Lion of the Desert is a 1981 Libyan historical action film starring Anthony Quinn as Libyan tribal leader Omar Mukhtar, a Bedouin leader fighting the Italian army in the years leading up to World War II and Oliver Reed as Italian General Rodolfo Graziani, who attempted to defeat Mukhtar. It was directed by Moustapha Akkad and funded by the government under Muammar Gaddafi.
Released in May 1981, the film was liked by critics and audiences but
performed poorly financially, bringing in just $1 million dollars net
In 1929, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (Rod Steiger) is still faced with the 20-year long war waged by patriots in Libya to combat Italian colonization and the establishment of “The Fourth Shore“—the rebirth of a Roman Empire in Africa. Mussolini appoints General Rodolfo Graziani (Oliver Reed)
as his sixth governor to Libya, confident that the eminently accredited
soldier can crush the rebellion and restore the dissipated glories of
Imperial Rome. Omar Mukhtar (Anthony Quinn) leads the resistance to the fascists. A teacher by profession, guerrilla by obligation, Mukhtar had committed himself to a war that cannot be won in his own lifetime. Graziani controls Libya with the might of the Italian Army.
Tanks and aircraft are used in the desert for the first time. The
Italians also committed atrocities: killing of prisoners of war,
destruction of crops, and hamletting populations behind barbed wire.
Despite their bravery, the Libyan Arabs and Berbers
suffered heavy losses, their relatively primitive weaponry was no match
for mechanised warfare; despite all this, they continued to fight, and
managed to keep the Italians from achieving complete victory for 20
years. Graziani was only able to achieve victory through deceit,
deception, violation of the laws of war and human rights, and by the use
of tanks and aircraft.
Despite their lack of modern weaponry, Graziani recognised the
skill of his adversary in waging guerrilla warfare. In one scene,
Mukhtar refuses to kill a defenseless young officer, instead giving him
the Italian flag to return with. Mukhtar says that Islam
forbids him to kill captured soldiers and demands that he only fight
for his homeland, and that Muslims are taught to hate war itself.
In the end, Mukhtar is captured and tried as a rebel. His lawyer
states that since Mukhtar had never accepted Italian rule, he cannot be
tried as a rebel, and instead must be treated as a prisoner of war
(which would save him from being hanged). The judge rejects this, and
the film ends with Mukthar being executed by hanging.
Censorship in Italy
The Italian authorities had banned the film in 1982 because, in the words of Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, it was “damaging to the honor of the army”. The last act of the government’s intervention against the film was on April 7, 1987, in Trento; afterward, MPs from Democrazia Proletaria asked Parliament to show the movie at the Chamber of Deputies.
The movie was finally broadcast on television in Italy by Sky Italy on June 11, 2009 during the official visit to Italy of Libya’s then leader Muammar Gaddafi.