Few directors have had as peculiar a filmography as Moustapha Akkad, the Syrian American director and producer, whose film work began as a director of Mohammed, Messenger of God (1976), an ambitious film charting the origins of Islam, but who is perhaps better known as the producer of the series of Halloween films. The director/producer, who was killed by a suicide bomber in a hotel in Jordan in 2005, was at the time working on producing a film about Saladin, the great Muslim warrior who vanquished the Crusaders. It’s impossible to know how that film would have fared. Certainly the defeat of western forces by a Muslim hero wouldn’t have been guaranteed box office success in the west even if Sean Connery was due to play the main role.
The re-release of Akkad’s one other film as director, Lion of the Desert (1981), is proof that Akkad, who studied film at UCLA, was a competent director of historic epics. Peckinpah may have been his mentor there but it is David Lean who, on the evidence of this film, was the greater inspiration. Set in Libya in 1929, the film focuses on Omar Mukhtar (Anthony Quinn) the Bedouin leader who had been a thorn in the side of Italian colonial ambitions since their arrival there in 1911. The regular defeats and acts of sabotage prompt Mussolini (Rod Steiger) to send General Graziani (Oliver Reed) to the region in order to crush the rebellion and rescue both Italy’s and the dictator’s reputation.
The impressive scale of Akkad’s film, the lavish sets, dramatic scenery and huge cast was made possible by significant financial investment secured from Colonel Gadaffi. This may have allowed the director to surmount logistical difficulties in staging large scale desert and mountain battles, and, most impressively, one in which a convoy of tanks is ambushed (as well as securing the services of Quinn, Steiger, Reed and also Gielgud), but that connection also worked against the film, which fared badly in the west on its release. That the film was banned in Italy until only recently is hardly surprising: the film is not simply a hagiography (Quinn portrays the elderly Mukhtar as a contemplative and sensitive figure, who commands respect not just among his own people but even his opponents) but also an account of a historical episode seldom discussed in the west. Akkad seeks to make his film more than a historical epic, more than mere entertainment, by imbuing his portrayal of the period with some authenticity through the inclusion of documentary footage which shows Italian brutality, including their concentration camps in which at least 50,000 people died. Nor does the director shy away from killing off important characters, or from seeing sons, mothers and children tortured, hanged and slaughtered – a reminder both of fascist cruelty and of how unusual it has become for contemporary films to show this level of suffering. The director gets good performances from his cast, most of whom had their best work behind them; Quinn is on excellent form, as is Reed. The former is convincingly stoic, the quiet but principled figure set in opposition to the latter’s brash general, the ‘Butcher of Fezzan’. Reed is less hammy than he was in some of his later roles and certainly less so than Steiger – though Il Duce hardly lent himself to subtle interpretation.
It’s hard to know how much interest such a film will generate. The set pieces are generally well handled and the cast solid, but the pacing is slow compared with modern war films. Still, a film in which a wily Muslim cleric eludes capture from western imperialist forces by hiding out in the mountains with a small group of loyal followers is not without contemporary appeal.