Screen Wars

Libya's leader Muammar al-Gaddafi (R) is greeted by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi upon his arrival for his first visit to Italy on June 10, 2009, at Ciampino Airport. (Photo: Christophe Simon/ AFP-Getty Images)

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a legendary media baron in his own country, is sponsoring sweeping television reforms that would ban pay-per-view pornography and adult programming during daytime hours. The reforms seem aimed at Rupert Murdoch's Sky Italia SpA, which makes 45 million euros annually from adult programming.

While Berlusconi's Mediaset group airs some adult programming, the company's offerings pale next to those of Sky. Sky is owned by Murdoch's News Corp. and is headed by son James Murdoch.

Berlusconi and Murdoch have sparred for years. The pair had previously worked as business collaborators in the 1990s with an informal division between Berlusconi's broadcast and Murdoch's cable/satellite spheres. However, Murdoch's launch of Sky Italia in 2003 caused a falling out, with each side accusing its rival of undermining the other.

The proposed regulation would significantly alter the economics of Italian television broadcasting—and make more money stream into Berlusconi's pockets. Apart from the ban on daytime adult programming, the bill offers a slew of restrictions on television commercials. Pay-television broadcasters, such as Murdoch's Sky, would be forced to gradually restrict the maximum amount of advertising per hour from 18 percent to 12 percent, losing almost 90 minutes of commercial time daily. However, terrestrial-television broadcasters—like Berlusconi's Mediaset—would see their advertising cap raised by a few minutes per hour. In total, Mediaset would be able to broadcast more than 30 minutes of additional commercials daily.

The war between Berlusconi and Murdoch has been scrappy. Murdoch has penned numerous editorials in The Times of London accusing Berlusconi of autocratic ambitions and having an active interest in young, nubile women (which may well be true). Berlusconi made sure that Mediaset and government broadcaster RAI disappeared from Sky's roster. Sky's news broadcasts—not just in Italy—have made sure to constantly mention Berlusconi's tumultuous divorce and the affair allegations.

But Murdoch's most audacious shot at Berlusconi took place last July when the Australian media baron aired an ultraviolent 1981 war film, The Lion of the Desert, that had been banned by the Italian government for 17 years. The film, with an all-star B-movie cast of Anthony Quinn, Oliver Reed, Rod Steiger and Irene Papas, depicted Libyan guerillas fighting the Italian Army during World War II—and was funded by Muammar al-Gaddafi, the de-facto leader of Libya.

Murdoch's broadcast was timed to coincide with al-Gaddafi's historic first visit to Italy and was promoted with an extensive publicity blitz. The film, which had been distributed as a bootleg for years and served as a staple secret showing at art houses, aired on June 11 to high ratings. Italian authorities did not interfere. Meanwhile, al-Gaddafi made sure his Italian visit generated some waves of its own. While meeting Berlusconi, he pinned to his chest a large black-and-white picture of Libyan Sufi guerilla leader—and protagonist of Lion—Omar Mukhtar dating from the day before he was hanged by the Italians in 1931. Gaddafi wore the picture, photocopied and awkwardly pinned to his colonel's military adornment, to multiple public gatherings during his Italian trip.

The movie itself, which enthralled Italians with its broadcast, is an unlikely mélange of gratuitous violence, Hollywood historic epic tropes and post-Fanon third-worldism. Benito Mussolini is portrayed in strutting comic-opera glory by Rod Steiger. Reed depicts an Italian Fascist general. Anthony Quinn plays the Libyan guerilla Mukhtar as a reprise of Viva Zapata!, only with his character's Sufi associations erased by personal order of al-Gaddafi. Another notably non-Middle Eastern actor, John Gielgud, plays Mukhtar's associate Sharif al-Gariani.This biography of a Libyan rebel leader would play out as a war movie in the Lawrence of Arabia mode, only with enough blood and violence to remind one of the director Moustapha Akkad's (Halloween) horror-movie background.

Al-Gaddafi essentially bankrolled the project. Lion was released in 1981, during a period when al-Gaddafi was reveling in openly antagonizing the West. The year before, five Libyan dissidents were murdered in exile in Italy by hit squads sent by al-Gaddafi. Al-Gaddafi's funding of worldwide insurgent groups were well-known by that time; relations with world powers were at an all-time low. A few months after the film's cinema release, American citizens were banned from traveling to Libya.

Reviews of the film, while noting that it was an admirably fast-paced action movie and performed up to the epic expectations of other war films, never failed to mention the al-Gaddafi association. As a result, Lion bombed at American and European box offices and turned into a cult film instead.

Lion portrayed a local Sufi resistance campaign to Italian colonial rule in Libya in bloody, loving detail. Following a variant practiced by the local Senussi order, the group attracted a mix of Arab and Berber adherents. After the collapse of Ottoman rule and the institution of an Italian government in the early 20th century, the Senussis quickly reconfigured themselves into a resistance movement. The elderly Mukhtar led tribal guerrillas into battle under the Senussi banner. Armed groups consisting of 100-300 men would conduct hit-and-run attacks on the Italians. There was widespread support for the rebels among the general population. The Italians and the Senussi Order were popularly known as Libya's "day" and "night" governments. During the day, Italians would collect taxes; at night, the Senussi would collect zakah.

Italian reaction was swift and brutal. In an attempt to flush out civilian support for the Senussis, Graziani constructed a series of concentration camps based on those used by the British during the Boer War. As a result of a lack of food and harsh discipline—again, including regular hangings—tens of thousands of Libyan prisoners died.

But one of the conditions of al-Gaddafi's funding of the film was a complete omission of any mention of Sufis or the Senussis' religious aspects. Apart from a short scene at the beginning showing Anthony Quinn teaching the Quran, religion is almost entirely absent. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Gaddafi was engaged in a contentious debate with Libya's ulama over the content of his Green Book. The Green Book, a confusing mishmash of political theory, armchair theological exposition and rants on every conceivable project was the subject of critical sermons by the ulama. Despite Gaddafi's power, the criticisms continued and culminated in a 1978 meeting between him and the most influential ulama. For al-Gaddafi, giving credence to the self-proclaimed religious heirs of the Senussis was something he would not do.

The Libyan leader's financing of the film (and its sister movie, the Prophet Mohammad biopic The Messenger) was not done out of a beneficent love of epic war movies and a hope for Hollywood profits. Lion was released in 1981, after the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and in a period when Gaddafi was actively positioning himself as a leader of resistance to the Western power axis. One influential American critic, Vincent Canby of the New York Times, drew explicit comparisons in his review of the film's Cyrenaican concentration camps to Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps. More so, he believed Akkad and Gaddafi were using the film to portray Mukhtar as a predecessor of Yasser Arafat, who was then one of the Libyan leader's primary clients. The theme of Cyrenaicans-as-Palestinians appears to have frequently been on the mind of American viewers. Hollywood industry bible Variety's review, anonymous as per magazine regulations, noted, "While never explicit, the overtones of the Bedouins' desire for international recognition, Mukhtar's insistence that confiscated lands must be returned (with new Italian settlements on them not to be tolerated) and other militant dialog emphasize parallels with today's Palestinians."

The Italian reaction to Lion was understandably angry. Prior to the film's release, Italian parliamentarians denounced it, and protests spread among large sections of the Italian public. These were accompanied by the inevitable jingoistic newspaper op-eds and angry television talk show hosts that such films and books often spur. Akkad's film was quickly banned in Italy on the grounds of "defamation of the armed forces." Ownership and screening of the movie was made into a criminal offense under Italian censorship law.

Lion was notably denounced before an attempted 1982 screening by then-Prime Minister Giulio Anderotti for "damaging the honor of the army." Another attempted screening in Trento in 1987 was stopped by threats of legal action; the film's only legal showing in Italy in the 20th century was as an "education" display at the 1988 Rimini film festival.

That was until Rupert Murdoch exhumed Lion from illicit DVD trading lists and the world of torrents. It apparently fulfilled News Corp.'s ambitions—Berlusconi's sensibilities were tweaked, Murdoch got inches upon inches of press in the Italian print media and Sky generated some of its highest ratings for 2009. Only Berlusconi's fears of being caught up in a censorship row allowed Lion of the Desert to be aired. For Murdoch's next retaliatory attack against Berlusconi in Italy, we will have to wait.

Neal Ungerleider is a journalist and writer based in New York. He currently covers Middle Eastern politics for and has written for such publications as Wired, Forbes Traveler and BudgetTravel.