Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Lion of the Desert

When a movie breaks 2 hours, the rules change. Every scene must be essential, every cut, shot and camera move considered. There are some reasons for this, most not particularly concerned with art but rather pure practicality. Theaters can make more showing a film every two hours than they can every three, bums get sore after two hours in theater seats, and bladders might get annoyed, especially if you bought a larger soda before the showing. Lion of the Desert is almost three hours long, does it justify it?


In the first half hour, 20 minutes were pretty much unnecessary. In fact, Rod Steiger's Mussolini could have been completely excised without doing damage to the narrative. Characters are established multiple times, and there isn't very much consideration of what is strictly necessary. Pacing is deliberate, which isn't necessarily a problem, but it repeats itself so much that it is a struggle to maintain interest.

The story also suffers because it's trying to be a bit of propaganda for Libya, which makes sense because it was financed by Muammar Gadaffi. The setting is right before WWII, as Italy invades Libya and discovers, much to their astonishment, Libyans would prefer it if Italy didn't take them over, thank you very much. Anthony Quinn's Omar Mukhtar is the Lion of the Desert - presumably rejected titles included "Totally awesome guy who everyone loves" and "Badass motherfucker" - and is also possibly an android. He's a rebel and a teacher, presented as having no human flaws whatsoever and projecting an almost beatific glow as he goes around killing Italians with his rag tag crew. He also speaks in a very deliberate tone for some reason. His enemy is Oliver Reed's Gen. Rodolfo Graziani, who is significantly more interesting as he tries to end the war by killing as many Libyans as possible. The general actually resembles a human - though the kind of human you wouldn't exactly want to be best friends with - consumed by ego and determined to win Libya simply because he believes Italy should have it.

That's part of the problem, the only really believable character is the villain. The perfect hero smells strongly of a film that's financed by a wealthy military dictator who wants to make some propaganda. He's drawn too simplistically, and not really fleshed out as a person. We can't believe in him because there's little more than some quotes and a deliberate speaking style. He doesn't show emotion, he doesn't show depth, he's just there for what he represents. It's not a character, it's a symbol, and compelling movies aren't made out of symbols.

There are other, very strange problems with the film too. One is the sound recording, it's remarkably poorly done. There are early scenes filmed in a castle place that are basically echoes, and it is impossible to understand dialog. This happens repeatedly in the film, as the sound makes actors with otherwise powerful speaking voices sound like they're mumbling and incoherent. Supposedly powerful scenes are ruined when you just can't make out a damn thing people are saying.

It's not entirely bad though. The core story, even if the center of it isn't remotely believable, is solid, and there are some individual moments worthy of interest. There's a subplot about one family which is actually stronger than the rest, because the members do seem human, sympathetic and have a story which is worth caring about. In fact, the film does seem to have more to say when it leaves boring old Omar and focuses on the real victims of the war, the regular people who just want to be free from Italian persecution.

Perhaps, one day, someone will revisit the story, and do it justice. I can't help but think that Libya and Omar Mukhtar weren't very well served by this simplistic, overlong, and badly recorded film. There are moments of beauty, moments of relevance and moments of good hidden deep within. But, when the film dies every time its center appears on screen, a film dies overall. And it dies so many times over those three hours.

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