The 1981 film, The Lion of the Desert starring Anthony Quinn and Oliver Reed is based on the true to life story of Omar Mukhtar (1862-1931), a Libyan Arab rebel who led his people in resisting the colonial rule of Italy in Libya for over 20 years. In 1911, Italy colonized Libya and made it part of their empire. Mukhtar (played by Quinn) was a teacher of Koran in his village. Once the Italians invaded and conquered their land, he led his village in revolt against the Italians. He could not accept the conditions imposed on them, particularly to him since they had difficulty defeating him.
He said to them, “we will stay with you till your end. ” (Akkad) Despite not having military experience, he proved to be a capable leader and was very clever, having outwitted five Italian military governors who tried to defeat him. Seeing the difficulty of defeating Mukhtar, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini appointed General Rodolfo Graziani (played by Reed) as the new governor of Libya and bring down Mukhtar. Realizing Mukhtar’s capabilities, Graziani grudgingly admired his skills when he said, “He’s good. ” (Akkad).
This led Graziani to try a different tactic where he resorted to reconcentration of villagers in camps to deny Mukhtar and his band aid and made use of tanks and aircraft to defeat Mukhtar until he was finally captured. He was tried, convicted and hanged in 1931 at the age of 70. The film was financed by the Libyan government of Mohmar Khadafy and from the way it was presented, it served to promote Libyan nationalism and at the same time denounce and villify imperialism, especially in highlighting the abuses and atrocities committed by the Italians in Libya.
Another thing to note is that the film was made by an independent movie outfit since major Hollywood studios would not work on it due to the existing animosity then between the United States amd Libya. Yet despite their defiance of imperialism, Mukhtar is depicted to be compassionate and magnanimous. In one scene, he spared an officer after his unit was wiped out. He gave him the Italian flag he captured as a gesture of compassion, proving that despite their resistace, Mukhtar’s band were not brutal savages and were only fighting to defend their freedom (Akkad).
On the part of the Italians, the film was banned for nearly 30 years because they regarded it as an insult to Italian honor from the way Italian troops were depicted committing atrocities and other brutal acts against the Libyans. One scene showed a villager shot by an officer while being interrogated in front of everyone. Another shows an Italian army officer randomly shooting villagers in the back in retaliation for the ambush of their troops (Akkad).
Such scenes would appall anyone and this explained why previous Italian governments refused to show this in Italy. Pressure from the socialist and liberal factions of the government made the ruling administration relent and they finally allowed it to be aired publicly in 2009. This was in time for Khadafy’s official visit to Italy and in a show of bravado, if not arrogance, he came to Italy wearing a pin with Mukhtar’s image on it.
It can be inferred here that Mukhtar was a hero among Libyans and Khadafy wanted everyone to know about it, especially the Italians. In conclusion, The Lion of the Desert is a movie that serves a political purpose as it promoted Libyan nationalism and serves to remind Libyans of their past that there were those who fought for freedom against a foreign power. Works Cited Lion of the Desert. Dir. Moustapha Akkad. Perf. Anthony Quinn, Oliver Reed. Falcon International Productions, 1981.
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