Home | Movie Index


previous | next

Lion of the Desert

Lion of the Desert is about Italy's colonization of Libya and resistance led by Omar Mukhtar (played by Anthony Quinn). Mukhtar remains a hero to many Libyans, including Muammar Gaddafi.

The movie has a lot of battle scenes, with tanks and other motorized vehicles against Libyans on horseback. It has aerial photographs of Italy's concentration camps. The film was paid for by Gaddafi and distributed in 1981. Near the film's end it depicts Mukhtar's capture and execution by hanging, in 1931.

To move briefly from the movie to the issue of the concentration camps, more than 80,000 Libyans, between May and September 1930 are described as having been taken 300 at a time and forced into concentration camps. There is the claim that fifty-five percent of them died in the camps. The Italian historian Gentile described this as an exaggeration, that only a few thousand died – mainly of disease and starvation. (A Google search produces more information on the camps.) The intensity of Gaddafi's outrage regarding Italy's behavior must have had an impact on him. A photo (which I have no right to use) shows Gaddafi wearing a photo of Omar Mukhtar on the way to his execution – the same photo as is displayed to the right.

Omar Mukhtar in chains

The real Omar Mukhtar in chains. Courtesy of Wikimedia

The movie depicts prominent elite in Libya joining themselves to Italian rule – unlike Omar Mukhtar. The accomplished British actor John Gielgud played Sharif el-Gariani. Wikipedia describes el-Gariani as a "religious sheik and statesman" who "believed that the Italians were invincible." It adds that,

Sharif El Gariani was demeaned in the film Lion of the Desert. Sharif was portrayed as a traitor offering his services to the occupying Italians, and who was ready to give any information [that] would lead to Mukhtar's capture.

There was a legal-shmegal aspect to Italy's colonization. In 1912 the Ottoman sultan ceded Libya to the Italians by signing a 1912 treaty at Lausanne (not to be confused with the more famous treaty at Lausanne in 1923).

On 25 October 1920, the Italian government recognized Sheikh Sidi Idris as the hereditary head of the nomadic Senussi, with wide authority in Kufra and other oases, as Emir of Cyrenaica, a new title extended by the British at the close of World War I. The emir would eventually become King of the free Libyan state – the man whom Gaddafi and his comrades would overthrow.

The movie showed Omar Mukhtar as religiously devout, which he was in real life. He had been educated in a mosque and with his abilities won the opportunity to study for eight years at the Senussi University at Al-Jaghbub. The Senussi is an Islamic order founded in Mecca in 1837, the same order that Sharif El Gariani and Sheikh Sidi Idris belonged to. Mukhtar was a skilled military tactician, and was depicted in the movie as a man of common sense and a sense of justice, and he was recognized by his fellow Libyans of the desert as their leader. I don't recall any mention of tribal affiliations in the movie – which suits Gaddafi's point of view.

Military brilliance, it seems, does not require study at a Western military academy (and some who did were dolts). Will such brilliance emerge among the anti-Gaddafi forces? (Written on April 8, 2011.)

The film's producer and director was Moustapha Akkad, who studied film direction and production at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). He and his daughter were murdered by a suicide bomber in 2005 in Lebanon. More about him, his film and its distribution problems is described in a 2005 article by Charles Paul Freund at reason.com, titled "Lion of the Desert, Fanatics in the Street".

The film is available full-length online. Google lion of the desert videos.

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved