Slasher-flick innovator Moustapha Akkad had bad timing.
The creator of the Halloween series and the Prophet’s bioepic The Messenger, the Syrian-American dreamed big in Hollywood of grandiose cinema fundamentally changing the relationship between the United States and the Arab and Islamic worlds. But his anti-fascist rebellion-epic hit the silver screen in 1981, the year Ronald Reagan became President after dealing behind then-President Jimmy Carter’s back to secure the release of Iran’s American hostages, it flopped.
Anthony Quinn couldn’t out-act the fierce xenophobic reaction to Ruhollah Khomeini dark fury.
Lion of the Desert was supposed to link the the liberation struggle of Libya against Mussolini’s Roman fascists with American sentiments. Who doesn’t like a freedom-fighter killing goose-steppers and racist superiority complexes? While Hitler had his Aryan-Teutonic fantasies, these Italians lauded the Roman Empire.
The natives were acting up, and Mussolini would not have his brown-shirts stunted by brown-skins. So he sent The Butcher, General Rodolfo Graziani, who in the movie is played by a spitting image of John Boehner called Oliver Reed.
Audiences ignored the flick. Some critics even criticized the liberation movement. “One has the scary apprehension that the Americans actually identified more with the goose-stepping fascists than with the oppressed Libyans”, wrote Juan Cole in an obituary for Akkad after a suicide-bomb blast in Jordan, 2005.
The most charismatic of the actors in Lion of the Desert, the Italian military commander Graziani has three phrases which we’d do well to remember today. While 1981 might’ve looked over Akkad’s magnum opus, we shouldn’t in the year Muammar Gaddafi died, NATO intervention could be evolving to a norm with Yemen a high-tech battleground and Syria just getting on the drawing board.
“Libya is a career,” Graziani said over drinks in his war room with an Italian prince, reflecting an idea we’re seeing more of in our modern context. The imperial enterprise of war, be it grunts or generals, can provide advancement, and avail new opportunities. These are the virtues of war from fascists, and similar to hawkish voices in Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, like the imperial messenger, Robert D. Kaplan.
“Hadrian used his wall to shut the barbarians out. I will use mine to shut the them in.” Graziani said, this time at a staff meeting, tying in the ancient to the modern to justify stringing 168-miles of barbed wire between the rebels of Omar Mukhtar (Quinn) and their Egyptian suppliers. Mussolini agreed: “Remember, it was Hadrian’s wall that keep the Romans in Britain a hundred years longer.”
“You old fool, you don’t even look at a Roman vision that Tacitus himself would’ve been proud of, do you?” said the general on a tour of the barbed wire blockade, splashed with bullet-ridden Libyans and camels.
In his office with Mukhtar, Graziani tries to turn him into a collaborator. He offers a paternalistic exchange of Roman civilization and Libyan culture, and justifies the Italian presence in Libya with a rusty coin.
“We are back here, no one can deny us,” he said to Mukhtar. “Read the date on this coin, it was one of Caesars’.”
The Libyan rebel replies quickly.
“You will also find Greek, Turkish, Phoenician coins all over Libya. You will find them, buried in our sand,” Mukhtar said. “Don’t try to buy too much with it today. Your money, like your glory, is not permanent.”