In 1929, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (Rod Steiger) is still faced with the 20-year-long war waged by patriots in the Italian colony of Libya to combat Italian colonization and the establishment of "The Fourth Shore"—the rebirth of a Roman Empire in Africa. Mussolini appoints General Rodolfo Graziani (Oliver Reed) as his sixth governor to Libya, confident that the eminently accredited soldier and fascist Grande can crush the rebellion and restore the dissipated glories of Imperial Rome. Omar Mukhtar (Anthony Quinn) leads the resistance to the fascists. A teacher by profession, guerrilla by obligation, Mukhtar had committed himself to a war that cannot be won in his own lifetime. Graziani controls Libya with the might of the Regio Esercito (Italian Royal Army). Tanks and aircraft are used in the desert for the first time. The Italians also committed atrocities: killing of prisoners of war, destruction of crops, and imprisoning populations in concentration camps behind barbed wire.
Despite their bravery, the Libyan Arabs and Berbers suffered heavy losses, their relatively primitive weaponry was no match for mechanised warfare; despite all this, they continued to fight, and managed to keep the Italians from achieving complete victory for 20 years. Graziani was only able to achieve victory through deceit, deception, violation of the laws of war and human rights, and by the use of tanks and aircraft.
Despite their lack of modern weaponry, Graziani recognised the skill of his adversary in waging guerrilla warfare. In one scene, Mukhtar refuses to kill a defenseless young officer, instead giving him the Italian flag to return with. Mukhtar says that Islam forbids him to kill captured soldiers and demands that he only fight for his homeland, and that Muslims are taught to hate war itself.
In the end, Mukhtar is captured and tried as a rebel. His lawyer, Captain Lontano, states that since Mukhtar had never accepted Italian rule, he cannot be tried as a rebel, and instead must be treated as a prisoner of war (which would save him from being hanged). The judge rejects this, and the film ends with Mukthar being publicly executed by hanging.Anthony Quinn as Omar Mukhtar
Oliver Reed as General Graziani
Irene Papas as Mabrouka
Raf Vallone as Diodiece
Rod Steiger as Mussolini
Sir John Gielgud as El Gariani
Andrew Keir as Salem
Gastone Moschin as Tomelli
Stefano Patrizi as Sandrini
Adolfo Lastretti as Sarsani
Sky Dumont as Prince Amedeo, Duke of Aosta
Takis Emmanuel as Bu-Matari
Rodolfo Bigotti as Ismail
Robert Brown as Al Fadeel
Eleonora Stathopoulou as Ali's Mother
Luciano Bartoli as Captain Lontano
Claudio Goro as Court President
Giordano Falzoni as Judge at Camp
Franco Fantasia as Graziani's Aide
Ihab Werfaly as Ali
The musical score of Lion Of The Desert was composed and conducted by Maurice Jarre, and it was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.
Track Listing for the First Release on LP
- Omar the Teacher / Italian Invasion / Resistance / The Lion of the Desert (19:12)
- The Displacement / The Concentration Camp / The Death/March of Freedom (19:33)
Track Listing for the First Release on CD
- Omar the Teacher (04:26)
- Prelude: Libya 1929 (02:24)
- The Execution of Hamid (05:04)
- Desert Ambush (01:46)
- Omar Enters Camp (04:15)
- The Empty Saddle (01:49)
- March to Demination (05:19)
- Ismail's Sacrifice (02:36)
- I Must Go (02:27)
- Graziani's Triumph (01:41)
- Entr'acte (02:19)
- Concentration Camp (03:15)
- Italian Invasion (01:32)
- Starvation (00:53)
- The Hanging (01:27)
- General Graziani (03:00)
- Charge (01:23)
- Phoney Triumph (04:38)
- Omar's Wife (03:22)
- Omar Taken (02:38)
- The Death of Omar (01:38)
- March of Freedom (With Choir) (03:59)
The Italian authorities had banned the film in 1982 because, in the words of Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, it was "damaging to the honor of the army". The last act of the government's intervention against the film was on April 7, 1987, in Trento; afterward, MPs from Democrazia Proletaria asked Parliament to show the movie at the Chamber of Deputies.
The movie was finally broadcast on television in Italy by Sky Italy on June 11, 2009 during the official visit to Italy of Libya's then leader Muammar Gaddafi.
In 2015, the book Staging Memory by Stefania Del Monte dedicates a whole section to the movie.
Cinema historian Stuart Galbraith IV writes about the movie: "A fascinating look inside a facet of Arab culture profoundly significant yet virtually unknown outside North Africa and the Arab world. 'Lion of the Desert' is a Spartacus-style, David vs. Goliath tale that deserves more respect than it has to date. It's not a great film, but by the end it becomes a compelling one."
The verdict of British historian Alex von Tunzelmann about the movie is: "Omar Mukhtar has been adopted as a figurehead by many Libyan political movements, including both Gaddafi himself and the rebels currently fighting him. 'Lion of the Desert' is half an hour too long and hammy in places, but its depiction of Italian colonialism and Libyan resistance is broadly accurate."
Film critic Vincent Canby writes: "Spectacular… virtually an unending series of big battle scenes."
Clint Morris describes the movie as: "A grand epic adventure that'll stand as a highpoint in the producing career of Moustapha Akkad."