Judge Daryl Loomis is sometimes referred to as "Giraffe of the Tundra."
This old man is good.
In the years before the start of WWII, when Benito Mussolini's fascist regime was at its height, he started a campaign of imperialist terror across North Africa. When they got to Libya, they found resistance in a ragtag group of freedom fighters led by teacher and organizer Omar Mukhtar. He didn't win and, in 1931, was captured and hanged for his efforts, but he lived on in the hearts of the Libyan people and, in 1981, a movie, funded by Muammar Gaddafi himself, was made of his struggle. This movie, Lion of the Desert, has now arrived on Blu-ray in its first ever digital release.
Mussolini (Rod Steiger, Doctor Zhivago), in his attempt to grab more land for the Italian empire, assigns General Rodolfo Graziani (Oliver Reed, The Brood) to lead his army into Libya. His brutality is felt in the slaughter of the Libyan people, but the Bedouin resistance that Omar Mukhtar (Anthony Quinn, La Strada) leads is strong, taking the fascists to their limit.
I often find this kind of historical drama tedious; it is rare for me to find the dramatization more interesting than the actual history and, usually, would rather just read that. It's really no different in Lion of the Desert, but there are a couple of things that make it a little less cumbersome than usual.
It's probably not all that relevant to the finished product, but the most interesting thing about it is its bankroll. Funded using Libyan money and with the complete approval of Muammar Gaddafi, there's no question that Lion of the Desert is propaganda, which is by no means a measure of its quality, but I do enjoy watching such things from time to time. The story lionizes Mukhtar to an almost god-like degree, which might not be entirely accurate, but it's a lot better than being fair to the fascists.
This is the same David and Goliath hero story we've seen countless times before. The setting is different, but the plot is always the same, the only variation being whether the freedom fighters win or lose. Otherwise, it's just big characters giving orders around battle after battle. This one, from a script by H.A.L. Craig (The Far Side of Paradise) and directed by Moustapha Akkad (The Message), bring nothing new to the table, but they certainly don't skimp on the gun battles. It's the Libyan's single shot rifles versus the Italian war machine, so there's lots of horse against tank showdown, which is satisfying on a certain level.
The movie, shot on location in Libya by Jack Hildyard (The Bridge on the River Kwai), looks gorgeous. The desert landscapes are put together beautifully and the battle scenes are big and loud, so it'll rightfully have its supporters, but the stunt casting is irritating and the story, when not in a battle, is slow and tedious, especially since there's no suspense in how it'll work out. Mostly, it feels like it's decades too late; it would have been in good company in 1962, but it feels tired and dull in 1981.
Lion of the Desert, unfortunately, doesn't fare so well in its Blu-ray release from Anchor Bay. First, the high definition transfer is in 1080i and the interlacing shows itself throughout the film, resulting in a fuzzy image with far less detail than should be expected. Worse than that, the film is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio instead of its native 2.35:1 framing, meaning that, no matter how nice it looked, it would still be a cropped version. Colors are washed out and black levels aren't nearly as deep as they could be, for an overall disappointing image transfer. The Master Audio track isn't nearly as poor, but it's nothing to write home about, either. There is some inconsistent balance in the dialog and music and a flat overall mix, but there's little in the way of noise and hiss. There are no extras on the disc.
Lion of the Desert isn't really my kind of movie in the first place, but it's a little more compelling than I've often found these historical dramas. Still, no matter what your opinion of the film itself, there's no denying that, with a shoddy hi-def transfer that isn't even in its proper aspect ratio, this is a disc that is hard to recommend.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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