Publicity for this picture stated that director Moustapha Akkad intended to make another multi-million epic after this movie, 'Saladin', about the life of the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria and founder of the Ayyubid dynasty. The film was to be filmed in Turkey and Morocco, but this never eventuated due to this film's massive failure at the box office.
The film cost approximately $35 million but only managed to gross about $1 million worldwide, making it one of the largest financial disasters in film history. The film was notorious within the film industry for the sheer magnitude of the amount of money the film lost. The picture sits alongside a number of other big money losing films of the early 1980s era such as Heaven's Gate (1980), Inchon (1981), Pennies from Heaven (1981) and Raise the Titanic (1980).
The movie was banned in Italy in 1982. Then Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti said of this that the film was "damaging to the honor of the [Italian] army". It has also been alleged that it was banned in Italy because the Italian Government maintained that the film was defamatory. The film was first broadcast on Italian television by Sky Italy on 11th June 2009 during the official state visit of former Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi who had financed the picture.
An entire makeshift village was created in the middle of the desert about 600 miles from Bengazi to house the production, which numbered approximately 500 people, throughout the shoot. All the materials for the creation of this village were shipped out from England. They had particular problems with catering as all the food had to be bussed in, meat being particularly problematic as in this desert area of Libya cold storage was virtually unheard of.
Cameras had to be brushed every two hours to keep them free of sand. The same was true of the film canisters that the editing team were working from, and all the firearm props which kept jamming as they were all clogged up.
Research for the project, which took a year and a half, was made a little easier by the fact that Benito Mussolini, who was obsessed with propaganda, had had virtually every aspect of his Libyan campaign captured on film.
The film's title 'Lion of the Desert' was the nickname of the film's protagonist and central character Omar Muktar (played by Anthony Quinn). Omar Mukhtar's full name was actually Sidi Omar al-Mukhtar.
The production of this film intentionally evoked British epic auteur David Lean and his Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and this was very apparent. The movie used two Lean regulars, composer Maurice Jarre and cinematographer Jack Hildyard. The film's lead actor Anthony Quinn' appeared in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) as Auda Abu Tayi, the film also using Jarre for its music score.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Omar Mukhtar was captured when his horse is shot and this is accurately depicted in the film. However, in real life, Mukhtar was apparently trapped under the equine whereas the film cinematically and visually fictionalizes this though and has Mukhtar thrown from it.