By Deirdre Griswold
Published Apr 8, 2011 10:44 PM
Now is a good time to watch, either again or for the first time, the powerful 1981 film “Lion of the Desert.” It tells the story of Omar Mukhtar, a legendary leader of the armed resistance to Italy’s colonial conquest of Libya.
Starring Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas, the film is a drama based on historical fact. It includes documentary footage the Italian government shot of the immense concentration camps they set up and the planes they used to strafe and bomb the Libyan people. “Lion” was directed by a Syrian, Moustapha Akkad.
Italy declared Libya its colony in 1911, during the mad scramble by Western capitalist powers to grab new territories before the first inter-imperialist world war broke out in 1914.
From 1911 until 1931, Mukhtar, a teacher of the Qu’ran who had earlier participated in resistance to the French colonizers in Chad, led the guerrilla struggle in Libya against the Italian Army. His mobile bands of horsemen outflanked and outwitted armored columns, scoring many victories as Italy’s newly developed desert tanks floundered in the loose sand.
So successful in combat were the freedom fighters that by the late 1920s, after Mussolini’s fascists had come to power in Italy, the occupiers decided to cut off the guerrilla forces from their source of support by rounding up a million villagers and forcing them into huge, barbed-wire-enclosed concentration camps. Many died from disease, brutality and starvation.
The Italian military used airplanes in 1911 for surveillance, a year later to drop bombs, and then against civilians in Libya, all for the first time. The air war helped turn the tide in favor of the oppressors. Mukhtar was captured in battle in 1931, quickly “tried” by a colonial court, and within days was hanged in front of his people, who were forced to witness his execution inside one of the camps. He was 73 years old.
Unfortunately, because of the way Hollywood does things, there are no Libyans or other Arabs in leading roles in the film. However, Quinn, a great actor of Mexican-Irish descent, plays the role of Mukhtar with strength, sensitivity and skill. Papas, who is Greek, is also very moving as a woman who loses her husband and small son to the colonizers’ brutality. “Lion of the Desert” is easily available on DVD.
In 2009, in a pointed reminder of this history, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi wore a photograph of Mukhtar on his chest while on a state visit to Rome. He also brought Mukhtar’s elderly son with him.