Before bogging down halfway through, "Lion of the Desert" seems an attractively conventional spectacle.
The conflicts of "Lion," now at area theaters, are sharply defined and methodically dramatized. The movie depicts the elaborate campaign waged by Gen. Rodolfo Graziani, the commander of Benito Mussolini's army in Libya, to capture an elderly Bedouin patriot, Omar Mukhtar, whose harassing guerrilla raids seemed to be the last obstacle to total victory in a war of colonial conquest the Italians had sustained for two decades. It began long before Mussolini came to power, as a war with the Turks, but his vision of a restored Roman Empire provided an additional ruthless impetus.
In the course of entrapping Mukhtar and crushing the last pockets of effective armed resistance, Graziani evidently experimented in the years 1929-31 with methods of tank warfare and massive civilian suppression, particularly concentration camps, that were refined with even more lethal effectiveness by Hitler's legions.
An epic chase melodrama, the movie attempts to sustain almost three hours of narrative by keeping tabs on the maneuvers of the contending military leaders. Mukhtar stings and eludes Graziani on numerous occasions before finally succumbing to superior odds and the late hour.
Among the film's assets are cameraman Jack Hildyard's richly hued and sharply focused style, and the lure of dependable stars in amiably familiar or campy disguises. Anthony Quinn stars as the cunning; resolute Mukhtar, a grandfatherly figure who represents a temperamental turnabout from his excitement Semitic warrior in "Lawrence of Arabia," the sheikh Auda.
But the hotheaded Auda was also livelier company than the serene Mukhtar.Irene Papas is on hand to embody stalwart Bedouin womanhood, and it's impossible to imagine any actress bringing more integrity to the sort of cliches that director Moustapha Akkad likes to linger over. She even lends a photogenic dignity to a lachrymose highlight that can be seen coming from a reel or so off -- a Pieta posed against strands of barbed wire.
Best moments: a bald-domed Rod Steiger is first revealed in a cameo appearance as Mussolini; Oliver Reed, in the role of Gen. Graziani, strides into camera range with a big white plume on hit hat. Reed, whose thick neck and bullet head give him the appearance of bulging out of the top of his uniform, gets to be more or less constant funny company. Best running gag: Reed slapping his riding crop against things to emphasize strategic instructions.
Akkad, a naturalized American citizen born in Syria, returned to Libyan locations where he had also teamed up with Quinn for the ill-fated "Mohammad, Messenger of God," the movie the Washington Hanafi gunmen wanted suppressed when they took hostages at the B'nai B'rith office. It may be Akkad's peculiar professional destiny to have his epic intentions repeatedly misunderstood. In this instance Akkad has been defending his movie against charges of Libyan financial backing and a propagandistic tilt toward the PLO. According to this line of reasoning, a scene like the final confrontation in which the captured Mukhtar rebukes Graziani by saying, "You are the ruination of our country" and "No nation has the right to occupy another," is actually intended as a rebuke to Israel.
Akkad has denied that any such thing was intended and countered that a more appropriate analogy could be found in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Although the movie could lend itself to inflammatory interpretation, the context would require considerable wrenching out of shape. The source of evil is clearly an Italian regime that no longer exists.
It's easy to identify the influence of David Lean and Sam Peckinpah on Akkad's filmmaking -- and regret his inability to synthesize something distinctive out of the obvious emulation. As its best it rubs off in vividly staged battle sequences. As its worst, it deteriorates into a fixation on gory details.