Lion of the Desert

As a rational human being, a humanist and an artist, I offer my heartfelt sympathies to the families and loved ones effected by the terror bombings in Amman, Jordan. It should go without saying that all forms of terrorism are heinous, and that the murder of innocent civilians for political reasons is still simply an act of homicide committed by political gangsters. We’ve entered another one of those seasons of madness where humanity engages itself in a dance of death, the protagonists of the bloody ballet blaming each other for the mounting piles of corpses.

The Italian state broadcaster RAI TV, has charged US occupation forces with obliterating the Iraqi city of Fallujah, incinerating untold numbers of inhabitants with white phosphorus chemical weapons. RAI TV backed up its story with a November 8th television documentary broadcast titled, Fallujah: The Hidden Massacre. The broadcast took place on the one year anniversary of the US assault on Fallujah. On the heels of that outrage comes another affront – terrorist assailants maim and murder dozens at American luxury hotels in Amman Jordan.

With more than 50 killed and at least 110 injured in the attacks, it is difficult to focus on the suffering of a single individual who survived – but since I write about art and culture on this web log, I have to mention that one of the Arab world’s most celebrated filmmakers was a victim of the bombings. Moustafa Akkad was attending a wedding party of 300 guests at the ground floor banquet room of the Radisson SAS, when one of three al-Qaida terrorist bombers detonated his suicide vest. Akkad sustained serious injuries and his daughter was killed in the blast. Akkad is best known in the West for being behind the Halloween film series. But he also produced and directed The Message, a wildly popular film in the Arab world that presents the basic tenets of Islam. Moreover, the Syrian-born director also produced Lion of the Desert, a true story epic film about Omar Mukhtar, who led Libyans in a patriotic struggle against the Italian fascists occupying their country during the Second World War.

I saw Lion of the Desert when it came out in theatres in 1981. The great Anthony Quinn starred as the heroic Omar Mukhtar, Rod Steiger played a bombastic and arrogant Benito Mussolini, and Oliver Reed carried the role of the ruthless fascist general Rodolfo Graziani – sent by Il Duce to conquer the Libyan people for the new Roman Empire. All three gave terrific performances, but Quinn thought his contribution to be one of the best performances of his entire career. This remarkable movie not only featured Arabs as the “good guys,” it recounted their historic anti-colonial, anti-imperialist struggle in a sympathetic way completely understandable to westerners. When Akkad’s film shows the mighty Italian occupation army bogged down in a guerrilla war against ill armed but determined Libyan tribesmen – one can’t help but think of the escalating war now raging across Iraq. Lion of the Desert is an important film that everyone should see, especially given the current state of world affairs. That its director has become a victim to the tragic violence engulfing us all only drives home this point.

[ UPDATE: Hours after writing the above article, Moustapha Akkad died of his wounds – he was 72. ]

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