Lion of the Desert (1981)

General Rodolfo Graziani, a member of Mussolini’s inner-circle, was one of the 20th century’s worst war criminals, but he paid little price for his crimes. Unlike the Germans and Japanese, the Italians were not subjected to Allied military tribunals, so he wasn’t hanged at Nuremberg. What’s more, even though an Italian military tribunal did find him guilty of collaborating with the Nazis and sentence him to 19 years in prison, he was released after only a few months, and even went on to become the “honorary president” of a neo-fascist organization called The Italian Social Movement in 1953. In 1955, he died comfortably in bed at the age of 72.

If Americans often think of Italian fascism as less violently racist than German fascism, then it probably has something to do with how the worst of Mussolini’s atrocities took place, not in Europe, but in Libya and Ethiopia. For most of our popular historians, black lives seem to matter less than Jewish lives. But Mussolini was more than just the clownish opening act for Adolf Hitler. In Libya, in the late 1920s, in the north-eastern region of Cyrenaica, the Duche’s henchman Graziani, “the Butcher of Fezzan,” forced over 100,000 people into concentration camps, where, according to most estimates, at least 80,000 people died. He also pioneered the use of aerial bombardment against civilians almost a decade before Guernica, and ordered the construction of a barbed wire fence all along the Egyptian border, a project that dwarfed both the Berlin Wall, and the Israeli “anti-terrorist” wall in Palestine. Later, in Ethiopia, the Italian army would go onto massacre over 30,000 people in retaliation for his attempted assassination.

“The Duce will have Ethiopia, with or without the Ethiopians,” he infamously remarked.

Lion of the Desert is an unjustly neglected film about Omar Mukhtar, the Libyan resistance leader who fought the Italian occupation from 1911, when the Ottoman Empire retreated after the Italo-Turkish War, until 1931, when he was finally captured and hanged. Directed by Syrian filmmaker Moustapha Akkad and partially funded by the Libyan government under Muammar Gaddafi, it was banned in Italy for most of the 1980s, and never widely distributed in the United States. The reasons are political. Lion of the Desert is a great film about resistance to imperialism and fascist war crimes, far better than the ponderous Gandhi, or the manipulative Schindler’s List, but it doesn’t fit the framework of the “white saviour” story usually required by Hollywood. What’s more, Ariel Sharon would invade Lebanon the very next year, and the United States was awash in Islamophobia. The story of a North African, Muslim resistance movement fighting a genocidal, European colonizer probably hit a bit too close to home.

While it might be a stretch to compare Lion of the Desert to Gillo Pontecorvo’s great film The Battle of Algiers, both films end on a similar note, a tactical victory for imperialism, but a historical victory for the resistance to imperialism. In The Battle of Algiers, Colonel Mathieu crushes the leadership of the Algerian independence movement with forced labor, torture, and the overwhelming brute force of a first world army. In the end, however, he wins the battle, but loses the war. The French occupation of Algeria tears France apart. Algerian independence is inevitable.

Colonel Mathieu’s counterpart in Lion of the Desert, General Graziani, played by British actor Oliver Reed, wants to conquer not only a country, but a man. The film begins with an elegant, contrapuntal movement contrasting the Italian people under Mussolini with the Berber Bedouin people of north-eastern Libya. Graziani is not a cartoon villain. On the on contrary, he’s an intelligent, subtle man, a brave soldier, and deft political thinker. We can see exactly why Benito Mussolini would trust him with the difficult job of pacifying Libya. But if Graziani is an intelligent man, he’s also a brutal, coarse, vulgar man, the very embodiment of the harsh, martial culture of fascist Italy. By contrast, Omar Mukhtar, an elderly ex-school-teacher played by the Mexican American actor Anthony Quinn, is cultivated, poetic. He loves children, and hates war. Personal advancement doesn’t interest him at all. He only wants to serve God. If this sounds corny, sentimental, then it’s my writing, not the movie. Anthony Quinn is so convincing as a soft-spoken old man, a gentle father figure defending his country from a genocidal invader that he almost seems to become the father we all wish we had. In the film’s best single line, Omar Mukhtar and his resistance fighters set a clever ambush for one of Graziani’s patrols. They kill everybody except for one young office, a young man barely in his 20s. Mukhtar’s soldiers want to kill the young Italian, but his fatherly instinct takes over. He orders the young Italian to be released.

“They kill us,” one of the Libyan rebels says.

“Would you have them become our teachers?” Mukhtar responds.

Graziani, by contrast, has no trouble ordering the cold-blooded execution of a brave young Bedouin soldier who allows himself to be captured by the Italians rather than let Mukhtar fall into enemy hands. The Italian victory is as inevitable as their spiritual defeat. Graziani brings in more troops, tanks, heavy armored cars. Mukhtar’s clever knowledge of the local terrain, and his mastery of guerrilla warfare beats Graziani’s fist big push. “We’re not fighting an army,” Graziani concludes. “We’re fighting a people.” Take a page from the counterinsurgency manual, he decides that if Mukhtar’s fish swim in the sea, he’ll dry up the sea. The Italians then herd almost the entire population of the the Cyrenaica region of north-eastern Libya into concentration camps. This is non-fiction. Moustapha Akkad not only makes good use of his 30 million dollar budget, putting thousands of extras behind a gigantic stage constructed of barbed wire and guard towers. In a clever twist, he spices in newsreel footage of the real concentration camps The Butcher of Fezzan used in the 1920s. Did you really think the only concentration camps built by fascists during the Second World War were in Poland? Think again, the film tells us. But the concentration camps only stiffen Omar Mukhtar’s determination to fight on. In fact, as Moustapha Akkad, cracks begin to appear in the Italian facade. When the young officer that Mukhtar had declined kill refuses a direct order to carry out a mass execution of Libyan women, Graziani realizes that time is not on his side. Like the French in Algeria, like the Americans in Vietnam, like the Russians in Afghanistan and Eastern Europe, the Italian occupation of Libya is doomed to fail.

The Italian occupation of Libya is doomed to fail, but Rudolfo Graziani, the fascist war criminal, Mussolini’s right hand man, has options that Colonel Mathieu doesn’t. After Omar Mukhtar defeats a large Italian army, and evades a cleverly laid trap, Graziani realizes that he’s losing the chess game. He may have a large, first world army at his command, tanks, airplanes, armored cars, machine guns, concentration camps, and the free hand given to him by Benito Mussolini, but, man for man, he’s no match for Omar Mukhtar. So he sweeps the pieces off the board onto the floor and changes the rules of the game, yet again. The Cyrenaica province in northeast Libya, Mukhtar’s base, also abuts the borders of Egypt, where Mukhtar gets most of his supplies. Graziani travels back to Italy to get Mussolini’s permission to rebuild “Hadrian’s Wall” in north-eastern Libya, hundreds of miles of barbed wire, 270 kiometers long, running from Assalumm on the coast to Jaghbubin the deep south, 10 meters wide and 1.5 meter high. The historical reference wins Mussolini over. How can the Italian dictator resist being compared to one of the greatest of all Roman Emperors? What’s more, in a fascist state, unlike in a democracy, the government doesn’t have to worry about public approval. Perhaps the money would be better spent building schools in Milan than building a 200 mile long human cage in Cyrenaica, but it doesn’t matter. The Duche wants what the Duche wants.

Omar Mukhtar is a gifted military man, but even he can’t do the impossible. Cut off from his supply lines in Egypt, caged in on all sides by barbed wire, his people in concentration camps, he’s captured by the Italians and hanged in front of thousands of of his people. But Graziani’s victory is also his defeat. Omar Mukhtar would not take a bribe, save his life, betray his people, or go into retirement. He goes to his death with so much quiet dignity that the brutal Italian warlord realizes his mistake as soon as the rope snaps his neck. All the concentrated might of the Italian fascist empire has succeeded in doing is to kill one old man. The camera lingers on a little boy in the crowd. Mukhtar smiles at him. The next generation is ready to carry on the battle against colonialism.

Final Note: During the Libyan Civil War in 2011 and 2012, Gadaffi and the rebels both claimed to be heirs to the legacy of Omar Mukhtar. I suppose that’s both inevitable and a testament to Mukhtar’s status as a national hero. It’s also worth noting that while the Pentagon and the corporate media attempted to bring back The Battle of Algiers during the American occupation of Iraq, Lion of the Desert remains in obscurity. The American ruling class can deal with the idea that a Colonel Mathieu can ask us to make the “hard choices” we need for the good of the empire. They can’t take being exposed as fascists.

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