LION OF THE DESERT -- At the AMC Skyline, Embassy Circle, NTI New Carrollton, NTI Tysons Cinema, NTI White Flint and Springfield Mall.

Why anyone would make a movie like "Lion in the Desert," a 167-minute epic with nothing but endlessly indecisive military skirmishes punctuated by hangings, can only be understood in terms of the export market.

"Lion in the Desert" is obviously designed to be entirely comprehensible to people who don't speak English -- and even, if it subtitled abroad, by illiterates. In the few non-fighting scenes, the characters display such broad expressions and gestures of humanistic heroism or supercilious villainy that the words aren't important.

It has five stars with international reputations, although three make only the briefest of appearances. And its point is that the imperialistic cruelties of rich bad countries will ultimately succumb to the persistent faith and nobility of the Third Worldies.

The story concerns the Italian colonization of Libya, under the Mussolini regime. Anthony Quinn, in yet another tough peasant role, plays Omar Mukhtar, a 73-year old Bedouin teacher who has been leading guerrilla forces for 20 years against the Italians, who are now being commanded by a general who smiles when people are killed, played by Oliver Reed.

In the three now-you-see-it-now-you-don't roles, Rod Steiger plays Mussolini in a big carved chair that leaves his feet dangling because his legs aren't long enough to reach the floor; Irene Papas adds her Pieta expression to a variety of deaths and death announcements; and John Gielgud squints his blue eyes to demonstrate the treachery of a local in favor of collaboration.

The scenes rotate among the slaughtering of civilians, the snappy military maneuvers of the Italians across the desert, and Bedouin horseback raids. Every once in a while a small orphan named Ali appears, as an embodiment of the continuation of the struggle -- he will yet live, the film implies, to go shopping on the Via Veneto.