Lion of the Desert

Director-producer Moustapha Akkad and actor Anthony Quinn just can’t seem to get their head out of the sand. After “The Message,” the two teamed up for this epic portrayal of the 1929-1931 war between Mussolini’s troops and a group of Bedouin patriots in Libya.

lionofthedesertDirector Akkad set his sights even higher than with “The Message,” bringing the tale of Bedouin leader Omar Mukhtar (you can’t say it without spitting) to the big screen with all the pomp and circumstance of a major studio film. Thousands of extras were employed, World War II weapons and vehicles had to be manufactured and imported to actual location sites in Libya, and full-scale battles between man and machine had to be choreographed and shot. It was an impressive feat that pays off for Akkad, who has created a fascinating, historical film that not only entertains, but educates.

The script by H.A.L. Craig (who also wrote “The Message”) is functionary at best. It’s the stars who bring conviction to their roles and Akkad’s staging of the action and drama that holds the film together. Anthony Quinn is very noble as Mukhtar, who spends time teaching the children when he and his men aren’t fighting back the Goose-stepping, grape stomping Fascists led by Mussolini (Rod Steiger, whose feet don’t reach the ground when he sits down). The war has been going on for twenty years, and now Mussolini has put his most trusted man, General Rodolfo Graziani (Oliver Reed), on the case. Graziani is a vile man, and must stink, because every time he walks by someone, they raise their right arm like their checking themselves for B.O. He’s known as the Butcher of Bengasi, and has no qualms killing men, women or children to advance his cause.

He and his troops have no place being in Libya, and it’s up to Mukhtar and his men to make sure that he never forgets. Their campaign includes midnight raids and sneak attacks, little annoyances that tick Graziani off enough to employ tanks in the desert for the very first time. While Mussolini begins rounding up the women and children and placing them in concentration camps, Mukhtar and the men find that their guns and horses are no match for the tanks and guns of Graziani, who must be gay, because you never see him without his cute little boy toy named Prince (the artist formerly known as Guy Dumont).

Will their religion and faith be enough to sustain Mukhtar through this final chapter in his life? Quinn’s performance sustains the film. Oliver Reed seems to be stretching a bit, and even looks silly in his one-size too small hat or parading around in his Harold Hill coat and riding pants. The great Irene Pappas delivers a performance that suggests she’s grateful for the opportunity to renew her SAG card. The rest of the cast, including John Gielgud as kind of an Obi-Wan Bedouin, are fine. Come for the impressive battle recreations that were rated PG in 1981 but would garner a much harsher rating today. There’s one scene were tanks roll over people with the appropriate reaction. Ouch! There’s also lots of bloody gunfights that make “Bonnie and Clyde” look like a “Sesame Street” lesson in counting. “Lion of the Desert” isn’t a great film, and it’s a little heavy handed at times, but it does entertain.


VISION: [ X ] 20/20 [ ] Good [ ] Cataracts [ ] Blind

In the words of Billy Crystal’s Fernando, “You look mah-velous.” Someone has taken very good case of the original negative of “Lion of the Desert.” The 1.85:1 widescreen digital transfer is extremely sharp and vivid. Beautiful colors, pleasing flesh tones, and blacks that only wash out on a few scenes. Jack Hildyard’s scenic “Lawrence of Arabia” inspired cinematography is gorgeous, and the transfer respects the golden hues and natural earth tones. Hardly a trace of compression artifacts, and no noise whatsoever. The images are so brilliant you can see the sweat roll off the camel’s, uh, nose. The disc, like our favorite mammal, is a “flipper.” All of the extras on located on side two.

HEARING: [ ] Excellent [ X ] Minor Hearing Loss [ ] Needs Hearing Aid [ ] Deaf

Functional but not very distinguished Dolby Digital Stereo track that gets the job done. The dialogue is strong and clear, except for the first few moments with Rod Steiger as Mussolini. Due to echos in the large room they shot in, it’s hard to hear or understand him. No noticeable hiss or distortion. The stereo effect is subtle to say the least, relying only the obvious to make a point. Occasionally some strong ambient noise makes an impression. Don’t expect thundering basses and pin-drop high ends.

ORAL: [ ] Excellent [ ] Good [ X ] Poor

No closed captions or subtitles.

COORDINATION: [ ] Excellent [ X ] Good [ ] Clumsy [ ] Weak

Impressive documentary “The Making of an Epic” runs down the logistical nightmare of shooting a war film in the middle of the desert in Libya. Director-producer Moustapha Akkad discusses his penchant for shooting at actual locations whenever possible, so the film crew had to transport and then assemble a village for the actors and the behind-the-scenes personnel to live in during the duration of the shoot. It’s an amazing achievement that is as spectacular to watch as the film’s war scenes. The documentary displays some signs of wear and tear, but it’s not tough to watch. There’s also numerous theatrical and television trailers for the film, showing the various angles that were used to sell the film, and an extensive still gallery with both shots from the film and behind the camera.

PROGNOSIS: [ ] Excellent [ X ] Will Live [ ] Resuscitate [ ] Terminal

Here comes Mr. Sandman, so it’s off to Bedouin we go. Whether or not you add this title to your collection depends if you find “Lion of the Desert” chic.

VITALS: $29.99/Rated PG/162 Minutes/Color/18 Chapter Stops/Keepcase/#DV10483

John Larsen





HMO: Anchor Bay Entertainment

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