One of several scenes which really stand out in the nearly three-hour war epic 'Lion of the Desert' takes places in the third act. It's a very simple scene but beautifully executed and poignant. After years of constant bloody battles in Italian-occupied Libya, the two men who have been commanding armies against one another meet for the very first time. An unassuming and honest conversation ensues where each man tries to understand the other, but we know from the onset this will never happen. A splendid Anthony Quinn as the legendary Bedouin rebel leader Omar Mukhtar stands meek and exhausted in his shackles yet proud and thoughtful while an excellent Oliver Reed as General Rodolfo Graziani paces the room sharply dressed and regal like yet attentive and honored.
It's a fantastic moment that extends beyond being the satisfying end result of waiting for these two military giants to finally meet. And of course, that is a big part of the excitement and apprehension underscoring their lengthy conversation, as each man relates the logic and reason for fighting the other. Director Moustapha Akkad, best known as the producer of the 'Halloween' franchise, is at the helm for only the second and last time of his career, displaying a control of the camera that's restrained and serene yet intensely deliberate and effectively moving. With noteworthy editing by John Shirley ('The Man with the Golden Gun') and brilliant cinematography by Jack Hildyard ('The Bridge on the River Kwai'), the persecution of helpless Muslim villagers and Mukhtar's silent compassion are done with a deep sense of sadness while battle sequences are thrillingly harrowing.
When we come to the conversation between Mukhtar and Graziani, Akkad's camera suddenly turns unemotional, yet still displaying carefully designed and methodical movements. A thinner, noticeably timid prisoner who occasionally looks up at his captor stands before a slightly heavier set man of war with a perpetually stern look and determined eyes. While each explains their position in the war, which has lasted over twenty years and Mukhtar rightly pointing out the Fascist Italian government is the invading opponent, Graziani's pacing brings attention to the room's size, feeling vast and spacious yet hollow and confining. It reminds of the start of the film when Mussolini (Rod Steiger) and Graziani talk about Libya inside a much larger and almost vacant room that echoes loudly. With the Mukhtar scene towards the end, Akkad visually suggests power may be immense and overwhelming but it's ultimately an empty and vain display.
Making the Mukhtar and Graziani conversation all the more significant and poignant is what the discussion entails, particularly a comment made by the leader of the resistance movement. After Graziani implies that Libyans are lesser than, Mukhtar immediately replies that the Arab world was the leader in science, medicine, agriculture and math while the whole of Europe live through the Dark Ages. This is a fact sadly forgotten by most and uttered by Quinn not only to educate Reed's arrogant character, but also meant as if to refresh the memories of viewers. Indeed, several scenes throughout, mixed with original photographs and vintage film of the period, bring back to mind that the war against a fascist empire started a decade earlier before the rise of Nazi Germany. Graziani was also responsible for the concentration camps that killed thousands of people and where Mukhtar would eventually find his end.
Set in the early years leading up to World War II, 'Lion of the Desert' is an engaging and stunning motion picture about the little known and largely forgotten war fought against Mussolini's fascist regime in Libya. Akkad's direction is a fearless and effectively admirable portrait of the kindly and passionate but also exhausted man who led the resistance movement. Though at times on the hammy side, slowing the pace a bit, the epic is a remarkable story told with enthusiasm and a creativity that comes to a head in a single, poignantly momentous conversation. With excellent performances by Reed and Quinn, it deserves more attention not only for its historical perspective but also for being a finely made war film.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Anchor Bay and Starz Home Entertainment brings 'Lion of the Desert' to Blu-ray on a Region A locked, BD50 disc housed inside a blue, eco-vortex case. The back of the box wrongly states the runtime is 156 minutes when in fact this is the original 173-minute version of the film. At startup, viewers are taken to a static menu with music.
'Lion of the Desert' invades Blu-ray with a substandard and very disappointing AVC MPEG-4 encode. Presented in 1080i/60, the source used appears to be in excellent condition, showing several great moments of HD goodness and generally pleasing details. On the other hand, there many sequences which are less than satisfying with poor resolution, some blurriness and average shadow delineation. Then again, contrast is well-balanced and comfortably bright with strong black levels while colors, for the most part, are bold and generous with warm, adequate earth-tone hues.
But however good those scenes may be, the video only serves to tease viewers of the possibilities had the film been given a full restoration and been faithful to the original cinematography. Very mild combing and ghosting are present, yet the few instances they're apparent are not terribly distracting. Gravest of all is the transfer being sadly reframed from the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio to this 1.78:1 window, making this high-def presentation a horrible offering of a good war film.
A slightly better offering, though not entirely satisfying either, are the two available listening options, with the uncompressed PCM stereo track being the preferred choice as it's closer to the original presentation. The soundstage is wide and welcoming with good separation and balance between the channels. Mid-range is clean with excellent clarity in the highs, giving action sequences a broad, engaging presence. Low-bass frequencies are also strong and adequate, providing a nice rumbling effect to explosions. Vocals are plainly audible and intelligible from beginning to end.
The second soundtrack is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 upmix which is also pretty good although much of the action is contained in the fronts. Rear activity is mostly silent, even during battle sequences, yet a few good atmospherics very subtly sneak into the back of the room. Dynamic range is probably the weakest aspect because it largely feels thin out and somewhat stretched, creating a tad of clipping in the upper frequencies and a rather feeble low-end. Dialogue reproduction is clean and clear in the center, but nevertheless, the stereo track is the stronger of the two.
Set in the early years leading up to World War II, 'Lion of the Desert' is an engaging and stunning motion picture about the little known and largely forgotten war fought against Mussolini's fascist regime in Libya. With excellent performances by Oliver Reed and Anthony Quinn, Moustapha Akkad directs a fearless and effectively admirable portrait of the kindly but exhausted man who led the resistance movement against Mussolini's fascist regime. The Blu-ray is a sore disappointment not only for providing a mostly weak 1080i/60 video presentation but also for reframing the photography from the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The audio is better, but the lack of bonus material means this one can be skipped.