The Message Review
Moustapha Akka’s The Message (original title, Mohammad, Messenger of God) strives to be an epic. Rich in concept and scale, it aims to outdo such larger-than-life Biblical films as Cecil B de Mille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) or Henry Koster’s The Robe (1953), the first movie shot in Cinemascope. But The Message comes rather late in the day to be viewed in the same vein as these garish 1950s offerings - here the emphasis is on realism and historical accuracy, eschewing the cheesy special effects and melodramatic acting style so beloved of those old Bible stories.
The film concerns itself with the beginnings of the Islamic faith. Set in 7th century Mecca, a prophet called Mohammad appears to the rich and powerful leaders and challenges their cruel and unjust ruling. Mohammad claims to have seen a vision from the Angel Gabriel telling the people to worship one God only, rather than the hundreds they already do. At first expelled from the city, Mohammad soon begins to form a loyal band of followers around him, until in Medina the first mosque is built. There then follows two huge battles - a victorious one at the Wells of Bedr and a less successful one at Uhud - and the film ends with the Moslems allowed a ten year truce so they can continue to preach the message.
Where The Message scores is in its ability to tell a simple, yet powerful, story of the birth of a religious movement. Not being in any way an expert on Islam, I don’t know whether the events depicted are accurate (I’m assuming a certain streamlining of history has occurred), but the quotations at the start of the film and the comments made in the documentary all seem to imply its verisimilitude. The rise of loyal followers of Mohammad - despite various forms of torture and rejection - and the establishing of a church mirrors the formation of many great religions, especially Christianity (something I’m more familiar with). Mohammad is seen as just the latest (and best) in a long line of prophets, stretching back in recorded history and including Jesus himself. As the final narration intones, “all descend from Adam”, and “between Moslems there are no races and no tribes”. Universal compassion is preached throughout, with similar principles to the Biblical practice of ‘behaving towards others as you would like them to behave towards you’, and it is impressive to see such openness towards other races and cultures in the formation of a new religious philosophy.
On the downside, the film is often slow and plodding. There is not really sufficient material for three hours, and while the actors all turn in good to excellent performances - notably such British stalwarts as Andre Morell and John Bennett - there is a lack of the supranatural events that we in the Western world have come to expect from a religious epic. No miracles, in other words. The locale is often spectacular, especially the vast expanse of deserts seen prominently in many sequences (filming took place in Morocco and Libya), and the veritable thousands of extras adds to the illusion of historicity; but ultimately the film’s overtly reverential tone diffuses some of the awe and excitement that would otherwise have been created. That said, the battle sequences are well-staged, and the first one has a pleasing nod towards spaghetti western shoot-outs in its initial staging.
Fans of telefantasy will notice several actors of note in the film. The perfect diction of Andre Morell is audible from under a huge beard - he played many a part in Hammer horror films, such as Plague of the Zombies and The Mummy’s Shroud (as well as Ben Hur!). He is best remembered as playing Professor Bernard Quatermass from BBC's 1958 production Quatermass and the Pit. Then there’s John Bennett, who made several appearances in Doctor Who, most famously as oriental baddie Li H’sen Chang in this month’s eagerly-awaited DVD The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Also appearing are two other Doctor Who actors: Neville (The Androids of Tara) Jason with a beard and Ronald (The Seeds of Death) Leigh-Hunt under an appalling wig.
There are a couple of interesting technical points about The Message. The first is that the prophet Mohammad is never actually seen; representations of him are offensive to Moslems. So any sequence involving the prophet is either structured so that he is just off-screen, or else the camera itself becomes his POV, with characters directly addressing the audience. (As an aside, this seems strange to me in that, time and again, Mohammad claims to be ‘just a prophet’ and not God himself, and thus I cannot really understand why he is treated as if he is divine.) This limitation can, at times, prove unintentionally comical; it also lends scenes an unwanted staginess. The other point of interest is that director Moustapha Akkad actually shot two different versions, one with English-speaking actors, the other with Arabic actors. This was because the languages were so different that lip synch problems would be extremely noticeable when prints were dubbed from English to Arabic. Thus Anthony Quinn is played by Abdallah Geith in the Arabic version. The film must have been so hard to make in the first place, that this addition to an already complex shooting schedule is almost unthinkable. No wonder the film took an alleged three years to complete. (This DVD set includes both versions of the film, although my review concerns itself almost wholly with the English one - as I'm unable to understand Arabic, I only watched the second version for a few minutes. Some of the scenes are exactly the same, but those with key English-speaking cast members were reshot.)
As for the DVD transfer, on the English version the first thing to point out is that it is, sadly, non-anamorphic. The 2.35:1 ratio seems accurate, but the picture quality suffers from a ‘softness’ that is especially noticeable on landscapes (of which there are many). Putting three hours of material on one disc should not be a problem these days, but the disc compression here seems to have unduly affected the quality. That said, there doesn’t seem to have been any remastering work done on the print either, and there are several sequences - especially during the Wells of Bedr battle - in which the colour balance flickers appallingly. Colour is not especially bright, with a lot of the desert scenes appearing rather murky. In a nutshell, the picture looks better when not zoomed to fill a widescreen television - the main problem with non-anamorphic releases. Ironically, Disc 2, the Arabic version, is anamorphic! I guess the only way to enjoy it in its full anamorphic splendour is to brush up on your Arabic. The preferable sound option in both cases is the 5.1 mix, which adds much greater depth and power to the many crowd-filled sequences. Maurice Jarre’s underwhelming score is given a good boost too. Both films have a reasonable 18 chapters each.
There are two trailers on Disc 1, both very scruffy ex-video copies and both far too long (the English one is 3:40 and the Arabic one is a whopping 4:29). A documentary, The Making of an Epic - Mohammad, Messenger of God (44:33), is included as an extra on the same disc. It’s in 4:3 non-anamorphic, and provides a fascinating look at the making of both versions. Narrated by Damien Thomas (who’s also in the film) and with frequent comments by director/producer Moustapha Akkad, it is an excellent overview of the whole film process, from script, via storyboard, to shooting and post-production. It’s also a great time capsule, with the sight of garish kipper ties, pipes between clenched teeth, clunky NHS glasses, frizzy mutton-chops and posh English accents providing a glorious nostalgia trip. There are some fascinating behind-the-scenes sequences and interesting snippets of information are liberally sprinkled throughout, such as the Libyan army being drafted in to play extras in the fight scenes. The whole production is beautifully edited, in particular the build-up to the climactic battle scenes, and there is a welcome note of dry humour in the narration that is largely missing from the film itself. Amusingly, there are two obvious reel changes during this feature that make you feel like you’re watching an amateur Super 8 film show, and adds to the nostalgic feeling!
There is the obligatory still gallery, and the menus are accompanied by Maurice Jarre's theme music and scenes from the film playing in the background.
Overall, it has to be said that the DVD treatment (certainly on the English version) does not do justice to the film. The picture quality is inferior to many much older releases and the lack of subtitles is irritating. However, if you’re interested in a faithful rendition of the foundation of Islam from a sympathetic point-of-view, then this film is definitely worth catching.