Thursday, February 9, 2012

MM Movie Review: Lion of the Desert

Let me state right at the beginning that “Lion of the Desert” is not a film I agreed with. It is entertaining, has some excellent performances and I will watch it when I come across it but, to save everyone time and aggravation, if you really liked this movie or if Omar Mukhtar is a hero to you -stop reading this review right now. You will not like it, nothing will be accomplished besides upsetting you and you are certainly not going to change my mind on it so, for the sake of your own peace of mind, avoid frustration and quit now. For those of you not favorably inclined toward this movie or for those who have not seen it and can approach it with an open mind, we shall get to the review. “Lion of the Desert” is a love letter to the Libyan national hero Omar Mukhtar who led a (failed) guerilla war against the Italian colonial authorities from 1912 until 1931. The film was made in 1981 by Syrian-American director Moustapha Akkad (of “Halloween” fame) who in 1976 had made “Mohammad, Messenger of God”, a movie about the revered founding prophet of Islam which, in keeping with strict Muslims rules, never actually shows Mohammad. All of which is a pretty far cry from financing movies about naked American teenage girls getting their throats cut by a masked psychopath.

The movie was filmed in Libya and financed by the brutal dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and I have a big problem with this. Akkad never admitted to Gaddafi trying to influence the film in any way but he did not really need to. Gaddafi was eager to lift up Omar Mukhtar as a Libyan national hero and this was exactly the portrayal the film would make and what Akkad intended anyway. But, as the old saying goes, he who drinks the King’s wine must sing the King’s song and I doubt anyone would be kind to a director who accepted vast amounts of funding from someone like Hitler or, perhaps more to the point, Mussolini. Gaddafi loved the movie, which was filmed in English and Arabic language versions, and it became widely shown to young fanatics as part of their training to become Islamic terrorists, specifically because a hopeless fight unto death was being glorified in it. It also did not hurt their cause than an Islamic, desert people were portrayed so righteously heroic and Europeans were portrayed as villainous and cruel. It is no surprise that the movie was a flop considering that, especially in 1981, Europe and America were the biggest markets for the film though the people who love the film will still defend it by pointing to some positive reviews by critics. The fact remains that, regardless of what the critics said, most people did not like this movie.

The acting was fine throughout, even excellent in some cases. Anthony Quinn starred as Omar Mukhtar, Oliver Reed co-starred as his nemesis the Italian general Graziani. Other minor parts were filled by Irene Papas, Raf Vallone and Rod Steiger who played the part of Mussolini. Irene Papas and Anthony Quinn were both favorites of Akkad and had both starred in “Mohammad, Messenger of God”. Anthony Quinn played his part masterfully, though there was not much to the part as written, but it certainly shows the extent to which he loved the character and immersed himself in the role. Oliver Reed gave a show-stealing performance as Graziani and Raf Vallone did his usually good job at portraying one of the two “good” Italians in the whole movie. Rod Steiger was a great actor, I loved him in “Waterloo” and he has turned in some excellent performances in numerous movies and numerous great historical films. However, I just did not buy him as Mussolini. It is hard for me to put my finger on, perhaps that he is simply too refined a man to play a bombastic socialist revolutionary turned Fascist dictator. Again, I like Rod Steiger, I just didn’t like him in this. John Gielgud also makes an appearance as the token “bad” Libyan, a local prince who works with the Italians. Maybe I’m making too much of it but it just seemed rather funny that the one Libyan who is not portrayed in a heroically righteous way is played by an English actor.

The movie is pretty basic in its layout. From the start we see the Italians invade Libya, we see Italians executing Libyans, shooting them, hanging them but we are told that there is a guerilla war going on and the Italians are losing. So, Mussolini sends General Graziani, a really tough, brutal guy we are led to believe, to stamp out the rebellion so that, “the military logic of Fascism will not be compromised”. Whatever that means. Meanwhile, Omar Mukhtar is a peaceful, grandfatherly old school teacher instructing village children in the mercy of God (it is always God and never “Allah” in the movie) and the wisdom of “the book” (it is only referred to once as the Koran and that is by an Italian). However, when Graziani arrives his reputation has preceded him and Mukhtar takes action, ruining a welcome party for the general with news of another Italian defeat. Graziani sends one of his best officers out on a retaliatory strike, complete with mass executions, but Mukhtar outwits and defeats the man (Gastone Moschin who also played Don Fanucci in The Godfather Part II). However, Mukhtar is merciful and stops his men from killing the last two Italians left alive and allows the young lieutenant to return to his general.

An incensed Graziani retaliates by putting Libyans into concentration camps. He is still defeated by Mukhtar. He then agrees to peace-talks with Mukhtar but only as a ruse so that he can land more reinforcements for an attack on the holy city of the Senussi Islamic sect at Kufra. Mukhtar still eludes and harasses him so he obtains the permission of Mussolini to “fence in Libya” to starve the rebels into submission. This finally begins to work and, after the Italians deploy poison gas, Mukhtar is separated from his men and stumbles into the Italian army which takes him prisoner. After a dramatic meeting with Graziani he is taken out and hanged with the film lingering on his words that, ‘We will never surrender. We win or we die, and don’t think it stops there. After this generation you will have the next to fight and after that the next, and so on.’ Despite all the alleged historical accuracy Akkad claimed in making the movie, the biggest problem it has is simply being so biased as to be unbelievable. The Italians are portrayed in the worst light possible, though, as Akkad said, he does not portray all Italians as being bad -he gives us a grand total of two “good” Italians, one of whom is murdered by his own people. What is most obvious though is the over-sanctification of the Libyan side. So hard is it hammered into the viewer that these are the “good guys” that it quickly becomes preposterous.

For example, the Libyans all fight on horseback armed only with old, single-shot rifles. The Italians have tanks, machine guns, armored cars, airplanes and, finally, chemical weapons. Yet, the Libyans win virtually every battle! That is simply not realistic. The only Italian victory shown is the capture of Kufra and, we are told ahead of time, this should not really count since Mukhtar was not even attempting to defend it. He basically let the Italians have it because it would have been impossible to defend. This makes it seem rather ridiculous and anti-climactic when Mukhtar is finally captured. How could he have lost the war when he won every battle? In fact, it staggers the imagination to think that this, as the film tells us, could have been going on for decades without Italy giving up Libya and going home. The truth, of course, is that this movie is not historically accurate in the least. It has become popular to criticize Italy for having forbid the movie to be shown in the country because it was an “insult to the Italian army” but, the movie is an insult to the Italian army. Sure, most of the dastardly deeds are done by the black-shirted Fascist militia rather than the regular army but, seriously, are your average film-goers going to know the difference between an army uniform and an MVSN uniform? Are they even going to know what the MVSN was? No, all they see are Italians wearing uniforms, carrying guns and doing bad things.

Omar Mukhtar is portrayed in such a way that he is too good to be true and just comes off as unbelievable. Part of this is because he is made to embody values that were not those of the period in question. We also never see any of the Bedouin attacks on Italian farmers that are mentioned. The Arabs do not deny making them, they justify them in fact, but we never see them. We only ever see them portrayed positively as righteous heroes or pitiful victims of Italian brutality. The whole thing is set up as a country fighting for its independence from a foreign conqueror. It makes for stirring propaganda but the truth is that Libya had never been an independent country. In fact it had never been a united country at all until the Italians grouped three formerly Ottoman provinces together and named them “Libya” which was the name used by the ancient Romans for the region. The Senussi Islamic sect, of which Mukhtar was a part and which dominated at least one of the three provinces of Libya, had previously been just as troublesome to the Ottoman Turks who had ruled the area before the Italo-Turkish War when the area that became Libya was ceded to the Italians as part of the peace settlement.

The Libyans in the movie stress, over and over, that their rebellion is justified because Italy has “no right” to rule the country. However, this assumes that Libya had always been a country, which it never had been. It begs the question of what “right” the Ottoman Turks had to it? Prior to 1951 the area we now know as Libya had never been independent. It had belonged to the Italians, before them the Ottoman Turks, before them the Umayyad Caliphate out of Damascus, before them by the Byzantines and before them by the Romans. This is actually mentioned in the film, though scorned as being of little importance, but the fact remains that Libya had belonged to the Italians long before the Arabs ever swept across North Africa and long before the Islamic religion ever existed. If one is to speak of “rights” as Mukhtar was so fond of doing in the film, one must concede the point made by General Graziani that, “Italy has hundreds of years of right here”. Or as he put it more simply, “We’re back here, that’s all”. If you’re going to bring up the issue of one group of people having a “right” to a country that another group of people does not have you better make sure your people were there first before making it; and if you are anywhere around the Mediterranean basin the people you are dealing with are the Italians then you’re probably out of luck in any event. This would be like a group of English colonists who are attacked by Native Americans telling them that they have “no right” to the land that colony was established on. It’s ridiculous.

The truth is that the Libyans had not been totally peaceful under Ottoman Turkish rule but generally accepted it just as most generally accepted it when Ottoman rule was exchanged for Italian rule. In fact, some Libyans profited considerably from Italian rule, some joined the Italian army. In another example of the historical inaccuracy of this movie, in fact Omar Mukhtar was not captured by Italian soldiers at all but by a troop of Libyan cavalry who were on the Italian side and blamed Mukhtar for causing trouble and making life harder on everyone. The fact, as is inadvertently shown in the film, that the Italians are coming in with trucks and motorcycles and airplanes while all the Libyans are still riding horses or camels everywhere shows that prior to the Italian colonial period the Libyans were living in a backward state of near total stagnation. It was only after the arrival of Italian rule that the region began to progress toward modernity with the first modern roads, bridges, hospitals, airfields and infrastructure in general being established.

It is also stated, in the “trial” of Omar Mukhtar at the end of the film, that he had never accepted Italian rule, never took subsidy from the Italian government and therefore should have been treated as a prisoner of war. It sounded nice from a propaganda point of view, but this too is totally false. Mukhtar had recognized Italian rule. At one point, he had made peace with them and laid down his arms. However, once his forces were replenished he went on the attack again. And how could he be a POW? No one had declared war on anyone else nor was he part of any recognized army. This would be like Great Britain giving Ulster to the Republic of Ireland and a northern Irish Unionist then waging war against the government in Dublin because he never recognized the “right” of the Republic of Ireland to rule in Ulster. Well, I’m sorry folks but governments rule and make decisions on behalf of their people and law and order does not depend on the free consent of absolutely every individual person involved. When the Republic of Texas joined the United States someone couldn't start carrying out their own war against America just because he did not approve of the annexation and never recognized the change in sovereignty. Again, this goes back to the false assumption that Libya was a sovereign nation conquered by Italy which it was not.

The fact that, for a time, this movie was considered too offensive to be show in Italy is not surprising. It is extremely blatant anti-Italian propaganda. The Fascist regime was certainly not known for being kind and gentle but this rebellion was going on before Mussolini came to power. During World War I the rebels even allied with their former overlords, the Ottoman Turks, to fight against the French and British as well. Some bad things happened during this period, in reaction to the rebellion it must be said (they would not have happened otherwise) but the fact remains that the Italians did not occupy Libya as brutal conquerors. They did not destroy cities, massacre people and force everyone to convert to Catholicism (the same could not be said when the Muslims took the region in the 7th Century by the way). The movie is so one-sided and biased as to be laughable, the characters are unbelievable and in the end you are left with something that is not so much trying to entertain you as much as indoctrinate you. A big thumbs-down from me.

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