This film followed Lawrence of Arabia on an evening of TCM’s Arabs on Film series in July 2011.  According to the expert, this is the best movie in the Hollywood style for a positive portrait of Arab people.  It opens at Mussolini’s headquarters in Rome where he is raging against the failures of his troops to secure the Italian capture of Libya.  He (Rod Steiger) sends a notoriously brutal general (Oliver Reed) across the water to get the job done.  Anthony Quinn plays Omar Mukhtar, elder of his tribe and leader of the Libyan people.  We see him first teaching children lessons from the Koran.  The Italian general is welcomed at an opulent ballroom in Tripoli and quickly establishes his agenda.  He sends an armed unit into a village to impose brutal repressions.  Mukhtar and his Bedouins exact a fierce revenge out in the desert.  When the Arabs want to kill prisoners because the Italians do it, Mukhtar says, “They are not our teachers.”  He is now living in the light-colored tents of his people in the desert.  The Italian general proposes to ravage the country in order to subdue to the Bedouins.  His soldiers perform random executions and burn villages.  Many are taken to concentration camps. 

The general arranges a peace negotiation between Italian and Arab representatives.  He wants an accommodation between “our civilization and your culture.”  The Arabs have demands but are in a position of weakness.  More Italian troops and equipment arrive.  The Italians have bought time and now mount a major offensive.  They unleash air attacks and artillery on defenseless villages.  When the infantry moves in, the Arabs attack on horseback.  They are decimated by tanks and machine guns.  There are mass executions of prisoners.  The general strides onto the battlefield like a Roman conqueror to celebrate the victory.  The surviving Arab forces have few resources and poor strategy.  John Gielgud plays an Italian-friendly Arab who tries to persuade the aging Mukhtar to capitulate.  The Arabs suffer in a tented concentration camp.  Footage of the actual tents in hundreds of rows is shown.  

Mukhtar continues his guerrilla raids.  The Italians use gas to go after the Arabs in their mountain strongholds.  Further up, the two sides ambush and counter-ambush.  The fighting is fierce.  The general is called back to Rome to face Il Duce.  He proposes a bold new plan involving the isolation of the Arabs in the mountains.  Once again, mounted Arabs fight tanks and machine guns.  The Arabs lose. When Mukhtar’s horse is shot out form under him, he is put in chains and taken to the general’s headquarters.  The general attempts to give his captive some dignity, but the defeat is ignominious. Mukhtar will make no accommodations.  He says his people will fight from one generation to the next.  The general sends him to be hanged.  There is a mock trial and he is given a death sentence.  The 73-year-old Mukhtar is publicly hanged before thousands of onlookers.  There is a surge of shouts and ululating.  It is 1931.  The general was hanged by the Allies in 1955.  A legend states that all these characters are real.  This is a well-crafted film though it’s a little heavy on doctrine.

This film was funded by the government of Col Muammar Gadaffi and did poorly in the Western box office.  It is three hours long.  The emotional thrust is clearly in sympathy with the Arabs, but it makes the viewer wonder how these descendants of the Muslim conquests became such docile victims.  Yes, the Italians possessed superior firepower and machinery, but the Arabs had guns and a determination not to be dominated. 

)

North Africa Related Posts:

Return to Africa Overview