Release Date(s)1981 (July 19, 2022)
Studio(s)Falcon International Pictures (Shout! Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B
Lion of the Desert was Syrian filmmaker Moustapha Akkad’s answer to Lawrence of Arabia: a sweeping adventure about the struggle for independence from colonialism in the Middle East, but one with a crucial difference. Rather than having an outsider rally the rebels against the occupying forces, Akkad chose to focus instead on the Libyan national hero Omar al-Mukhtar. Mukhtar (Anthony Quinn) is the leader of the Libyan rebels who defy the Italian colonial authority, stymying the plans of Benito Mussolini (Rod Steiger), who wants to re-establish the Roman Empire in Africa. Frustrated with the lack of progress toward that goal, Mussolini appoints the utterly ruthless General Graziani (Oliver Reed) as the Governor of Libya. Graziani will use any means to achieve his ends, and as the Libyan people suffer, Mukhtar is forced to deal with Graziani directly. Lion of the Desert also stars Irene Papas, Raf Vallone, John Gielgud, and Andrew Keir.
In many respects, Lion of the Desert is a study in contradictions. It’s an unabashedly old-school epic, made in an era when that kind of filmmaking was already going out of style. (It even borrows the hoary trope of having English-accented actors playing the lead Axis roles, Vallone excepted.) It ameliorates the white savior narrative from Lawrence of Arabia, and yet it still features a cast of international actors like Quinn, Papas, and Gielgud playing Arabic roles. It’s graphically violent, especially for a PG-rated film, and yet the staging of the action scenes can be a little old-fashioned. Lion of the Desert may have been made in 1981, but it wouldn’t necessarily have felt out of place in 1962.
Yet despite all of those contradictions, Lion of the Desert still works surprisingly well. It’s a rare war film that actually tries to represent real strategy and tactics, albeit in a somewhat superficial manner. (It even uses the term “decimate” correctly, which is rare indeed.) Akkad did his best to maintain historical accuracy, down to perfectly replicating the famous photograph of Mukhtar with his Italian captors. The film still isn’t necessarily equally fair to all sides involved (it ended up being banned in Italy), but given the stereotypical ways that Arabic peoples have been represented in classical Hollywood filmmaking, a little course correction was long overdue.
None of that would have mattered without the right actor playing Mukhtar, and Akkad found his muse in Quinn. Any valid questions that could be raised about casting the Mexican-American actor as a Libyan hero evaporate under the strength of this performance. Quinn plays Mukhtar with just the right amount of quiet dignity and authority, and he’s the anchor that secures the film no matter what happens around him.
Unfortunately, contemporary audiences weren't swayed, and so Lion of the Desert became an expensive flop in 1981. Yet the craftsmanship on both sides of the camera has stood the test of time, and the film hasn’t lost any of its relevance in the years since it was made. It’s a testament to Akkad’s determination to tell the stories that he felt deserved more attention than they were getting.
Cinematographer Jack Hildyard shot Lion of the Desert on 35 mm film using Panavision Panaflex and Arriflex cameras, both with anamorphic Panavision lenses. (Matte work was shot using a locked-off Mitchell S35 camera instead.) Everything was framed at 2.35:1 for the theatrical release. While there was a 70 mm trailer for Lion of the Desert in circulation in 1981, there doesn’t appear to have been any 70 mm blowups of the film itself. For this 2022 restoration, the original negative was scanned in 4K and digitally restored at Deluxe UK, with color correction performed by Silver Salt Restoration.
Lion of the Desert was previously released on Blu-ray by Anchor Bay in 2013, using an aging 1080i master that had been reframed at 1.78:1. Needless to say, the differences between that version and this new 4K restoration are truly dramatic. The image is significantly sharper and more detailed, with an extremely fine sheen of grain—fine enough that it’s not even visible from normal viewing distances. Hildyard primarily shot on Eastman 100T 5247 negative, and that was indeed a fine-grained stock, but it’s possible that some filtering was applied during the restoration process as well. If so, it wasn’t done in a way that obscures too much of the fine detail. There’s plenty of rocks, sand, and gravel on display all throughout the film, and their textures are well-resolved. On the other hand, the textures of the clothing aren’t quite as sharp, which could be due to the lenses used, or the result of some light noise reduction. (It’s worth noting that the bit rate isn’t as high as it could be, so compression could also be a factor.) There are a few shots in the film where Hildyard used diffusion filters, so those are naturally softer, as are any shots featuring optical work, although those are few and far between. There’s no damage of note, save perhaps for a stray speckle or two. There are some intentional scratches during the opening scene, which starts out by using stock footage, and then cuts to simulated stock footage which has been aged to mimic the same look.
The real glory of this transfer, however is the new high dynamic range grade. (Both HDR10 and Dolby Vision are included on the disc.) The contrast range is strong, with deep black levels, but never at the expense of shadow detail. (Rod Steiger’s black outfit does get a little murky at times, but that’s more the result of the costume itself than of the grading.) The colors are rich and strongly saturated—despite the desert setting, there are plenty of lush greens, deep reds, and brilliant blues on display. Eastman 5247 was noted for vivid, well-saturated colors, so the timing of this grade doesn’t appear to be revisionary. Instead, thanks to the Wide Color Gamut offered by HDR, the natural color detail that would have originally been on the negative has been recovered and restored. It’s a truly beautiful transfer, and one that puts any and all previous home video releases to shame.
Audio is offered in English 5.1 and English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English SDH subtitles. Lion of the Desert was originally released in Dolby Stereo, and this 2.0 track uses that matrixed four-channel mix. The 5.1 version appears to be a simple discrete encoding of those four channels, rather than any kind of a remix. The differences between the two are minimal, and will come down to personal preference. The 5.1 version may have a bit more channel separation, but not significantly so. Either way, it’s a fairly typical early Eighties mix, with most of the sonic energy coming from the front channels. The surrounds are used for light ambience, as well as occasional directionalized effects like airplanes flying past the camera. The dialogue is usually clear, though some of Steiger’s lines can get a little muddy in his long shots—but that’s a production issue, rather than a problem with this master. There’s not a ton of deep bass, although there’s a bit of rumble in some of the explosions. Maurice Jarre wrote one of his typically stirring scores for Lion of the Desert, and it’s well-represented on both options.
Shout! Factory’s 4K Ultra HD release of Lion of the Desert is a three-disc set that includes a Blu-ray copy of the English language version of the film, as well as a Blu-ray copy of the Arabic version—both in 1080p. There have been many online complaints about the fact that the Arabic version doesn’t include any subtitles, but the two versions of the film are otherwise identical—the running times are the same, right down to the seconds, and the Arabic version even uses the English opening and closing titles. (More on the running time in a moment.) While Akkad had shot separate English and Arabic language versions of his 1978 film The Message, Lion of the Desert was filmed entirely in English and dubbed into Arabic, so there’s no reason for English-language viewers to watch the Arabic version. It’s just the same film in a different language. The extras are spread over all three discs, and there are some variations between those:
DISC ONE: ENGLISH LANGUAGE VERSION (UHD)
- Audio Commentary with Moustapha Akkad
DISC TWO: ENGLISH LANGUAGE VERSION (BD)
- Audio Commentary with Moustapha Akkad
- Restoring Lion of the Desert (HD – 2:26)
- The Making of Lion of the Desert (SD – 31:35)
- Original Theatrical Trailer (HD – 3:47)
- Re-Release Trailer (HD – 2:20)
- TV Spot (HD – 1:00)
DISC THREE: ARABIC LANGUAGE VERSION (BD)
- Arabic Commentary with Moustapha Akkad
- The Making of Omar Mukhtar (Arabic Language) (SD – 37:33)
- Original Theatrical Trailer (Arabic Language) (HD – 3:07)
Since Akkad and his daughter Rima were both tragically killed during the 2005 bombings in Amman, Jordan, his commentary track has real historical value. Unfortunately, it’s also quite sparse, with frequent lengthy gaps, and it’s a bit dry as well. Still, it’s wonderful to have his thoughts preserved. There are actually two separate commentaries here, one in English, and the other in Arabic, so this is one case where subtitles would have proved handy. Whatever differences that may exist between the two, commentary tracks typically aren’t subtitled, and it probably wouldn’t be worth sitting through both versions anyway.
Restoring Lion of the Desert is a far too brief look at the restoration process, with a few comments from staff at Deluxe UK and Sliver Salt Restoration. The Making of Lion of the Desert is a vintage behind-the-scenes documentary from 1981, created by the film’s production company, Falcon International Pictures. It opens by providing some historical background about Mussolini, Graziani, and their colonial efforts in Libya, before launching into the production of the film itself. There’s a lot of interesting information here, including some wild trivia, like the fact that Akkad tracked down Mussolini’s barber to shave Rod Steiger’s head. This documentary was written, produced, and directed by Robert J. Wagman and Sheldon Engelmayer. (Note that while the actual films are identical, The Making of Lion of the Desert is approximately six minutes longer in its Arabic version.)
So, here’s the real rub regarding the running times for the film. Every version of the film in this set runs at the same length: 163:12. The Blu-ray version ran nearly ten minutes longer, though the preceding DVD releases also ran at 163 minutes. The most significant difference between the two versions is that the shorter version is missing a scene where Graziani plans and then executes a mustard gas attack against the Libyans. What’s not clear is whether or not that footage was ever included in the theatrical cut. Wikipedia and IMDb both give the running time for Lion of the Desert as 173 minutes, but those two user-edited sources are notoriously unreliable, and they may simply reflect the running time of the Blu-ray version. Movie-Censorship has a page describing the differences between what they call the “US cut” and the “European cut,” but they assume that the extra footage was deleted from the US version, rather than being added to it, without any evidence for doing so.
There’s also some evidence to the contrary. While Akkad’s commentary track is peppered with lengthy gaps, he speaks continuously over the cut where the gas sequences would have been inserted. So, he clearly was watching the shorter 163-minute version while he recorded the commentary. There was also a History Channel broadcast of the film in 1997 where Professor Robert Brent Toplin mentioned that the Italian army used poison gas against the Libyans, but said that “you don’t see that in the movie.” Of course, the fact that this 4K restoration from the original negative doesn’t include the extra scenes further supports the notion that it's actually the theatrical cut. Absent of any other evidence, it seems like the Blu-ray used an extended version of the film that featured material not included in the theatrical release. Perhaps it was a work print, or maybe a preview cut?
For those who feel that the longest cuts of any film are always the best ones, it’s worth pointing out that while poison gas may have been used against the Libyans, Graziani wasn’t the one who did it. He used gas later in his Ethiopian campaign, and he was indicted for war crimes for doing so. Akkad strove for authenticity, so it’s probably for the best that these sequences were left on the cutting room floor. Of course, the footage still exists, so it’s disappointing that it wasn’t include here as deleted scenes. But that’s a minor quibble with an otherwise excellent release, and Shout! Factory might not have had access to the older 1080i master that included it.
The most important thing here is the film itself, and this 4K Ultra HD version of Lion of the Desert is a revelation compared to all previous home video releases. Finally getting the correct aspect ratio (2.35:1) after all these years was significant enough, but the gorgeous color grade breathes new life into the film like nothing else could. I wouldn’t presume to speak for Moustapha Akkad or Jack Hildyard, but I suspect that they’d be delighted with this release. If you haven’t seen Lion of the Desert, this UHD is hands-down the best way to do so in the comfort of your own home.
- Stephen Bjork