Lion of the Desert

Lion of the Desert is a 1981 Libyan historical epic war film about the Second Italo-Senussi War, starring Anthony Quinn as Libyan tribal leader Omar Mukhtar, a Bedouin leader fighting the Regio Esercito (Italian Royal Army) 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 Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.[1] Released in May 1981, the film has received positive reviews from critics, but performed poorly at the box office, gaining revenues of US$1.5 million worldwide despite having a $35 million budget.[2][3] The film was banned in Italy in 1982 and was only shown on pay TV in 2009.

Lion of the Desert
Lion of the Desert DVD cover
Lion of the Desert
Directed byMoustapha Akkad
Produced byMoustapha Akkad
Written byH.A.L. Craig
StarringAnthony Quinn
Oliver Reed
Rod Steiger
Raf Vallone
Music byMaurice Jarre
CinematographyJack Hildyard
Edited byJohn Shirley
Falcon International Productions
Distributed byUnited Film Distribution Company
Release date
  • 17 April 1981 (1981-04-17)
Running time
163 minutes
United States
BudgetUS$35 million


In 1929, Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini (Rod Steiger) is still faced with the 20-year-long war waged by patriots in the Italian colony of 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 and fascist Grande 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 Regio Esercito (Italian Royal 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 imprisoning populations in concentration camps behind barbed wire.

The film starts by introducing the audience to the historical context of the film. This introductory scene is part of historic records that show us the rise of fascism in Italy, and how it impacted Libya tragically. The scene concludes by telling us that the characters and the events in this film are real and based on historical facts. The first scene after the introduction starts with Mussolini in Italy, who created the Fascist Party in Italy, complaining about his generals’ defeats in Italy. In order to crush the Libyan revolution after twenty years of failure, and after losing five of the best Italian generals, Mussolini sends his most skillful general, Graziani, to Libya. This scene is then contrasted with a scene of Omar Al-Mokhtar, the old teacher who turned into a fighting rebel during the Italian colonization, teaching his young students in Libya. Graziani goes to Libya and starts his campaign to crush the revolution. The Libyans show great resistance and make enormous sacrifices to defend their country.

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.

Omar Al-Mokhtar shows great resistance and wisdom in leading the resistance movement. He enters into negotiations with the Italians to liberate Libya, but never reaches a deal with them because they pretend that they want to negotiate only to win time. They ask him for significant concessions and promise him some materialistic rewards to end the resistance movement, but Al-Mukhtar never accepts any of that, even after they captured him. They hang him in public to show the Libyans that resisting them is useless, but the resistance does not stop with his death.

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, Captain Lontano, 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 publicly executed by hanging.



The musical score of Lion of the Desert was composed and conducted by Maurice Jarre, and it was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.


Track Listing for the First Release on LP


  1. Omar the Teacher / Italian Invasion / Resistance / The Lion of the Desert (19:12)


  1. The Displacement / The Concentration Camp / The Death/March of Freedom (19:33)

Track Listing for the First Release on CD

  1. Omar the Teacher (04:26)
  2. Prelude: Libya 1929 (02:24)
  3. The Execution of Hamid (05:04)
  4. Desert Ambush (01:46)
  5. Omar Enters Camp (04:15)
  6. The Empty Saddle (01:49)
  7. March to Demination (05:19)
  8. Ismail's Sacrifice (02:36)
  9. I Must Go (02:27)
  10. Graziani's Triumph (01:41)
  11. Entr'acte (02:19)
  12. Concentration Camp (03:15)
  13. Italian Invasion (01:32)
  14. Starvation (00:53)
  15. The Hanging (01:27)
  16. General Graziani (03:00)
  17. Charge (01:23)
  18. Phoney Triumph (04:38)
  19. Omar's Wife (03:22)
  20. Omar Taken (02:38)
  21. The Death of Omar (01:38)
  22. March of Freedom (With Choir) (03:59)

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".[4] 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.[4]

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.

In 2015, the book Staging Memory by Stefania Del Monte dedicates a whole section to the movie.


Cinema historian Stuart Galbraith IV writes about the movie: "A fascinating look inside a facet of Arab culture profoundly significant yet virtually unknown outside North Africa and the Arab world. 'Lion of the Desert' is a Spartacus-style, David vs. Goliath tale that deserves more respect than it has to date. It's not a great film, but by the end it becomes a compelling one."[5]

The verdict of British historian Alex von Tunzelmann about the movie is: "Omar Mukhtar has been adopted as a figurehead by many Libyan political movements, including both Gaddafi himself and the rebels currently fighting him. 'Lion of the Desert' is half an hour too long and hammy in places, but its depiction of Italian colonialism and Libyan resistance is broadly accurate."[6]

Film critic Vincent Canby writes: "Spectacular… virtually an unending series of big battle scenes."[7]

Clint Morris describes the movie as: "A grand epic adventure that'll stand as a highpoint in the producing career of Moustapha Akkad."[8]

See also


  1. Omar Mukhtar - Lion of the Desert
  2. "Lion of the Desert".
  3. "Latest Ranking on Cumulative Box Office Lists".
  4., Culture and Books Review, third year, twenty-fourth issue (Sept-Oct 2005) (retrieved January 4, 2007)
  5. Lion of the Desert: 25th Anniversary Edition, Review by Stuart Galbraith IV,, 07.12.2005
  6. Lion of the Desert roars for Libya's rebels, The Guardian, Alex von Tunzelmann, 30.06.2011.
  7. LION OF THE DESERT, BEDOUIN VS. MUSSOLINI, New York Times, 17.04.1981
  8. Film Threat, 8 July 2010, Review by Clint Morris
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