Filmed as Omar Mukhtar in 1979 at a cost reportedly exceeding $30 million, Lion of the Desert is a very well-produced, frequently-stirring war film about a Libyan anti-colonial hero.
Functional script by H.A.L. Craig concentrates on the Italians’ efforts in 1929-31 to conquer Libya. Mussolini (Rod Steiger in two effective scenes as the strutting fascist leader) sends his general Graziani (Oliver Reed) to put down the Bedouins led by Omar Mukhtar (Anthony Quinn). Quinn is a white-bearded old teacher and freedom fighter who has been battling the Italians for 20 years.
Film’s many large-scale battle scenes include two ingenious ambushes where Mukhtar succeeds in beating the better-equipped Italian forces. Producer-director Moustapha Akkad stages such action with laudable scope, but much of the battle footage is impersonal.
While never explicit, the overtones of the Bedouins’ desire for international recognition, Mukhtar’s insistence that confiscated lands must be returned (with new Italian settlements on them not to be tolerated) and other militant dialog emphasize parallels with today’s Palestinians.
Quinn is well cast as Omar Mukhtar and brings warmth and dimension to a stock national hero assignment.