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Monday, November 11, 2013

THE MESSAGE -- Blu-ray review by porfle

Syrian-born filmmaker Moustapha Akkad, best known today as the producer John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN and its sequels, dreamt of sharing the true meaning of Islam with those who had little knowledge or understanding of it.  The result is his 1977 religious epic THE MESSAGE,  aka "Mohammad, Messenger of God", an impressive directorial debut (his only other films as director would be the all-Arabic version of this one entitled "Al-ris├ólah", filmed simultaneously, and the 1981 LION OF THE DESERT) which stands today as a worthy effort that's somewhat hit-or-miss in execution.

The film opens (circa 600 A.D.) with some thrilling shots of three horsemen riding flat-out over scenic desert vistas, then splitting up in order to deliver "The Message" to three different kings at the same time.  Not surprisingly, these stuffy, self-important dictators reject the Prophet Muhammad's divine decree--which states, among other things, that there is only one true God and all the hundreds of others currently worshipped by the populace are false--with varying levels of haughty dismissiveness.  Well, that's what happens when you're trying to start a new religion. 

Not only that, but a lot of people tend to get downright hostile towards you, which the Prophet's followers discover when they're driven out of Mecca after much persecution, torture, and death.  They flee to Abyssinia where, after a prolonged exchange of philosophies (one of the film's more interesting dialogue scenes), the Christian king decides he has much in common with them. 

Later, they migrate to Medina where much of the basis for Islam is established along with a rapid increase in converts.  Here, they must do battle against Mecca's ruthless leader Abu Sofyan (Michael Ansara) and his armies on several occasions.  Finally, however, a truce allows them to return at last to their beloved Mecca where their religion really begins to thrive. 

At almost three hours in length, THE MESSAGE is a long, arduous viewing experience scattered with inspirational moments, scenes of impressive scope, and some thunderous battle sequences.  It has much of the same solemnity and melodrama of the standard Biblical epic, and those not spiritually attuned to it may find a lot of it rather taxing.  Even so, there's quite a bit of action and sheer spectacle along with some of the same audience-pleasing violence and sadism found in the standard sword 'n' sandals epic. 

Akkad (with the help of regular screenwriter H.A.L. Craig) is also capable of effectively staging moments of real sentiment and raw emotion, such as when a mother tells her son how she survived her own birth because her father couldn't bring himself to bury a third daughter alive (I don't even want to know about this custom) in accordance with some god or man's decree.  Her conversion to Islam at her son's behest leads to a tragic scene in which he must watch her being tortured to death in a vain attempt to make her renounce her new faith. 

After a lot of wandering through the desert to escape persecution, the Prophet finally relays word from God that the Muslims are allowed to fight back against their relentlessly pursuing foes.  This is when THE MESSAGE delivers the goods as an action epic with spectacular hand-to-hand battle sequences of a kind rarely seen these days. 

Instead of millions of generic CGI-generated figures swarming around like cartoon insects, here we get hundreds of real flesh-and-blood extras going at each other with blades swinging and bows shooting.  (Fortunately, unlike the later LION OF THE DESERT, few if any harmful horse-tripping stunts are involved.)  Knowing that what we're seeing is actually happening in front of the camera instead of being "generated" by a computer somehow makes it more exciting despite the smaller scale of the battle. 

But even when the extras aren't fighting, Akkad manages some impressive large-scale crowd shots that can verge on the mind-boggling.  Production design and other visual elements are generally first-rate, and a lush musical score by Maurice Jarre enhances the story at every turn.  The film benefits greatly from Moustapha Akkad's own personal style of lean, efficient direction.

As Muhammad's uncle Hamza, a dynamic Anthony Quinn gets to be much more of a badass here than in the later LION OF THE DESERT, first rescuing Muhammad and his followers from an angry mob and then becoming their champion in battle against Mecca's legions.  Michael Ansara as Abu Sofyan is his usual awesome self, with the exotic Irene Papas wonderfully sinister and conniving as his Hind, his wife.  Also appearing are Johnny Sekka ("Roots: The Next Generations"), Michael Forest (Apollo in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Who Mourns For Adonis?"), and Robert Brown, who took over the role of "M" from the late Bernard Lee in the 007 series.

The most curious aspect of the film is the fact that we never see or hear its main character.   While an opening text announces that  the factual details of the story have been verified by the appropriate theological experts, we also find that, in accordance with Sunni beliefs prohibiting depictions of Muhammad, neither his image nor voice are to be represented.  In other words,  the main subject of this biographical film doesn't appear in it at all.

To overcome this, Akkad relies mainly on P.O.V. shots accompanied by an ethereal musical cue on the soundtrack.   People talk directly into the camera when addressing the Prophet and then listen to his responses, which we can't hear (narrator Richard Johnson sometimes fills us in on what we're missing).  While strangely compelling at times, this conceit is mostly a distraction that takes us out of the movie and hinders our ability to relate to the Prophet as a person involved in the story rather than as an idea.   Still, it's interesting. 

The Blu-ray disc from  Anchor Bay is in 1.78:1 widescreen with 5.1 sound.  Running time is 171 minutes.  There are no subtitles or extras.

The story behind this film tends to overshadow what's on the screen--its various troubles and controversies included violent protests by some who believed Anthony Quinn was actually portraying Muhammad, while Moustapha Akkad and his daughter Rima were later killed in Jordan by a suicide bomber sent by al-Qaeda.  But for those who wish to know more about the roots of Islam, in a form that's artistically flawed but fairly entertaining, THE MESSAGE is a worthwhile experience. 

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