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Saturday, November 9, 2013

LION OF THE DESERT -- Blu-ray review by porfle

For many of us, the name "Moustapha Akkad" is a long-familiar one--it's the first name you see at the beginning of the credits for HALLOWEEN. But the Syrian-born producer of John Carpenter's classic fright-fest (killed in Jordan in 2005 along with his daughter during an al-Qaeda bombing) was also an accomplished director,  and in 1981 he came up with something rather epic--a sweeping saga of Muslim desert fighters fending off Mussolini's invading military forces in 1929 Libya, and particularly their wise and brave leader Omar Mukhtar, known as LION OF THE DESERT. 

Anthony Quinn plays the grizzled old teacher-turned-warrior as you might expect, as a warm, conscientious sage of deepest humanity and highest principle whose every statement resonates like a carefully-considered quotation.

It's less a performance than it is Quinn posing for a portrait of Omar Mukhtar as reverentially painted by Akkad. 

In contrast, Oliver Reed gets to indulge his broader acting impulses as General Rodolfo Graziani, sent to Libya by Il Duce to solve the Mukhtar problem which, as the film begins, is now in its twentieth year.

Graziani is a brash, temperamental primadonna who loves being a soldier and fighting one-sided battles that allow him to demolish his opponent and be recognized as a brilliant strategist.

Reed plays the part like a passionate musician--I love to watch him act.  When he's agitated he always seems on the verge of turning into a werewolf as he did in the Hammer classic CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF.

But here, he eventually reels himself in and in doing so becomes even more fascinating to watch, whether gloating over a victory or, later, savoring each nuance in a one-on-one philosophical exchange with the captured Mukhtar.  

And he's a model of restraint compared to Rod Steiger as Mussolini, who gets to stomp around like a big baby and yell his head off to his heart's content in big, echo-y rooms (the sets in his headquarters in Rome are stunning).

However, the role of Il Duce seems to lend itself to this style of boisterous overacting--in fact, in a couple of pre-WWII comedy shorts he was portrayed by none other than superstooge Curly Howard!

The film itself qualifies as a bonafide epic thanks to some scenes of genuine visual sweep and grandeur.  This is evident mostly during the many spectacular battles but also in the sprawling concentration camp scenes as well, which feature some  emotionally-charged moments such as a young woman bravely facing the gallows as her mother (Irene Papas) hides her son's face from the sight,  or a conscience-stricken young Italian officer risking court-martial and execution himself for refusing to hang civilians.

To my delight, Gastone Moschin, the guy who played Fanucci ("The Black Hand") in THE GODFATHER PART II, gets two of the most powerful scenes--one in which he leads an invading force into an unsuspecting village with devastating results, and another in which the Bedouin defenders launch a surprise retaliation.

Raf Vallone, who was Cardinal Lamberto in THE GODFATHER PART III, is quietly effective as an Italian colonel who actually admires Omar Mukhtar and wishes to sit down and reason with him on friendly terms--as long as that reason involves his eventual concession to Italy's invasion of his country.  Also in the cast are John Gielgud and Andrew Keir.

Despite all of its good points, however, it took me a few sittings to get through LION OF THE DESERT because a lot of it isn't exactly edge-of-your-seat entertainment.  The thrilling action sequences hit fast and hard, sometimes grandly staged and with some startling stuntwork (although, unfortunately, an abundance of horse tripping).  But the story advances in fits and starts, with static dialogue scenes jumping abruptly into blazing battle sequences without warning and then back again.

Much of the first half of the film is slow and dry, at least until we become accustomed to its particular style of storytelling.  Fortunately,  I was able to gear down and begin to appreciate the subtleties of the performances and Akkad's understated but assured direction.

As for Anchor Bay's new Blu-ray release of the film, I noticed right off the bat that the opening titles were slightly compressed, which means that the 1.78:1image is, to some extant, cropped from its original aspect ratio.  This doesn't bother me all that much, but those looking for a definitive version of the film will be disappointed. 

There are also no extras and no subtitles, the latter being of special interest to me since I've become a bit hard of hearing over the years (although this is such a visual movie that the dialogue doesn't really matter all that much anyway.)  Maurice Jarre's musical score is expansive and often overpowering.

The final ten minutes or so, depicting the captured Omar Mukhtar's eventual fate at the hands of General Graziani, are most unusual for an epic movie filled with such intense battle scenes and shocking violence.  The whole thing plays out slowly, deliberately, and in almost total silence.  I was captivated and deeply moved, and I found myself mulling it over long after the closing credits began.  Whatever its faults, LION OF THE DESERT has an understated emotional power that resonates. 

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