Just a few days before settling down to watch this 30th Anniversary Edition of The Message (also known as Mohammad, Messenger of God, 1976), word came that the Islamic producer-director of the film, Syrian-born Moustapha Akkad, was murdered in Amman, Jordan, one of the 56 fatalities resulting from of a terrorist bombing at a wedding he was attending with his daughter, who also died.
His death is sadly ironic, given that The Message, while conventionally told, reached more non-Muslims and probably did more to further Muslim understanding than a million suicide bombers ever could. The film succeeds in its sincere attempt to dramatize the birth of Islam in a manner accessible to non-Muslims whose religious epics have been limited to movies drawn from the Old Testament and those chronicling the life of Christ. As such the film makes for fascinating viewing, one that's informative, spreading the Message of the title in a manner as positive and uplifting as last week's attack was negative and damaging to the Muslim population.
Per Islamic custom against dramatic impersonation of any prophet (including both Moses and Jesus), the image and voice of Mohammad is not shown, nor are his many wives and children. This quandary, trying to make a movie about the founding of Islam without ever showing its founder, had been enough to deter earlier efforts by Hollywood producers to tell this story. In The Message, characters talk to Mohammad by speaking directly into the camera, and respond to replies that we the audience cannot hear. This is occasionally awkward but not nearly as calamitous as it sounds, and in some ways even works to create an ethereal, universal portrait. (William Wyler had done something similar in Ben-Hur, in which the face of Christ likewise is never seen.) Moreover, the picture instead focuses mainly on the Prophet's disciples, and the ensemble effect has advantages as well.
The film traces the growing influence of Mohammad in 7th century Arabia after returning to Mecca from a cave where he has received the Word of God. Mecca's leading merchants - including Abu Sofyan (Michael Ansara), Hind (Irene Papas), Otba (Robert Brown), and Abu-Jahal (Martin Benson) - worry that Mohammad's teachings, particularly his declaration that there is but one God, will offend visiting tribes whose false idols number in the hundreds. Mohammad's sympathetic uncle, Abu-Talib (Andre Morell), tries to intervene, but to no avail.
Mohammad's message of peace and brotherhood soon has a steadily growing list of followers, including Mohammed's warrior uncle, Hamza (Anthony Quinn), reformed soldier Khalid (Michael Forest, his voice inexplicably dubbed), freed slave Bilal (Johnny Sekka, in a role coveted by Muhammad Ali) and Mohammad's adopted son, Zaid (Damien Thomas), but the leaders of Mecca eventually drive them out of the city, and later send troops to destroy them when their message of equality for all men (and women) threaten the status quo of Arabia.
The Message is fascinating to watch partly because much of the iconography (slaves freed from their oppressive masters, an exodus through the unforgiving desert, etc.) of Christian epics like King of Kings is exactly the same and the settings are likewise familiar. To this end The Message is very accessible, and viewers intimidated by their unfamiliarity with The Koran need not worry. Unlike the Arabs of, say, Lawrence of Arabia, so alien in their customs to T.E. Lawrence, characters here are recognizable movie types while avoiding Arab stereotypes.
Quite unlike the extremism of headline-grabbing fundamentalists, whose violent actions so distort western views of mainstream Islam and inflame a western climate of suspicion hanging over all Muslims, The Message is all about tolerance and equality. According to the film, "Jews and Christians have equal rights with Muslims," and Mohammed's message likens Christians and Muslims to "two rays from the same lamp," religions more alike than not, and a scene where Mohammed's followers seek sanctuary with the Christian King of Abyssinia is well done. Whether this is a moderate or leftist view among Muslims today this reviewer cannot say.
Most of the film is competently but conventionally made. Akkad is occasionally inspired, however, such as one evocatively and subtly realized scene where the Prophet is nearly captured hiding in a cave, but saved because of a spider's web covering its entrance. (The trackers assume no one's inside; otherwise the web would have been broken.) The triumphant return to Mecca by the refugees has an emotional payoff, and the film's epilogue, with scenes of mosques around the modern world over is impressively done.
Video & Audio
The Message is presented in a 16:9 enhanced transfer that unfortunately crops the side of the 2.35:1 Panavision image to 1.77:1. A few telecined shots are clearly scanned left or right across the image (and a few credits and subtitles are left unsqueezed so that audiences may read them), but the end result isn't as terrible as one might expect. This is not to condone panning-and-scanning, which is literally what this is, but the impact is much less than, say, panning-and-scanning a CinemaScope film to fit a 4:3 screen. Other than that, the image is quite good, with accurate color and good grain. The film uses The Message title, and does not include an overture, intermission, or exit music, assuming there ever was one. (Total running time of the film: 178 minutes.) The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, derived from original 4-track magnetic recordings, is also fine. There is no subtitle or alternate audio options. Anchor Bay released an earlier DVD of this title as a flipper-disc (the new one is single-sided) way back in 1998. This reviewer has not seen that version, nor the 16:9 region 2/NTSC Japanese release.
The main extra is a 44-minute, 4:3 documentary called The Making of an Epic: Mohammed - Messenger of God, narrated by co-star Damien Thomas. This featurette dates from the time of the production, but unlike most glossy promo films of that era, this one is surprisingly well done for its type. Though none of the actors are interviewed, most of the key production personnel are, including producer-director Akkad, screenwriter H.A.L. "Harry" Craig, cinematographer Jack Hildyard, composer Maurice Jarre (seen recording his score), and others. The documentary follows the crew from its Mecca exteriors, shot near Marrakech, to Libya where interiors were filmed in a converted tobacco warehouse.
Best of all the show goes into considerable detail about Akkad's decision to shoot two versions simultaneously, one in English using primarily British and American actors, and one in Arabic. (Contrary to data listed on the IMDb, Quinn, Papas, Ansara, et. al. do not appear in the Arab version, which is completely recast, except for a few minor parts.) Akkad discusses the challenges of shooting a feature in this manner (the first since the early 1930s?) and the documentary illustrates this by showing both the English and Arabic versions of several key scenes.
Akkad also provides an Audio Commentary track, running the length of the film, in which he reflects on the problems mounting the production and his mixed success winning support of the film from the Muslim community.
The package includes an entire second disc of limited value: the complete 198-minute Arabic version, al-Risalah, presented in a superior 16:9 enhanced transfer that preserves the original Panavision theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Unfortunately, this disc has no English subtitles, so non-Arabic speakers are pretty much limited to watching a few scenes, noting the different actors, comparing their performances from the English version, etc. This disc also includes an Audio Commentary by Producer-Director Moustapha Akkad, but it too is in Arabic without subtitles.
The Message falls well short of greatness, but it is pretty good and consistently engrossing and informative, and for its accessibility alone deserves a wider audience than it received when it was new.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.