John Locke said it as well as anyone and more honestly than most: empire -building as a way of live involves taking wealth and freedom away from others in order to use it for your own welfare, pleasure and power.
The Italians invaded Libya in 1911 but by 1929, had been unable to conquer and subdue the land held by Bedouin tribesman. Benito Mussolini, convinced that expansion was the opiate of the people, wanted to recreate the Roman Empire in North Africa. The only man standing in his way was Omar Mukhtar, a teacher and scholar transformed into a guerrilla leader.
Mussolini sends General Rodolfo Graziani to Libya to wipe out Mukhtar's army of desert fighters and to capture and bring to trial the feisty commander. The shrewd, power-hungry and amoral Graziani soon realizes that the proprieties of European warfare will not work in the desert against the guerrilla insurgency. He beings pillaging villages, slaying suspects, and taking women as whores for his soldiers. But Mukhtar knows how to use the mysteries of the desert to his advantage; he retaliates with a total triumph over one of Graziani's highly armed divisions.
Lion of the Desert is an operatic film photographed, acted, and orchestrated in the grand manner of Lawrence of Arabia. The cinematography of Jack Hidyard (The Bridge Over the River Kwai) is handsome and rich in its variety of landscapes and panoramas, Maurice Jarre's music accentuates the film's many dramatic battle sequences and the touching scenes of individual pain, loss, and momentary joy. Especially fine in this regard are several Bedouin dances and as scene showing Mukhtar's tenderness with a young boy whose father has been killed in a skirmish.
Anthony Quinn puts in a stellar performance as Mukhtar, a complicated man who is a Koran scholar, a fortress of strength, and a freedom figher par excellence. Oliver Reed's Graziani is a brilliant and amoral twentieth-century military technician who thirsts for a place in history. He is willing to use technological war machines and concentration camps to achieve his goal. Rod Steiger is featured as Mussolini and John Gielgud as a Bedouin turncoat, and Raf Vallone as an Italian officer who disagrees with Graziani's brutal treatment of Mukhtar.
In an essay on freedom, Eugene Kennedy, a professor of psychology at Loyola University, has written: "This is the mystery bound up with freedom. Only those who accept limitations discover that they thereby transcend them; only those who give things away freely find that they do not lose anything in the process; only those who accept death find the full freedom to live."
Moustapha Akkad explored the moral dimensions of the prophet Muhammed in his epic film The Message. In Lion in the Desert, he presents Omar Muktar as a heroic figure who understands and exemplifies the spiritual dimensions of freedom. Although Mussolini and Graziani win the day and execute the Bedouin leader, they lose the battle. For Mukhtar passes on his transcendental vision of liberty to his people. Although there are many technical achievements in this production, it succeeds even more as a testament to the indomitable beauty of the human spirit.