A couple of months ago, an old friend who works at the World Bank (yes, we are everywhere) recommended “Lion of the Desert” to me. I finally got around to watching it this week and can strongly recommend it as one of the finer anti-colonial films of recent years and one that like “Battle of Algiers” resonates strongly with the struggle now taking place in Iraq.
Made in 1979, “Lion of the Desert” is a historically faithful study of the guerrilla struggle against the Italian fascist occupation of Libya led over a 20 year period by Omar Mukhtar, who is played by Anthony Quinn. In keeping with the film’s respect for historical accuracy, Quinn, who was 64 at the time, is a perfect choice to play Mukhtar who was 69 when he was captured by the fascists. With his naturally white hair and beard, Quinn seems an unlikely choice to play the stereotypical warrior but the historical Mukhtar was no stereotype.
Omar Mukhtar in captivity
As the film progresses, we discover that the character relied more on wile than on physical prowess, just as was the case in real life. Quinn’s character wears eyeglasses that fall from his face during his final combat, just as took place historically. This is not a Braveheart type treatment that depicts the oppressed Libyans as defeating much larger and much better equipped armies through sheer courage, but rather one that is marked frequently by exhaustion and defeat. We remember Omar Mukhtar today less for his ability to foil the fascists than for his inner resourcefulness and his belief in freedom. He might be a lion, but he is also a human being.
The Italians colonized Libya, Somalia and Ethiopia as part of an attempt to get up to speed with their more “advanced” Western European rivals who had a toehold in Africa for some time. Mukhtar was a leader of the Senusi people who lived in the Cyrenaica region in Eastern Libya before it had become a modern state. Described as Bedouin in the film, they appear to have the same kind of fiercely independent streak as the Algerian Kabyle (Berbers) who challenged the French in Algeria in the 1950s.
When we first meet Mukhtar Omar in the film, he is giving lessons in the Quran to young boys in a Senusi village. Throughout the film, the character’s religious faith goes hand in hand with his determination to resist the occupation. His Islamic beliefs in the brotherhood of man also lead him to avoid treating Italian prisoners with the same kind of cruelty that his own fighters endured.
Anthony Quinn as Omar Mukhtar explaining the Quran
His main adversary in the film is Gen. Rodolfo Graziani (Oliver Reed), who was hand-picked by Mussolini to quash the Senusi rebellion and who eventually succeeded. His methods included herding the Senusi into concentration camps and erecting a long barbed-wire fence between Libya and Egypt in order to cut off supplies. Historians estimate that between 30,000 and 70,000 Senusis were killed by the occupiers. With a population numbering about 185,000 in 1923, we are talking about a slaughter of epic proportions.
Shortly after the fascists hung Omar Mukhtar, his followers issued a statement that could be a rallying cry for the Iraqi resistance today:
The Fascists believed that the condemnation of Omar al-Mukhtar to death would make it easier for them to occupy the country, but unfortunately for them the souls of the martyrs are an eternal flame which inspires the national spirit in the hearts of the people still living.
The martyr of the Tripoli-Barce nation is not dead, for he has left his people with an immortal monument of heroism which will be inherited by future generations.
This sad monument, built by the Fascist assassins’ hands, will remain for ever and will never be forgotten because it has left mortal wounds in our hearts.
Woe to those oppressors who do not respect the age, the courage and the incomparable heroism of Omar al-Mukhtar: but they cannot understand the significance of this quality.
The years cannot wipe out the horror of this crime, which struck the heart of all Arabs, and which will always remain as a stain on their history, washed as it is in the blood of innocents, of women, of men, of the aged and of children.
People of Tripoli and Barce!
Always remember that day when that greatest of misfortunes occurred.
You must always retain this memory so as to learn a lesson that will serve in future to tell you how to avenge yourselves for your martyrs.
In that memory there is a lesson that will encourage and bring about the vengeance on those who have colonized your country and who deprived you of your rights and who have killed and driven far away many of your men.
On this day we ask the Arab nation and its patriots to join with us in grief and sadness for the misfortune that we commemorate today.
Omar al-Mukhtar was not only the martyr of the Tripoli-Barce people, but he was the martyr of the whole Arab nation. The lessons of heroism and courage that he gave the Fascist armies do honour to all Arabs, because the Arab people are like one body united in their griefs and joys, and this truth should be known to westerners, who should know that we are united. This memory must not be forgotten, it must be kept in your hearts until the day when the Fascists have to account to the Arab nation for this assassination, unheard of in the history of the world.
Since Hollywood has always been hostile to the Arab cause, the fact that a film such as “Lion of the Desert” could be made at all is noteworthy. No doubt, without Moustapha Akkad’s involvement both as producer and director the film would have never seen the light of day. This Syrian, who was born in 1930, had a fascinating film career. In addition to the pro-Arab “Lion of the Desert,” he also produced “The Message” in 1976, a biography of the prophet Mohammad (again with Anthony Quinn in the cast as Mohammad’s uncle Hamza). In keeping with Muslim rules, the image of the prophet does not appear on screen but we hear his words.
While there is an obvious connection between “Lion of the Desert” and “The Message,” it is amazing to consider that Akkad also produced the Halloween horror movies! He died last November 12th, 2005 in circumstances that expose the contradictions now standing in the way of the emancipation of the Arab peoples called for by Omar Mukhtar’s supporters:
For a generation of Arabs, Moustapha Akkad’s historical epics became cultural icons the same way “Star Wars” did in the West.
Mr. Akkad was best-known in the United States as the executive producer and driving force behind the “Halloween” horror-movie series. But in the Arab world, he was known as the director of two much-admired films: a history of Islam and the story of a Libyan nationalist leader.
Mr. Akkad, 75, died Friday in a Jordanian hospital from injuries he sustained in one of the suicide bombings that struck three hotels Wednesday in Amman, the capital. The filmmaker and his daughter, Rima Akkad Monla, 34, were attending a wedding reception at the Radisson SAS hotel. She died Wednesday night, leaving behind a husband and two children. Mr. Akkad, who was divorced, also had three sons.
Hours after his death was announced, one Arab satellite channel broadcast his most famous movie, “The Message,” a sweeping history of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Released in 1976, the three-hour film gained a wide audience in the Arab world because of its sophisticated production and cinematography. The movie cost $17 million, a huge investment for a film at that time.
” `The Message’ came out at time when most Arab historical films were shoddy and had low budgets,” said Ali Abdullah, a Lebanese writer and critic. “Akkad made his film into an epic by using technology, large sets and thousands of extras.”
To reach Western audiences, Mr. Akkad refused to subtitle the Arabic film. Instead, he made a separate English version starring Anthony Quinn.
Religious leaders praised the movie for its positive portrayal of Islam. For example, Islamic tradition dictates that the prophet cannot be depicted on screen nor can his voice be heard. Throughout the film, actors who interact with Muhammad speak directly to the camera and then nod to unheard dialogue.
“I did this film because it was a personal thing for me,” Mr. Akkad told a newspaper in 1998. “Being a Muslim myself who lived in the West, I felt that it was my obligation, my duty, to tell the truth about Islam.”
The Seattle Times, November 12, 2005