Tuesday, 12 November 2013

THE MESSAGE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Inspirational Epic of Islam now on Anchor Bay Ent. Canada Blu-Ray

It ain't all Greek to
His Holy Swarthiness!
Mohammed, the Prophet, receives a Holy Message from God via the angel Gabriel and begins a struggle to take back the city of Mecca - now a den of inequity and represented by over 300 pagan gods. With such formidable foes as a rich, greedy and powerful merchant class led by Abu Sofyan (Michael Ansara) and his wife Hind (Irene Papas), converting the people to Islam is going to be an uphill battle. Luckily, playing Mohammed's Uncle Hamza is Anthony Quinn (AKA "The Life Force" - as crowned, with tongue firmly in cheek, by the late, great Pauline Kael). He's just the man among men to kick all the Pagan-butt necessary on behalf of the Great Prophet. Eventually God is forevermore able to win the hearts and minds of all the people - thanks, of course, to Anthony Quinn (and yes, Mohammed, the All Holy Messenger of the One True God).
Anthony Quinn: The Ideal Butt-Kicker for Islam!
THE MESSAGE (1977) ***1/2
Dir. Moustapha Akkad
Starring: Michael Ansara, Irene Pappas, Anthony Quinn
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Short of reading a good translation of the Koran and/or taking an introductory undergraduate Religious Studies course, Moustapha Akkad's straightforward epic narrative rendering of the story of the Prophet Mohammed, provides a solid, entertaining Coles/Cliff's Notes version of the origins of a religion that has otherwise been horrendously stereotyped by the West and equally (and even surprisingly) perverted by extremist Middle Eastern sects.

The Message was long overdue and cinematic reparations were, indeed, in order. Like any decent Cecil B. DeMille sword-and-sandal sprawler like The Greatest Story Ever Told (including the ludicrous George Stevens remake) and The Ten Commandments, it's a relatively straightforward tale told with a great deal of sweep. Director Moustapha Akkad isn't, however, as proficient a filmmaker as DeMille. Not that Akkad's direction is bad, but due to the international nature and flavour of the production (it was seven years in the making, shot in several languages and in some cases with alternate cast members for different markets), there are more than a few clunky moments. However, the film strikes a generally good balance between history lesson and rip-snorting entertainment and is, in general, thoughtful, literate and respectful of its subject matter.

Given that the subject matter is Mohammed, the Holy Prophet of Islam, it's a darn good thing Akkad was respectful. Ultimately, God only knows, he might well have had a Fatwah imposed upon him. This wasn't going to happen to Akkad, though, since the canny director developed the property and shot it in such a way that he was able to maintain the strict Holy Doctrine of never literally depicting Mohammed. His solution to the problem of telling the story of someone who was not allowed, in any way, shape or form to be seen onscreen, was so brilliantly simple that after the initial shock of having to get used to it, you do.

Seriously, this must be reiterated: Mohammed is the main character, but he is never seen onscreen, nor are we allowed to hear his voice. His actions and words are described by others and when characters need to speak with Mohammed, Akkad has them speaking directly into the camera. I really loved this touch - not only for adhering to the strict Muslim laws on such matters, but frankly, this kind of reverence towards the "Character" adds considerably to the mystique and holiness of Mohammed and his very important story within the context of the world's faith-based history.

This is one big movie. As the cliched saying goes: "They don't make 'em like this anymore." The vistas are vast, the sets and costumes sumptuous and the whole film is pleasingly photographed. Akkad assembled an amazing team of artists including gorgeous cinematography by the legendary Jack Hildyard (The Bridge on the River Kwai) and a stirring score by composer Maurice Jarre (Dr. Zhivago). This is a movie that, by rights, should have been seen far more widely in the West - especially in North America.

In contemporary terms, The Message might be even more important than ever since it presents a far more accurate portrait of the Islamic faith, its roots and history - effectively shooting down all the truly hateful American propaganda foisted upon audiences since 9/11. Akkad emphasizes so many of the progressive values of this religion - including equality between men and women as well as issues of peace, love and forgiveness. Though the movie might have been tarred and feathered by Muslim audiences even before it was released (rumours circulated that Charlton Heston would be seen - on camera - playing Mohammed), Akkad had wisely brought numerous Islamic clerics and academics on board as active historical and religious watchdogs. Rather than compromising the film, it did, I believe, make the film far more sympathetic, informative and entertaining.

In America, the film was viewed in an anti-Judeo-Christian light which, was especially moronic since the film even refers positively to any number of Judeo-Christian prophets and deities including Abraham, Moses and the Big Fella' Himself, Jesus H. Christ. The real reason The Message was virtually censored and condemned via poor exhibition and distribution (under the title Mohammed: Messenger of God), along with Akkad's tremendous followup Lion of the Desert (to be reviewed on this website soon) had way more to do with the fact that his films had been financed to the hilt by Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi (Rompin' Ronnie Reagan's nemesis throughout the 80s). In spite of America's hatred for Gaddafi, he offered, provided and maintained a strictly hands-off approach to financing both films and exercised no censorship whatsoever. This, of course, is a far cry from the overt and/or subtle censorship of American cinema via the government, New World Order and/or the studios.

Sadly, Akkad never got to make his dream project Saladin, an epic that was to star Sean Connery as the great Muslim leader who fought against the injustices of the Crusades. During pre-production in 2005, Akkad and his daughter were killed in the bombings that took place in Amman, Jordan. Luckily, we have Akkad to thank for making two huge motion pictures in an attempt to bridge the divide between Islam and the Western World.

Curiously, and for better or worse, he can also be thanked for financing, as Executive Producer, the first eight Halloween films - movies that reached audiences in the most universal manner one could imagine.

"The Message" is available on Blu-Ray in a gorgeous new edition from Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada which includes the Arabic version of the film and an excellent making-of documentary.