Saturday, December 17, 2005

In Memoriam: Lion of the Desert


Dir: Moustapha Akkad (Halloween 1-8 [Producer])

From The Economist 11-26-05:

"Of all the films to extol the fight for freedom from imperialism, one of the most cheering to Arab hearts is the rousing 1981 epic, 'Lion of the Desert'. A richly bearded Anthony Quinn plays the role of Omar Mukhtar, the simple Koran teacher who became a guerrilla hero, and for 20 years, from 1911-31, harassed the Italian forces bent on subduing Libya. In one memorable scene his Bedouin warriors, armed only with old rifles, hobble their own feet to ensure martyrdom as Mussolini's tanks roll inexorably toward them . . . . [The] film, glorifying the bravery of Muslim resistance fighters, happened to be one of the few productions explicitly endorsed on jihadist websites, albeit in a version that replaced the musical soundtrack with religious chants, and cut out all scenes showing women"

On November 9, 2005, the director Moustapha Akkad was one of 60 Arabs killed in an Al Qaeda suicide bombing of three Western hotels in Amman.

Watching this movie is a process greatly impacted by the conflict in Iraq and Islamist terrorism. First the film, then the politics.

Lion of the Desert is a competent historical epic. Akkad has clearly approached his subject with reverence, and much of the movie is dedicated to singing the praises of Omar Mukhtar, the leader of the Bedouin resistance against fascist Italian occupation. Anthony Quinn's performance as Mukhtar is the best part of the film, understated as the simple teacher who used native knowledge to fight off a modern mechanized army. Oliver Reed is also fine as the infamous Gen. Graziani, who decides to repress the Libyan people in the interests of breaking the resistance.

The film is largely formulaic, but it is a good forumla, one aided by several subtle shades. Graziani is bent on the "gentleman's warrior" thing, like Patton etc., and he primes the audience to expect a philosophical meeting between the two leaders at the end, remarking on the inevitability of war and the like. But Mukhtar fights not for glory but for resistance. By deflating the noble vision of military expansion, the movie does justice to the historical subject matter.

The battle scenes are hit and miss, the best being an artillery fight over a bridge. Akkad has certainly spared no expense, getting full use out of those tanks he bought. In one scene, alluded to by The Ecnomist, the resistance fighters have tied their legs together to prevent flight. Akkad takes his cue from Peckinpah and graphically shows the tanks severing the legs of the Libyans, as well as causing all sorts of other mayhem. The film certainly lacks subtlty in its construction of antagonists, but nothing is too egregious to trigger eye rolling.

As a film, it is the sort of thing I might recommend for a Sunday afternoon on TBS while you are cleaning the house.

But as a political document, the film has taken on new meaning for me after the Jordan bombings. The tremendous irony of Akkad's death, and the use of the movie as jihadist propaganda, were forward in my mind throughout the viewing. This is not a political blog, but some things do leap to mind.

I know little of this particular bit of history, but I have no doubt that the atrocities chronciled by Akkad happened. This is Mussolini, after all. The most powerful image in the film chronicles the situation within the "concentration camps" where the Bedouins were brought to cut a supply line to the resistance. A helicopter shot surveys a giant tent city and then fades into grainy balck-and-white stock footage of the actual complex, just in case any viewer thought the movie was using artistic liscence. The conflict in this movie, like that in The Battle of Algiers, has clear right and wrong. And in Lion of the Desert, all of Mukhtar's targets are military, avoiding the far more complicated questions of whether terrorism is ever justified as a tool of resistance or jihad.

The historical context of Arab and Western relations, I find myself often forgetting, is filled with many recent examples of where the former were clearly in the right. But a transposition of that logic onto jihad is, obviously, not a given. Mukhtar wins his moral high ground by defining himself against the fascists in the movie. He fights for freedom; they fight for conquest. He has the support of his people; the Italians jail officers for failing to follow orders and commit war crimes. He refuses to mistreat prisoners; they shoot the wounded. He only targets the military; they kill and imprison civilians.

Jihad fails all of these moral legitimacy tests, set forth in Al Qaeda's own chosen inspiration. But then, so does the United States. After Abu Ghraib, moral legitimacy in this conflict has become a matter of degree, not of kind. Who tortures more? That question does have a clear answer, one that in my mind rescues the West from charges of equivalence with Al Qaeda. But would the movie about the War on Terror be so clearly demarcated as Lion in the Desert? Or even The Battle of Algiers?

Akkad died in a cowardly attack on civilians in the name not of resistance (unless we grant Ward Churchill's logic to the bombers) but of the military expansion of an ideology. He has left us with a document that speaks to the motives behind his murder, one that it is well worthwhile to reckon with.



Blogger ronvon2 noted on 12/17/2005 05:45:00 PM that...

Random thoughts.

1. I believe Anthony Quinn has played every conceivable nationality.

2. My not having seen this film is an oversight I should soon remedy.

3. The US tortures, however unbeknownst to most Americans. McCain is fixing that, and many Americans are supporting him. That gives me hope. (but, the West have been bastards to these people)

4. I remember hearing that story and seeing the unfortunate irony. Unfortunately, I am certain that is lost on them.  

Blogger paroske noted on 12/17/2005 07:13:00 PM that...

On 3 (this sarcasm is not aimed at you but at the world)

Torture is already against army regulations and the law. By reasserting that it is thus, policy will change how?

Leaders whose word that they will not torture is good enough are not the leaders who were torturing in the first place.


Blogger ronvon2 noted on 12/17/2005 11:35:00 PM that...

Point well taken. My observation is more of popular support for (or public outrage to) the practice.  

Blogger maxwell noted on 12/18/2005 03:25:00 AM that...

What a hot review. I'm on this film like MAP at a cheapo buffet.

I didn't know about the film let alone that he died in the bombing. Damn -- it's heavy to think about the artists producing in warzones. It also makes me think about how the war on terror is changing the culture of make believe.

What are the films & TV shows about war/terrorism going to look like in the next 15 years. It seems like it takes at least a decade for work like Akkad's to come up (5 decades in his case) and in some struggles the movies never get made.