Director: Moustapha Akkad / Script: H.A.L. Craig / Editing: John Bloom / DP: Jack Hildyard / Music: Maurice Jarre
Cast: Anthony Quinn / Irene Papas / Michael Ansara / Johnny Sekka / Michael Forest / Garrick Hagon / Damien Thomas / Robert Brown
Lost In Translation…
Director/Producer Moustapha Akkad, a Muslim of Syrian heritage, who would go on to find enduring success with the Halloween horror franchise, actually began his career with this picture: a gargantuan undertaking for a novice film-maker. His ambition for The Message was simple enough: just as Hollywood had dramatised the various Christian ‘origin stories’ over the years, why not do the same for Islam? There was just one problem: the faith treats any depiction of its founder – the Prophet Muhammed – as idolatry, which leaves a gaping hole at the centre of any project grappling with this subject. Akkad turned this into a positive, by having actors respond to unspoken dialogue for key exchanges or treating the camera’s POV as if it were the Prophet, moving it about, as if we’re seeing scenes through his eyes.
It was creative compromises such as this, that won Akkad approval from the Al-Azhar University in Cairo and the High Islamic Congress of the Shiat in Lebanon; two bodies who’s approval unlocked regional funding. As luck would have it, the money would disappear mid-shoot anyway, with the tab picked up by none other than Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi… As Akkad later put it (I’m paraphrasing now, as I’ve lost the original quote) ‘500 million people follow the faith of Islam; it’s good to show the rest of the World how it began’. Well quite.
Not that Akkad had been the first to attempt such a project: several film-makers had already found similar work-arounds over the years, but these had been low-budget affairs, shot in Arabic and intended for regional consumption, whereas Akkad was looking to the West. That he also shot an Arabic version in-parallel, using recognisable local talent, could be seen as hedging his bets…
He also did well to hire legendary composer Maurice Jarre, who’d delivered a masterpiece for Lawrence of Arabia, filmed over a decade earlier; Akkad (or his backers) obviously hoped he could get lightning into the bottle for a second time but, alas, Jarre’s output on this occasion was tepid at-best. And the film itself? I’m only reviewing the English-language version here, but both versions clock-in at a shade under three hours which puts them firmly into Epic territory. We begin well, with a montage of shots as a trio of veiled riders cross a desert, before splitting-up to go their separate ways; they carry letters from the Prophet to the sceptical rulers of Alexandria, Persia and Byzantium, proclaiming that ‘there is only one God’ and urging them to embrace Islam. Okay.
We then cut to an expansive set, depicting Mecca in 610AD: a city ruled by its rich merchants, over a people in-thrall to 360 Gods, immortalised in stone, plaster and wood and stored in the Kaaba (‘Cube’) or ‘House of God’ at the heart of the city. It’s an idolatrous, Pagan city in-need of reform. Standing in the way, are those merchants; each representing a power-base and wealth of their own. Their ranks include Abu Sofyan (Michael Ansara), his wife Hind (powerful Greek actress, Irene Papas, reuniting for her fifth of six movies with Quinn) and Otba (Robert Brown, best known to me for being ‘M’ from Octopussy through to Licence to Kill).
When Nubian slave Bilal (Johnny Sekka) refuses to whip one of the early followers of the Prophet, his bloodthirsty mistress Hind delights in seeing him ‘corrected’, by being crushed under a boulder. Yet Bilal survives this ordeal, converts to Islam and becomes one of the Prophet’s inner-circle, joining his adopted son Zaid (Damien Thomas) and Ammar (Garrick Hagon). At times, it all feels like the players have come hot-foot from a casting-call at RADA (accents are reassuringly middle-class British), so the arrival of the Prophet’s uncle Hamza, some forty minutes-in, is a breath of fresh air, given he’s played by Anthony Quinn, with a charismatic gusto missing from the Young Turks. Little wonder, that Quinn would cite this performance, with its blend of complex reverence, to be the favourite of his long career. Unfortunately his character arrives too late to save all those persecuted by the Burghers of Mecca, though it’s a little sloppy of Akkad to have Hamza strolling about the killing fields unchallenged…
Still, the survivors trek across the desert to Abyssinia, where a Christian king is expected to offer sanctuary: that is, if his Mecca friends can’t persuade him to kick-out these rebels first… A little well-timed oratory shows the King how similar these two young faiths actually are and sanctuary’s granted, thus putting these Islamic rebels on a long path of insurrection against Mecca. Battles are fought. The Prophet escapes to Medina, along with the rest of his followers and there, the first Mosque is built with Bilal as its first Muezzin.
There’s a final battle, followed by a truce in which Islam builds its base. When An Unfortunate Incident breaks the truce, the Prophet advises his new army to occupy Mecca, which it does, encountering no opposition – Abu Sofyan bends the knee and accepts Islam; even Hind seems ready to convert at the end of the last reel. I wish I could say the same…
The film suffers despite – not because – of the Prophet’s absence. Akkad is no David Lean, that’s for sure and his DoP is no Jack Cardiff. His set-ups are devoid of panache for the most part, bar one shot of a group of escaping rebels hiding in the shadow of a sand-dune. The script had likely been ‘approved’ by so many, that it ended-up becoming an animated history lesson, in which two-dimensional characters spend most of the time telling themselves, each other and everyone they meet, ‘how great is God’ at the expense of their own story-arcs.
Aside from odd pronouncements of doctrine, that differ from the barbarism of Mecca’s rulers, we get little of the faith’s psychological impact on believers; it’s all paying lip-service to the problem as I see it. One could make the case that the subject is too reverent to devote time to building-out character, but that’s exactly what I found most problematic! Because of the central absence of the ‘leading man’, we’re left with a ‘Tab A into Slot B’ history, rather than a filmed entertainment: and it’s that alone, that I’m considering here: if I wanted WORTHY, I’d have read a book!
Another issue, is the lack of crowd-friendly ‘miracles’ in Islam, compared to Christianity. In the latter faith, miracles abounded, from both Old & New Testaments; acts of divinity to inspire, intimidate (and look good on-film, as it turned-out). Yet Islam lacked such impactful stuff so, as an audience, we’re asked to go along, based purely on the script as presented and acted. It might’ve been historically accurate, both chronologically and in its mise-en-scéne, but I wasn’t engaged. Had I already been a believer, I’m sure I would’ve noted events for their Significance. As it was, my layman’s ignorance blinded me to events & characters. The script makes too many assumptions and falls-short at having a mechanism to outline things; I wanted a Basil Exposition character or device, to give me context more frequently & explicitly.
Akkad’s original intention was noble: to show The West how the faith of his people had overcome its fragile beginnings and thrived. It’s a shame then, that he chose to direct such a directionless script. Maybe time was against him, or maybe budget pressures affected his judgment, but it’s instructive to note that he would direct just one more feature (Lion of the Desert, again with Quinn & Papas) before settling to produce and hand-off the directing reins to others. Seldom can you do both, as the end result proves.
As a sad endnote, I would add that Moustapha Akkad would die, along with his daughter (and at least 57 other innocent people) from wounds received in a suicide bomb attack in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt hotel in the city of Amman, Jordan in 2005. He and his daughter were in the lobby at the time. Three hotels were hit in a co-ordinated attack, the perpetrators of which were claimed to be from ‘Al-Qaeda in Iraq’, who were targeting ‘American and Israeli Intelligence and other Western Governments’.
It’s a sad and bitter irony, that one of their victims should have been a film-maker who championed Islam, to a ‘Western’ culture largely ignorant of the moral code outlined by the Prophet and enshrined within the Koran.
Men see the World too well from a mountain.