Lion of the Desert (1980) Poster

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I worked on this film
Lionel Strutt25 March 2003
In 1979 I was the Sound Recordist on 'Lion of The Desert' film of the film so had first hand experience of this terrific Production.

Moustapha Akkad is a first class Producer and the facilities he provided for the unit in the middle of the Libyan Desert were fantastic. I mention this because it had a strong influence on the subsequent quality of the film. I was recordist on the interviews and PR documentary material for this great film and I am proud to have been involved with it.

I had first hand experience with Anthony Quinn during the shoot. He was totally dedicated to his role. Olly Reed was able to put up a good performance but did give us a few problems with his usual antics! The rest of the cast were brilliant and the result impressive.

The scale of this Production was incredible and the thought that went into the organisation of it was amazing.

If you would like me to answer any further questions about this, please leave messages on my notice board. Look me up under Lionel Strutt. I did not receive a direct named credit on this production because I was working, as I said, on the film of the film or TV documentary. However I did spend months in the desert with the production and crew. So can relate a few interesting stories!
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Libyan resistance hero Omar Mukhtar leads a guerrilla campaign against Italian colonisers.
max-vernon13 April 2005
I came across my video copy of this film in 1995. I was surprised that I had never heard of the film as it uses such star actors as Quinn, Gielgud, Papas, Steiger and Oliver Reed. It is the only copy I have ever come across in UK shops. To the best of my knowledge, it has never been shown in the UK on either terrestrial or satellite TV. The reason for this remains a complete mystery to me. It may be because it was financed by Gaddafi who has been the subject of international embargos for many years.

The Arab-American Moustapha Akkad produced and directed the film in Libya with Gaddafi's full support. The film is reasonably accurate and, in my opinion, fair and balanced. Anthony Quinn had a long and distinguished career playing 'ethnic types' and his portrayal of Omar Mukhtar is undoubtedly one of his finest performances. Omar in the film is probably much more of an action man than the real Mukhtar who was more of a strategist than a fighter. Or so I was informed whilst on holiday in Tunisia. The film is (understandably) one of the most famous in the Arab world, dealing as it does with Arab suffering under recent European colonialism.

Akkad uses original black and white archive film to underpin its historical authenticity. At the start to set the scene of the Italian conquest of Libya from Turkey in 1911. In the middle to show an aerial view of the concentration camps built by the Italians and also the barbed wire 'Hadrian's Wall' built along the Egyptian border. Both these strategies were intended to cut off Mukhtar from his supply sources. At the end of the film there are still photos of the real Mukhtar in chains and also of the main Italian protagonists we see in the film.

Rod Steiger blusters through his role as Mussolini, the fascist dictator who wants to send Italian colonists to a peaceful Libya, an ambition being thwarted by Omar Mukhtar's stubborn 20-year long armed resistance. Oliver Reed plays a suitably ruthless General Graziani, the man charged with crushing Mukhtar. But his character is no two-dimensional brute.There is a very engaging private dialogue between himself and the captive Mukhtar. The two men debate historic claims to Libyan soil, with Graziani pointing out that the Romans were there before the Arabs. Reed gives a very controlled performance, one of his best.

The film is very balanced in its portrayal of the Italians. On the one hand we see some terrible reprisals-shootings and hangings-against civilians. On the other hand we have two sympathetic Italian officers whose conscience is afflicted by by the war they are forced to wage. The Raf Vallone character is particularly sympathetic- very courteous, generous and kind to the captive Mukhtar. This is history telling at its best. Italian fascists were not all the same. Individuals matter. Likewise, the Italian officer chosen to defend Omar at his trial argues that Mukhtar never committed treason against the Italian state because he never accepted it rule.

On the Arab side we have John Gielgud playing the high-ranking Sharif el-Gariani character who is sent to ask Omar to end his struggle. Some Arabs were willing to collaborate with an Italian rule which was helping to modernise their country. There is a nice reference to the fact that 'the League of Nations will not help you', highlighting the limitations of this predecessor of the UN. Come to think of it, things have not changed very much!

The action scenes are spectacular, with some inspiring ambushes by the insurgents against the Italian forces. The film credits Graziani (wrongly?) with being the first general to bring tanks into the desert. The Italian assault on the oasis town of Kufra is a theatrical masterpiece. Some viewers may think that all this is probably a bit over the top. It probably is but it certainly boosts the film's entertainment level. In fact, the film could have shown Italian planes dropping poison gas bombs as they did in Abyssinia a few years later. In his biography of Mussolini, the eminent historian Denis Mack Smith maintains that this did happen in Libya.

The music is very effective and the film is emotionally charged throughout, especially during the hanging scenes. The Omar Mukhtar character is accorded a great deal of dignity and honour. The film is hagiography but so are 'Spartacus', 'Ben-Hur', 'El Cid' and scores of other epics. Does this make the film a piece of Arab propaganda? Yes and no. The film emphasises the central role of Islam in giving Omar the inner strength to continue his fight. It tells an historical tale with a great deal of accuracy but it is also a feature film which aims to entertain. In that respect it is no different to any Hollywood blockbuster about the Alamo or Pearl Harbor. In my opinion it is superior to many such blockbusters. It's just that white Caucasians have to get used to being the bad guys for a change.

Gaddafi is now coming in from the cold and opening up his country to tourism. I can only hope that this will result in the film becoming more widely available and better-known in the UK. 'Lion of the Desert' is an excellent historical epic which tells one side of the story. Some historians would argue that Mukhtar's defeat and death paved the way for the enlightened rule of Italo Balbo who governed a 'pacified' Libya after 1934 with few executions and much building of infrastructure. I would not accept this view as all imperialisms are self-justifying and ultimately unacceptable.
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An exciting tapestry of history coming alive under the great direction of Mustapha Al-Akkad...
Nazi_Fighter_David14 July 2000
"Lion of the Desert" stars Anthony Quinn as the real-life Beduin Leader Omar Mukhtar who fights with pride and courage, rage and anger Mussolini's invading troops in the Libyan Desert...

Quinn (strong, confident, never broken) plays the charismatic Islamic Libyan fighter who commits himself to a lifetime war against Italian Colonialism: "We have stood against you for 20 years and with the help of God we will stay with you till your end!"

Enraged by the 20-year war carried on by Beduin patriots opposed to the Italian occupation, the arrogant Mussolini (Rod Steiger) - the first of Europe's fascist dictators - orders his new military governor the ruthless Rodolfo Graziani (Oliver Reed) to crush and silence the Beduin rebellion by "whatever means" and capture their great leader Omar Mukhtar...

Mukhtar is forced to face his conviction and the power of Italy at its glorious height...

The film is based on the life of a brave resistance leader, a teacher of the Quran by profession... Mukhtar is a cunning warrior who masterminded the Libyan resistance... He stood against tyranny and oppression, and with the fire of his wisdom, he rallied his countrymen to liberation...

The film depicts the cruelty of Graziani's coward acts: the massive killing rampage in Kufra... We watch the invaders attacking with war-planes, tanks, cannons and machine-guns the poor village, but we also see a fascinating portrayal of the heroic Libyan forces fighting the mighty Italian artillery with old rusted rifles, giving their life for their land and their convictions...

Syrian director Mustapha Al-Akkad captures the horrific methods of the Italian army holding the helpless population in concentration camps; isolating the warriors from their families; setting fire to their fields; closing their wells; raping their women; destroying their homes; controlling the country by hanging old men and women; shooting innocent civilians, and specially the capture of the 'Old Lion', a natural fighter against 'educated' officers...

With great special effects, excellent action sequences and with the splendor of the Sahara Desert, Akkad's motion picture combines history with spectacle to create a moving drama of heroism and commitment...
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Desert Master Piece!
LoayOmran4 November 2001
It is a great shame that only 158 users have voted for this movie until now, this probably reflects great ignorance about this Master Piece. This is the real story of the Great Libyan Hero Omar Al Mukhtar, who fought the Italian occupation of Libya early in the 20th century. You will be surprised with what this movie has to offer. It will take your breath away ... You will laugh and you will cry ... You will scream and shout ... You will hope it never ends. BraveHeart? Yeah that was a good movie, but nowhere as brilliant as this is. This does not only tell the life story of a Great man, it also teaches you the noble aspects that build up a truly Unforgettable Warrior. It explains what Tolerance is all about.

This movie truly shows the the savage means which the conquering Italian army used to treat the Libyan natives. The struggle for freedom took place in the heart of the African desert. Omar Al Mukhtar (The Lion of the Desert), who led the Libyan resistance, a role played in this movie by Anthony Quinn ... this has to be his best ever performance. An Oscar Nominee worth ... nothing less. Director, Moustapha Akkad, who is also famous for the great yet unknown classic Risâlah, al- (1976), gives his best shot at direction here. Excellent work.

Rent this now, if its available, Its worth every penny. You will be the witness of utter brilliance and great performances. Watch it, vote for it, Give it the respect it deserves.
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A true financial disaster, but one of the greatest films to watch.
zhrmod125 July 2003
Moustapha Akkad, who produced the "Halloween" series is a Syrian-born filmmaker who has two ambitious epic films as a director. His first, the relatively forgotten film The "Message", about Mohammed and the Koran, it was (mistycal enough for me) a huge success worldwide. Then, Akkad lured Libyan dictator Molomar Qaddafi to invest million $35 in the war epic "Lion of the Desert".... One of the largest financial disasters in film history, though one of the greatest films I've seen... (Does this make sense???..)

Anthony Quinn (somehow reprising his role in the epic "Lawrence of Arabia") portrays the Libyan Guerilla fighter "Omar Mukhtar" who pledged his (as well as his countrymen's) life to drive the invading Italian forces out.

The story depicts post World War 1, pre WW2 era where Benito Mussolini (played by Rod Steiger) tries carving up the globe with empires for Italy. He uses Libya as an "easy" stepping stone to the the Middle East (Libya's occupation was not started by him.. funny and demagogical enough the young Mussolini demonstrated against the occupation of Libya in 1911).

Mukhtar, the village teacher, on the other hand made this difficult and was so successful waging his campaign against the Italians, that Mussolini sends in his top general "The Butcher" Graziani, played deliciously by the late Sir Oliver Reed (the Trap 1966, The Four Musketeers 1974, Gladiator 2000 and many more) to straighten things out.

First, the Italians just "tour" Libya, raiding, burning, killing and raping... but when an entire attack convoy is completely wiped out by rebels, Graziani decides to wage an all-out war against Libyans. Graziani pretends to come to terms with Mukhtar, but, at the same time, brings thousands of fresh Italian troops to Tripoli and marches them inland. He is the first general to use planes and tanks in the desert, destroying town after town. This way he successfully corners Mukhtar and his rebels in the mountains.

Historically accurate, in its portrayal of the Italian army and of the campaign itself, Lion of the Desert is an action packed, nearly (I say nearly..) flawless epic war film.

Rod Steiger starts with some over-acting marching around his offices barking at people. But the film quickly shifts towards the vastness and splendor of the Sahara desert. It has excellent action sequences, that employ splendid special effects and lots of stunt work.

On top of this, it's one of the bloodiest war films I've seen, with bullet wounds spraying blood and people smashed to pulps by Italian tanks. God knows how this film faded away with a mediocre rating, but then again noone really saw the film right?

The film is also a fascinating portrayal of the Arabs way of life and how it conflicts with European ideals.

The musical score of this film, by Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia), is only great at times, but often seems uninspired and lame compared to his previous works on David Lean's great films.

The cinematography and editing are classy, (one con though.. the cameras seemed a little shy of hanging around close to the big gasoline truck explosion. The best scenes in the film are battle scenes, one involving a vast army of extras destroying a nearly helpless arab village, another with Graziani's army battling the Libyans for control of a mountain bridge. Other than those two, I can't say great about the 3 or so other battle scenes (compared to these two).The overall effect of battle senes is though quite satisfying.

The cast of this film, doesn't lack big-names like Irene Papas and Sir John Gielgud but the roles were inconsequential as Mukhtar's friends. Then, there's a lot of the old Italian B-movie stars in small roles as Italian soldiers and aides..

Akkad's strong point seems to be showing Italian artillery blowing the bewildered Bedouin warriors while his weak point seems to be spending the money. The film didn't really need the lavishness and authenticity of the picture. Do you really have to hire thousands of extras and build many many replica tanks just to go destroy them for the authenticy? No surprise this movie lost money, but the fact that it made almost no money astonishes me. Could be cause early 1980´s were wrong timing for an epic film. People watched "The Empire Strikes Back" and didn't want to see a thorough recreation of some war, most never heard of.

Lion of the Desert may not be perfect, but it's just as splendid a viewing as any of the old big-budget war films like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, only this one's got a bit more action and politically ignored (as propoganda or is it the propoganda that endorses ignoring it??).

I highly recommend seeing the DVD in Widescreen, crisp quality and good 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, plus lots of informative extra features.
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Still banned in Italy
vernetto24 July 2006
The movie, although not a masterpiece, is quite realistic and historically accurate, actually it shows only a very small part of the ruthless brutality used by General Graziani against the civilian population. Some 120.000 civilians were killed in concentration camps in the attempt to quench the resistance. Graziani served only 2 years imprisonment for his crimes after the fall of Fascism, and later became honorary president of the (legal) neo-fascist party. This movie is still banned in Italy, and still recently the Italian Secret Services have prevented its official projection. The majority of Italians, even the anti-fascists, are still persuaded that our troops went to Lybia to build roads hospitals and bridges. It should not surprise that recently the former Prime Minister Berlusconi said that Mussolini never did any harm to anybody - probably not considering some hundred thousands Lybians casualties. Italians love to imagine their soldiers fraternizing with the locals and helping farmers in the fields - sadly the reality of war is quite different.
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The late, great Anthonny Quinn
OttoVonB19 July 2006
Prelude to WWII. Omar Mukhtar, a brilliant Bedouin leader, wages war against oppressive Italian Fascist forces (led by the bloodthirsty General Graziani) in his native Lybia.

Director Moustapha Akkad (The Message) clearly learnt a few lessons from "Lawrence of Arabia", mainly how best to use the charismatic Anthony Quinn. As Mukhtar, Quinn gives a nuanced portrayal of compassion and wisdom. Whenever he features in a scene, it becomes impossible to tear one's eyes off the screen. Thankfully, Oliver Reed proves a magnificently cruel and seething counterpoint as General Graziani. Irene Papas provides strong supporting work and Rod Steiger turns in a delightful cameo as Benito Musslini.

Moustapha Akkad uses a solid structure and keeps it riveting throughout, extracting fine performances from all his actors and technical collaborators. Where "The Message" was impressive but cold (due to its invisible hero and reverence), "Lion in the Desert" has an emotional core and throws up scene after impressive scene. The desert battle scenes are incredibly messy and savage and have a sense of multiple individual action amid chaos, rather than elaborate choreography. This perfectly suits the theme of Bedouin guerrilla. Production values are considerable and Maurice Jarre provides one of his most underrated scores.

Some viewers will find qualms with the fact that, despite the coda that proclaims that Lybia managed to liberate itself, the country was then for long under the oppressive rule of Kadaffi. In truth, this little addition might have something to do with the fact that Kadaffi assisted in funding the film. If you can overlook this (not to difficult), you can appreciate the true focus: Mukhtar. This remains a beautiful film about a people's resistance.

"Lion in the Desert" is an important film, if only because it offers a very accessible (to Western audiences) Arab perspective. It is also impressively well made: an accomplished chapter in the era of great epics that flourished with David Lean's masterpieces and ended with Richard Attenbourgh's Gandhi.

See this!
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Anthony Quinn's best!
Frank DeLa Cour6 June 2001
Warning: Spoilers
***SPOILERS*** ***SPOILERS*** According to the documentary Quinn was so obsessed with the role, that he refused to shave for more than a year after the movie had been completed. I like movies like 'The Guns of Navarone' and 'Zorba the Greek' as much as the next guy, but in 'Lion...' he shows his true potential as a marvellous actor playing a teacher who turns beduin leader fighting the italians from 1911 (when the italians first set foot in Libya) to 1931.

'Lion of the desert' is sort of a 'Braveheart' meets 'Lawrence of Arabia'. I like 'Lion.' more than both of them though- can't really explain why, perhaps because of its minute historical accuracy.

'Lion...' is a great example of how marketing can either break or make a movie. Sadly, upon it's release it wasn't given the typical Hollywood treatment (this movie is not made by a major Hollywood studio), so many people missed out on this masterpiece. The critics loved it though, although many thought it was too violent (there's a lot of blood and you get to watch people run over by tanks and such).

One thing that crossed my mind is that this movie has so many elements also appearing in the Oscar winning 'Braveheart' by Mel Gibson, (SPOILERS:) Both movies have the enemy wanting 'time', in order to organize its troups, both movies use clever guerilla ambushing techniques, both movies have the hero executed in the end, both movies have nobels trying to convince our hero to surrender- the list goes on. Perhaps Mr. Gibson thought that no one would notice? (SPOILER END)

'Lion...' has everything that a true epic requires: Brilliant battle scenes, a great script, lots of extras and great actors (Rod Steiger as a very convincing Mussolini, Oliver Reed as a fascist general and John Gielgud as a beduin noble).

If you find this movie at your local video store, don't hesitate to rent it (or buy the DVD).

Interesting sidenote: Mussolini was actually arrested in 1911, because he participated in a demonstration against the italian invasion of Lybia. Sort of ironic that he tightened the grip when he himself came to power in 1921.
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A great epic!
miagil14 November 2005
I believe that one needs to be made of a special material to direct/produce such an epic. Moustapha believed in what he was doing when shooting the movie. He went to out of his way to make sure that everything he filmed was as real as possible. The battle scenes were planned with all detail but also the small scenes with Tony Quinn, Irene Papas or any other actor. It is a real pity that death has taken him before he could produce/direct "Salahadin", his long wanted project that would have shown the world another face of Islam. He tried with Omar Muhktar but I am sure that he would have done much better with Salahadin. Moustapha Akkad and his work as a film maker will be remembered.
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One man lead resistance against the imperialist designs of the Italian dictator.
Bikram Singh4 March 2005
7.1 is a ridiculous rating. This movies deserves much higher and I can assure those who have not seen it that they will agree with me once they have seen it.

Almost all aspects of movie making are amazingly rendered. It will easily compare with any movie about war and politics. The savagery, otherwise recorded only in books, is depicted marvelously. I want to praise a couple of actors but it would not be correct to leave anyone out so I am just saying that they were all tailor made for their roles. There is some real reel footage in the movie and that drives home the points raised in this movie.

On a tangent – it is interesting that the so called civilized countries continuously plumbed new depths of uncivilized actions only for land and riches…. It is an amazing display of imperialistic debauchery.
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