The Message (1976) is directed by Moustapha Akkad and stars Anthony Quinn,Irene Papas,Johnny Sekka,Micheal Ansara and chronicles the life of the Islamic Prophet Muhammed from the early days of Islam until his death in the year 632 CE.
Religious epics. Probably the only genre that a film can be hailed as a cinematic masterpiece, horrible storytelling, a massive commercial success, and a massive commercial failure. Passion of the Christ (2004) is a clear example of the above. Love them or hate them, religious epics have always had their place in film history, from all three versions of Ben-Hur, the two versions of the 10 Commandments and the multiple Nativity and Passion tales the genre is respectfully established in the buffet of film choice. Most of the successful ones have been revolving around stories in the Christian faith. This makes sense, since Hollywood and western cinema in general tends to have a more established Christian fan base. Whilst many have been clear, erm, passion projects a lot have been typical Hollywood cash cows (Exodus: Gods and Kings). This movie was the former. And unlike most entries in this genre, it stood out for telling the story of a religious epic foreign to western audiences. A passion project that was slated to bring worlds together. Unfortunately it was a commercial failure.
But this movie is a hidden gem, and it’s beauty has been covered up by its tragedy. In the early 1970s Syrian filmmaker Moustapha Akkad intended to start a series of films chronicling beautiful and meaningful stories about Muslim history, but his intention was to make it using Hollywood techniques, and for a Western audience. His first (monumental) choice was a biopic about the Islamic Prophet. The problem lied in the tenants of Islamic belief that forbade actual depictions of certain holy figures and beings in the Islamic religion, including Muhammed. How could one ever achieve to create a biographical story when the central figure of the biography is missing from the story?
Muhammed Ali, at the height of his fame expressed a desire to play the famous African Muslim Bilal ibn Rabah
This was a landmark revolutionary film in achieving this. Whenever the figure of Muhammed is alluded to, it is usually from a first person camera perspective, and from a distinct whimsical and mystical tune (more on that in a while). This technique was to serve Akkad well, and is probably the inspiration, oddly enough, for the iconic Micheal Myers Halloween music before every attack. A series of movies the talented man went on to produce.
The film also had to undergo extensive review and approval from Islamic scholarly boards such as the University of Al Azhar and the High Council of the Shiat to ensure authenticity. There was no room for controversy in story telling and the film had to be as authentic as possible. Still, and remarkably, it doesn’t play of as a preachy condescending religious rant nor a boring documentary. The film is dramatic, sad, hopeful, tense, and entertaining. With a massive 177 minute run time the film feels neither slow nor tiring and keeps a lovely pace.
The film suffered from budgetary constraints and lost funding half way through. This was the 70s and the crew were left hanging in uncomfortable desert motels with no air conditioning. The remaining finance was then contributed by Muammar Gadaffi (the start of all the controversy). It was therefore a remarkable achievement that that the movie made full scale model cities of 9th Century Mecca and Medina, 4 passable palaces, realistic costuming and sweeping war scenes in a time before digital assistance. What is more remarkable was the decision to remake the film in Arabic scene for scene for an Arab audience with Arab actors. Outstanding dedication!
Some of the props are of poorer quality than others, some of the sets of less lavish design. Or perhaps I’m too spoiled by 21st century epics? Or perhaps this was an accurate representation of Arabia in the dark ages? Nonetheless, the costumes and design does an adequate job of holding the scenes together.
The film suffered from budgetary constraints and lost funding half way through. This was the 70s and the crew were left hanging in uncomfortable desert motels with no air conditioning.
The casting of the film was also pretty interesting. Anthony Quinn (Lawrence of Arabia) is dazzling as the central protagonist, Muhammed’s uncle, Hamza. In an era before white washing dark skinned figures was seen as unacceptable (for better or worse) he played the role with dignity and majesty. A fantastic performance from an old Hollywood legend. The second controversy, unfortunately was when protests broke out over misunderstandings of the role played by Quinn. Rumours erupted that he was playing Muhammed and this caused an outcry. Other rumours that the role was played by Charlton Heston (Ben-Hur) only added fuel to the fire. Unfortunately the film did not survive long on the mainstream box office upon release and was soon pulled off. How utterly disappointing that this masterfully made film did not receive proper attention.
Irene Papas was a little melodramatic, again I don’t understand if this was an intentional choice, if the acting style called for it. However, I can say that I found her character vile and loathsome, and thus very villainous.
Muhammed Ali, at the height of his fame expressed a desire to play the famous African Muslim Bilal ibn Rabah but was rejected on the grounds of commercialising the story too much. Quite a bold and principled move for a film already fighting to win its audience over? I only wonder, would his inclusion have guaranteed deeper interest in the subject matter of the movie? The role instead was played with delicate dignity by Johnny Sekka (Khartoum).
The true story hero of this film is of course famous film composer Maurice Jarre, best remembered for his sweeping Lawrence of Arabia theme. His was the composition I was referring to earlier when discussing the presence of the Islamic Prophet. The music is haunting, peaceful, eastern, and very…contemplative. If you decide to see this film for the soundtrack alone, I wouldn’t be surprised. It received its sole Oscar Nomination for musical composition.
The movie had some brilliant, beautiful cinematography. There’s just something raw about desert epics that fills the viewer with a sense of adventure and mystery. Several of the scenes scream of grandeur. The Libyan army was hired to fill in as extras in a lot of these scenes, just to give a scale of the effort put in this movie. It’s just a shame the film wasn’t successful.
Akkad died tragically in a bomb blast in Amman, Jordan in 2005. As a visionary filmmaker whose movies and ideas were centred on building relations and cultural exchanges between people, I find it all the more tragic that his life was cut short by fanatics who didn’t share in his beautiful vision.
Akkad’s vision was not in vain. In recent years interest in Eastern religious epics have grown. Film producers like Barrie Osborne (The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings) have been in talks of bringing such stories to the big screen.
But this movie is a hidden gem, and it’s beauty has been covered up by its tragedy.
Filmmakers like Akkad are needed now more than ever. In a world where heart is traded in for commerce, where creativity is scared by risk of failure and where dialogue is silenced by screams we need more of “The Message”. Artists who strive for mainstream success, not for profit but for culture, uncompromising their ideals along the way are rare combination. Let’s cultivate them.