1. Lion of the Desert
To understand the awesome courage of the long-suffering Libyans standing up to fight the tyrant Muammar Ghaddafi, there’s no better source than Moustapha Akkad’s Lion of the Desert. The film lionizes (sorry!) legendary Libyan guerrilla commander Omar Mukhtar, who spent years fighting the Italian fascist invasion of his country, and refused to surrender even when facing overwhelming odds against Italian armor and air power. It’s a stirring movie in the spirit of great revolutionary epics of the order of Pancho Villa, with Anthony Quinn magisterial in the title role, while Oliver Reed provides a menacing counterpoint as the Italian general Graziani. What’s that you say? Ghaddafi fancies himself as a latter-day Lion of the Desert? His people don’t seem to think so. And frankly, with that antic wardrobe of his, I’d say he was more of a contender for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
2. The Battle of Algiers
Algeria’s autocratic rulers this week lifted their 19-year state of emergency, under which the state sought to brutally suppress an insurgency spurred when the military canceled elections in 1991 that the Islamist National Salvation Front looked set to win. But those who rule Algeria today by brute force have plenty of reason to fear their own people, having been brought to power in a bloody rebellion against an equally brutal French colonialism. Gillo Ponticervo’s Battle of Algiers remains a masterpiece of cinema verite and an ageless portrait of popular insurgency — and also of the dysfunction of using torture to counter a popular movement. That’s probably why the Pentagon held a viewing for U.S. commanders in August of 2003.
3. Fire in Babylon / Lagaan
It’s Cricket World Cup time again, a tournament that garners some of the largest TV audiences of the planet. And to understand the game’s significance in the former British Empire, where it is mostly played, we need to remember the words of the great Trinidadian historian and cricket writer, C.L.R. James, who rhetorically asked, “What do they of cricket know who only cricket know?” Ever since it was first introduced into the colonies, the game has always been a theater of struggle between the colonizer and the colonized. Fire in Babylon is a documentary of the 1976 West Indies tour of England that brilliantly captures the nexus of race and sport, with the men from the Caribbean setting out not only to challenge the racism that still lurked in their former colonial power, but also to fight a symbolic battle on behalf of black South Africans then in the throes of a rebellion against apartheid. Problem is, of course, Fire in Babylon isn’t yet available on DVD.
As an alternative, sit yourself down for four hours of the Academy Award-winning Lagaan, a full-treatment Bollywood allegory of India besting the British at their own game.
Yes, yes, we know, Cuba’s not really in the news this week, some remarkably stupid comments on Libya by Fidel Castro notwithstanding. But what the Libyan drama has highlighted is the role of mercenaries in defending a dictator who can’t even trust his own security forces to remain loyal. No cinema verite option there, I’m afraid, but why not take a look at Richard Lester’s strange 1979 flick Cuba, which features Sean Connery as a mercenary hired in a vain bid to help stop the collapse of the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Of course, Castro gets the last laugh in this one.
5. Hamburger Hill
Vietnam is no more in this week’s news than Cuba is, but the New York Times reports that U.S. forces have begun to withdraw from Afghanistan’s Pech valley, having spent years fighting for control at a heavy cost in U.S. casualties. The Times suggests that the purpose of fighting for the valley in the first place is now being questioned. Cue 1987’s Hamburger Hill, the dramatization of a 1969 fight for Hill 937 in Vietnam that saw hundreds of U.S. soldiers killed in a meat-grinder of a battle for a piece of real estate of no strategic value.