 memoir Cirenaica Pacificata, which reveals that the Italian commander was almost jealous of his Arab foe’s strategic brilliance, his moral purity and even his martyrdom.
Lion of the Desert nearly makes Graziani too sympathetic as he is shown graciously returning Omar Mukhtar’s spectacles, which were stolen in a previous battle.
Twenty thousand concentration camp inmates and Cyrenaican notables were forced to watch Omar Mukhtar’s death. The film attempts to provoke an emotional response by focusing on a small boy in the crowd, implying that he is the next generation of Libyan rebel.
The film is half an hour too long and a little hammy in places, but historically it’s bang on cue. Sadly, it failed at the box office, taking about $1.5 million against Gaddafi’s $35 million investment.
Gen. Rodolfo Graziani
Sharif El Gariani
Sky du Mont