The Message (1976) Moustapha Akkad
Production Budget: $10 million
I can certainly see the interest in making a movie about the prophet Mohammed. Religious movies, especially Christian movies, are big bank. There were (at the time the movie was made) over 700 million Muslims and no movies had been made on the subject. Now I’m not saying that was the only reason the movie was greenlit. Moustapha Akkad (who is probably best known for producing the Halloween movies) is also a Muslim and wanted to spread the word about his religion. However there are a few reasons why a movie about Mohammed did not work with even someone devoted to accommodating the target audience like Akkad.
Hollywood did not want to invest in the film because Akkad wanted to move the production to Morocco (Wikipedia). Akkad found some financing however the cast was nearly stuck when at one point the foreign investors pulled out. The film was completed due to backing by Libyan leader Muammar al Gaddafi (wiki). Akkad did not want to offend his target audience so he worked with the University of Al-Azhar and the High Islamic Congress of the Shiat in Lebanon in order to make it as accurate as possible. Akkad made his own replica of Mecca, produced the film with an English and Arab cast, and dubbed the film in 12 languages. Production had to be moved to Libya when the Saudi Government convinced the Moroccans to stop production.
Even though Akkad worked as hard as possible to not offend his Muslim audience, there were many protests against the movie. Muslim beliefs states that Mohammed could not be depicted in any way, nor his wives or sons. In The Message, we do not see Mohammed or hear him speak. However, the movie was banned in many middle eastern countries simply because the idea of a movie is sacrilege (imdb). One of the worst protests happened when Hinafi Muslims took hostages in Washington DC in a 39 hour standoff (imdb).
Now after all that, let me get to my review. It is no secret I am an atheist (and probably not the target audience) but that doesn’t mean I am automatically disposed to hate this movie. I was actually interested coming to see how Akkad handled the subject matter. The thing I want to discuss first and which is probably most relevant to my feelings on the film is the matter of Mohammed. As I mentioned before, the character Mohammed is not in this movie. Well, he is but he is not. When he does appear (for lack of a better term since he cannot be shown) he is portrayed by a point of view camera shot accompanied by eerie music. He also does not speak a single word. It was actually a tad unintentionally funny because I got more of a Halloween/first person point of view kill vibe than a prophet of god vibe. I just kept expecting a butcher knife to come out when he is with Anthony Quinn is all I’m saying. But to get back on track that is obviously the biggest flaw of the movie. For a movie about the ‘prophet of God’ Mohammed, it isn’t really about Mohammed. I mean, try imagining seeing Passion of the Christ or Last Temptation of Christ but not seeing Jesus in it. Instead you have the apostles sitting around saying things like “Did you hear what Jesus did then?” or “And then Jesus told those moneychangers in the temple this…” Now I’m not telling Akkad to break with his own dogma and piss off the Muslim community just to make a buck, but you are obviously giving yourself a heck of an obstruction when you set out to make a movie essentially without a protagonist. I actually think Akkad would have been better served with making a documentary. That way he could talk all he wanted about Islam and Mohammed and spread the word without that problem. True it is not the Cecil B. DeMille epic you are planning for, but lets face it, The Message was never going to be that movie.
Okay, so instead of being a movie about Mohammed, the Message is more about the spread of Islam. Anthony Quinn plays Hamza (who is basically the stand in protagonist for Mohammed) who leads a group of Muslims just starting out in Mecca. The story is about how they are first persecuted by other religions including Christians and their eventual rise to controlling Mecca. First off, I have to admit I don’t know how historically accurate any of the movie is. I know I just mentioned how Akkad worked on the accuracy but that doesn’t mean a whole lot to me. You can be accurate to the Koran, but that doesn’t mean historical facts back it up. I’m not saying one way or the other.
The movie isn’t bad. It is well made and you can tell the passion Akkad has for this subject. He wanted to show Islam as a progressive religion (for example saying Islam had equal rights for women) and giving more a message of religious tolerance. The movie has good locations and with the exception of a few scenes (where you could tell they ran out of money) good production. A problem I have is there really isn’t any memorable characters. Anthony Quinn is the main actor in this movie, but even he is more a supporting character than a protagonist.
I actually didn’t mind seeing this movie. It is not all that good. As I mentioned, I think it suffers from some crippling storytelling problems. I don’t think I would recommend this movie to anyone that isn’t already interested in the subject. You don’t learn all that much about the religion and not too much historical reference. I especially don’t know a thing more about Mohammed than I did starting out. But this movie is a rarity and does have some redeeming points to it by the good direction of Akkad. I didn’t really hate it but I won’t ever watch it again.