Monday, September 2, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Lion of the Desert" (1981)

So here is a curious thing: an almost three-hour epic starring a lot of big-name Western actors, set against the backdrop of a looming World War as it played out in the wind-blown dunes of North Africa. "Lion of the Desert" is a big-budget spectacle with massive action scenes and a sprawling story.

The similarities to "Lawrence of Arabia" are hard to ignore, and indeed Anthony Quinn is the star and Maurice Jarre supplied the lyrical musical score.

So why have few people even heard of it? Mainly because this historical biopic was shot in Libya and financed by dictator Muammar Gaddafi. It's essentially a love poem to Omar Mukhtar, an early Libyan freedom fighter, who waged guerrilla warfare on the Italians for 22 years before being captured and hanged in 1931. A lot of military history was made during the conflict, including the first use of tanks in the desert -- presaging Rommel's deployment of the metal beasts later on.

The film is rather uneven, directed by Syrian filmmaker Moustapha Akkad, best known for producing the early "Halloween" films. The battle scenes seem to go on and on, lacking a great deal of visceral impact. The quieter scenes with Mukhtar imparting his wisdom to younger men and children hold the movie's true power.

Mukhtar was a simple Islamic teacher who nevertheless had a brilliant mind for military tactics. He fought the Italians until well into his 70s, and Quinn expresses the grace and intelligence of the man in an understated, subtle performance.

Perhaps the film's high point is when some of his fellow Bedouins express a desire to wreak the same sort of vengeance upon the Italians as they have done to their people, including the wanton murder of women and children. "They are not our teachers," Mukhtar intones quietly, yet with iron behind his words.

Perhaps the most revelatory thing about this movie for me was the atrocities committed by the Italians in Libya, which was their colony for much of the early part of the 20th century. Even though they were part of the Axis, we tend to think of the Italians as the least bad part of an evil triad. So to see Italian soldiers gunning down kids and such is quite a thing.

Oliver Reed plays General Rodolfo Graziani, sent by Mussolini himself to quiet the rebellion in Africa. Reed is delicious as a dedicated officer who relishes defeating his enemies, but he does so out of a sense of reaching for military glory rather than malevolence.

(Incidentally, Steiger has two powerful scenes as Mussolini. Despite a total lack of physical resemblance, he captures the man's bombasity and flamboyance. He truly believed he was raising the ancient Roman Empire back to its former heights.)

The story plays out as essentially a cat-and-mouse game between the two men, with Graziani resorting to ever more extreme measures to overcome the stubborn resistance led by Mukhtar. The latter foils his foe again and again, until his time runs out.

John Gielgud has a small part as El Gariani, an Arab turncoat and old friend of Mukhtar's, who tries unsuccessfully to persuade him to accept peace. It's part of an unfortunate trend in the film for Arabs to be played by Europeans.

Quinn of course was a naturalized American of Mexican and Irish descent. Greek actress Irene Papas plays a distraught mother who watches her children die by turns. Scotsman Andrew Keir plays the palest Bedouin who ever lived.

 Raf Vallone has a meaty role as an Italian colonel who seeks to make piece with Mukhtar, but is used as a pawn by Graziani. He plays one of just a handful of sympathetic Italians in the film, who bear witness to their countrymen's barbarism and speak out against it.

"Lion of the Desert" is more interesting as a cinematic artifact than the actual movie itself. But it's engaging enough and shines a light on an important historical figure few people west of Casablanca have heard about.

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