Sunday, January 6, 2008

LION OF THE DESERT- a DVD backgrounder

LION OF THE DESERT,  2-Disc DVD set This 1981 bio-pic pits the "lion," famed Senussi guerrilla leader Omar Mukhtar against the Italian bull, 6' 4" tall General Rodolfo Graziani.

The vast majority of war movies produced in the 20th Century focus on less than a dozen wars, and the result is a distortion of the past. Very few African wars, for example, have been filmed. Niche films, those which tell a good story while offering glimpses of limited conflicts, are particularly scarce. I missed out on adding a good one, LION OF THE DESERT, to my DVD collection when it was released in 1998, and the primary DVD sellers in my area - Futureshop, HMV and Best Buy, have never stocked it. All the more reason to pounce when the 2-Disc Special Edition turned up in a post-Christmas sale bin at Walmart. It's a fact of life that some of the most elusive titles turn up in delete bins, which is why I stay alert for them.

The director/producer, Moustapha Akkad, a Syrian-American who is most most famous for making the eight HALLOWEEN horror movies, went to great lengths and expense to build detailed sets and replicate military equipment, which I found a real joy. Enthused, I did a little post-viewing research in order to check the facts behind this film treatment. (It's an old habit.) The film's researcher is said to be one "Michael Starkey" and I tried to determine if he was an historian. He could not be found so perhaps the name was just a pseudonym.

Make no mistake, this is a propaganda movie intended to showcase a Muslim "martyr" hanged by Italian fascism. Most of the $35 million dollars in production costs (filming started in 1979) was Libyan oil money. Specifically it came from strongman Muammar Gaddafi , the dictator who still holds power nearly 30 years later. Gaddafi had earlier bankrolled Akkad's film THE MESSAGE, which also starred Anthony Quinn.

Islamic polemics aside, LION is still a fabulous movie with plenty of action, Hollywood style stunts, and three engaging lead characters. Oliver Reed is masterful as General Rodolfo Graziani and Rod Steiger did a superlative job portraying Mussolini. Anthony Quinn stars as Omar Mukhtar, a guerrilla fighter of more than twenty years experience, whom we are told was a teacher before he took up the gun. Quinn played him as a reticent wise-man type, and here the screenplay is at fault, not the actor. Still the Muslim world went gagga for this movie (as Gaddafi intended) and most Muslim websites today use a still photo of actor Quinn playing Omar Mukhtar, rather than a photo of the real man. (He's on Wiki)

Omar Mukhtar, age 73, in shackles outside Italian courthouse in 1931. Note the man in the white shoes. He too appears in the movie, below.

This is a movie and not a history video, but the director was very clever in his use of old Italian newsreel footage, which goes a long way toward convincing us to accept the major premises of the story. Still, in most of the battle scenes the Italian troops are a bit too inept for my taste. At least three times we witness armoured columns totally annihilated by Mukhtar's horsemen, but most problematic is the telescoping of events to make it appear that Graziani was outwitted endlessly. The Fascist officer, already with a long service in Libya, was promoted General of Division and appointed Vice Governor of Cyrenaica (province) in 1930. Many other officers had failed to quash tribal resistance and Graziani assumed his new duties with a frenzy. Within a year he had taken the Senussi "capital", Kufra (Feb. 20, 1931) and scooped up Mukhtar (Sept. 12, 1931).

You don't have to know the history of Libya or more specifically Cyrenaica, to enjoy the film, but it does help one sort through the premises we are being exposed to. During World War I the Senussi were our enemy. The Germans supplied them with several shiploads of arms and the Ottoman Turks trained hundreds of tribesmen to infiltrate into Egypt and report back on Allied troop movements and fortifications. The R.F.C. bombed the Senussi and the Brits raided their villages. The Italians hanged Mukhtar in 1931 but the Senussi spiritual leader escaped into British controlled Egypt and was given sanctuary. More, the British gave arms to his militia, the so-called "Free Libya Force", which had a tiny role in the North Africa Campaign in WW2.

Most egregious is the extended scene which has the Italians defeating the Muslims before Kufra by resorting to the use of mustard gas released from pressurized tanks, in violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol on war gases. (Mussolini authorized use of gas in 1929.) Aircraft had dropped mustard bombs on at least two missions, but they were not operations conducted by Graziani. The general certainly used poison gases in his later campaign in Italian Eritrea, and with that war crime on his record, the director felt entitled to add it to his Libyan tale of anti-fascist warfare. More to the point, at the time Muammar Gaddafi was funding this movie, 1979-81, he had full scale production underway of choking and blistering agents, as well as nerve gas. He later used it offensively, against his neighbor Chad.

The second DVD disc contains the Arabic version of the film and an Arabic version of the "making of" featurette. It is significantly different in content, and contains lengthier interview segments with Director Akkad in which he repeatedly describes Omar Mukhtar's resistance campaign as a "Jihad".
One irony associated with this bio-pic is that it was originally General Graziani who was the "Lion," and not his Muslim opponent. When he died in 1955, TIME magazine dubbed Graziani the "Desert Lion".
One of several replica tanks built by British production designers in 1979. Because turrets were not well bolted to the hulls, they shake or rattle in some closeups of armour on the move.

Two film extras, out of uniform, mug for a private photo between takes. Site is of an ambush on a mountain road - the best scene in the movie. Supporting material on the DVD includes an interesting "making of" film, with emphasis on the weaponry.
The greatest irony associated with this movie is that its well intentioned Director was consumed by the very forces of Islamic militance and faction fighting which he has tried to portray as purely anti-colonialist in nature. In November of 2005 Akkad was in Amman, Jordan on the day terrorists launched a coordinated attack on three American owned luxury hotels. He was standing in the lobby talking to his daughter when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest. They were both killed. Akkad's next project was to be a historical drama about Saladin; perhaps one more cinematic attempt to put a heroic or benign face on today's armed Islamic resurgence.
Director/producer Moustapha Akkad and his daughter Rima Akkad at her marriage. The two were murdered in Amman, Jordan by terrorist bomb.

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