‘Lion of the desert’
A film about Libya’s resistance to colonialism
Published Apr 8, 2011 10:44 PM
1931: Italian colonialists take Mukhtar captive
at age 73, then execute him.
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
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
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.
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