by Sebastian Brito
The film Lion of the Desert, directed by Moustapha Akkad, is a pivotal period piece in Libya’s history for a multitude of reasons. Released in 1980, the film’s 2 hour and 53-minute runtime transcend that of its longevity, transporting the viewer to the early twentieth- century wartime era. This desert masterpiece is about Libyan leader, Omar Mukhtar, played by Anthony Quinn, fending off Italian oppression under the command of General Rodolfo Graziana, played by Oliver Reed and Benito Mussolini, who was played by Rod Steiger. Akkad directs a very realistic portrayal of fascist Italy in the pre- World War 2 era, not shying away from introducing heartbreaking deaths and dark visuals throughout the film. Regardless of its cruelty, the film also develops themes of resilience and optimism spearheaded by Mukhtar.
The legend, Omar Mukhar is a wise and educated Bedouin, entrusting his faith in God to lead him in the fight that he has been having for Libya for over 20 years. His opposition, General Graziani, is a fascist leader under Mussolini’s rule, obsessive with making his mark in Italy’s colonial history. Immediately within the film, we can see the shift between the technological advances both sides have. The Italians use tanks and heavy artillery while the Libyans resort to having to use horses and guerilla warfare tactics in order to compete with their oppressors. This makes it particularly easy to view the Italians as the enemy. Also, within the film, the audience is exposed to a multitude of different cultures from both the Italian and Libyan side. The shift between settings allows the viewer to actually feel as though they are placed within the early twentieth- century atmosphere. Whether it’s within the luxurious palaces in Italy or the desert dunes and mountains in Libya, the viewer is without a doubt emersed within the setting of this film.
One important concept to highlight within this film is the importance of the Libyan women in the film. The women within the film are not vocally prominent or have much of an importance to the actual battle between the Libyans and the Italians. However, they are symbolic within the story and actual history. The women in the film are connected to the fighting as they are mothers, wives and sisters to the men that are fighting. As Mukhtar himself said within the film, “The women are the connection to the future generations of Libyan Fighters”. An example of this within the film, is the woman and her child viewed throughout the film, of which her child is symbolic to the future Libyan fighters. Their importance to the future surpasses their need for vocal implementation within the film.
All in all, Moustapha Akkad wanted to command a film that was both honest in its content and allowed for the world to view Libyan and their struggles in a different light. His contribution to Libyan cinema garnered him as a pivotal director and content creator for Arabic History. He is the Real Lion of the Desert.