Saturday 7 December 2013

LION OF THE DESERT - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Moustapha Akkad's 2nd Epic of Islam a Total Rip-Snorter!

Omar Mukhtar (Anthony Quinn) leads his people in warfare against the Italian colonization of Libya. Mussolini's (Rod Steiger) fascist forces suffer one resounding defeat after another at the hands of the Bedouin rebel armies until a new sherif comes to town in the form of the prancing martinet General Rodolfo Graziani (Oliver Reed). Not willing to disappoint Il Duce, he employs the slippery tactics of British colonialists which, include the employment of concentration camps, building a barbed wire wall along Libya's border and engaging in deceptive peace talks. Mukhtar then launches a massive, bloody suicide offensive to instil added power and glory within his people.

Lion of the Desert (1981) Dir. Moustapha Akkad ****
Starring: Anthony Quinn, Oliver Reed, Rod Steiger, Raf Vallone, John Gielgud

Review By Greg Klymkiw

One of cinema's biggest losses was when filmmaker Moustapha Akkad stopped making epic works about Islam after his rousing Bedouins Vs. Fascists rip-snorter The Lion in the Desert failed to connect with Western audiences in the early 80s. This was not through any fault of the picture itself, but a concerted effort to censor it via clearly intentional film industry indifference at both the distribution and exhibition levels outside of predominantly Muslim countries. One can only assume how much more positive an impact the work might have had politically, socially and culturally if more than just the "converted" had actually been allowed to experience its sweep and power.

Alas, when the New World Order of the Western World chooses to repress anything that presents it in any light other than positive, its success rate at doing so is virtually unbeatable.

This, of course, is why the efforts of Anchor Bay to bring his work to wider audiences via home entertainment formats is to be so vigorously applauded. Akkad's The Message, a biopic - albeit one of the strangest and most original of its genre - about Mohammed, the great prophet who founded the religious faith devoted to Allah and Lion of the Desert, the story of Libyan freedom fighter Omar Mukhtar, are both available in DVD and now in first-rate Blu-Ray editions for new generations to appreciate both the quality and the message imparted by this formidable pair.

Lion of the Desert is a truly sumptuous treat for lovers of stirring war epics. As a director, Akkad really found his voice and a mastery of his gifts.

Though the film might lack some of the clear intellectual, spiritual and artistic rigour of someone like David Lean, it's important to note this was only Akkad's second picture, a sophomore effort of such sweep and command of the medium that one can only lament how far he might have been able to move forward if opportunity to keep making films had been in the cards for him. Expertly commanding great work from such stalwart collaborators as cinematographer Jack (The Bridge on the River Kwai) Hildyard, editor John (Live and Let Die) Shirley and composer Maurice (Dr. Zhivago) Jarre, Akkad delivers a picture that's replete with thrills and excitement.

The battle sequences are amongst some of the best ever filmed and in this day of CGI, we get a clear sense of how magnificent the real thing actually is. Here we get a genuine cast of thousands sweeping across the screen, thundering across the desert with swords raised and always ready to connect with the flesh of the fascist infidel.

Bolstering this huge, glorious, old-fashioned adventure of a rebel army preserving its people and its faith is a tremendous cast. Anthony Quinn is heroism incarnate and he handles both sides of Omar Mukhtar (the gentle teacher, the fierce soldier) with his usual aplomb. Rod Steiger is especially amazing in his portrayal of Il Duce. He fulfills the requisite bursts of insanity and petulance of the mad Italian dictator in a manner that's completely outside of Steiger's penchant for chewing the scenery. There's no whiff of the usual ham that Steiger could bring to roles with his eyes closed.

And let it be said that the late, great Oliver Reed ignites the screen with his smouldering presence. He seems born to play the fiercely ambitious Italian general who eventually brought Mukhtar down and - DAMN! - if Reed doesn't look ultra-cool in fascist military finery.

This is a movie that's as rousing as any great war picture should be, but the special treat is that our heroes are Muslim freedom fighters. It's a joy to see an alternate side of the coin, especially since Islam has been providing Hollywood with an endless supply of cliched villains du jour since 9/11.

As well, Akkad wisely and intelligently avoids painting the fascist villains with propagandistic simplicity - they're real flesh and blood characters - a far sight better than how Hollywood usually treats its Islam-worshipping "villains".

Lion of the Desert and Akkad's The Message were financed by Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi (Rompin' Ronnie Reagan's nemesis throughout the 80s). In spite of America's hatred for Gaddafi, he offered, provided and maintained a strictly hands-off approach to financing both films and exercised no censorship whatsoever. This, of course, is a far cry from the overt and/or subtle censorship of American cinema via the government, New World Order and/or the studios.

Sadly, Akkad never got to make his dream project Saladin, an epic that was to star Sean Connery as the great Muslim leader who fought against the injustices of the Crusades. During pre-production in 2005, Akkad and his daughter were killed in the bombings that took place in Amman, Jordan. This would have resulted in a historic trilogy of major epics on Islam, but was not to be.

Luckily, we have Akkad to thank for making two huge motion pictures in an attempt to bridge the divide between Islam and the Western World and Lion of the Desert does so with explosively memorable thrills and sheer boys' adventure-styled excitement..

"Lion of the Desert" is available on Blu-Ray in a gorgeous new transfer from Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada.