The Message (1976)


Introduction

The Message (Arabic: الرسالة‎, Ar-Risālah, lit. Prophecy; originally known as Mohammad, Messenger of God) is a 1976 Islamic epic drama film directed and produced by Moustapha Akkad, chronicling the life and times of the Islamic prophet Muhammad through the perspective of his uncle Hamza ibn Abdul-Muttalib and adopted son Zayd ibn Harithah.

Outline

The film begins with Muhammad sending an invitation to accept Islam to surrounding rulers: Heraclius, the Byzantine Emperor; the Patriarch of Alexandria; the Sasanian Emperor.

Earlier Muhammad is visited by the angel Gabriel, which shocks him deeply. The angel asks him to start and spread Islam. Gradually, almost the entire city of Mecca begins to convert. As a result, more enemies will come and hunt Muhammad and his companions from Mecca and confiscate their possessions. Some of these followers fled to Abyssinia to seek refuge with the protection given by the king there.

They head north, where they receive a warm welcome in the city of Medina and build the first Islamic mosque. They are told that their possessions are being sold in Mecca on the market. Muhammad chooses peace for a moment, but still gets permission to attack. They are attacked but win the Battle of Badr. The Meccans want revenge and beat back with three thousand men in the Battle of Uhud, killing Hamza. The Muslims run after the Meccans and leave the camp unprotected. Because of this, they are surprised by riders from behind, so they lose the battle. The Meccans and the Muslims close a 10-year truce.

A few years later, Khalid ibn Walid, a Meccan general who has killed many Muslims, converts to Islam. Meanwhile, Muslim camps in the desert are attacked in the night. The Muslims believe that the Meccans are responsible. Abu Sufyan comes to Medina fearing retribution and claiming that it was not the Meccans, but robbers who had broken the truce. None of the Muslims give him an audience, claiming he “observes no treaty and keeps no pledge.” The Muslims respond with an attack on Mecca with very many troops and “men from every tribe”.

Abu Sufyan seeks an audience with Muhammad on the eve of the attack. The Meccans become very scared but are reassured that people in their houses, by the Kaaba, or in Abu Sufyan’s house will be safe. They surrender and Mecca falls into the hands of the Muslims without bloodshed. The pagan images of the gods in the Kaaba are destroyed, and the very first azan in Mecca is called on the Kaaba by Bilal ibn Rabah. The Farewell Sermon is also delivered.

Cast

  • English version:
    • Anthony Quinn as Hamza.
    • Irene Papas as Hind bint Utbah.
    • Michael Ansara as Abu Sufyan ibn Harb.
    • Johnny Sekka as Bilal ibn Rabah.
    • Michael Forest as Khalid ibn al-Walid.
    • André Morell as Abu Talib.
    • Garrick Hagon as Ammar ibn Yasir.
    • Damien Thomas as Zayd.
    • Martin Benson as Abu Jahl.
    • Robert Brown as Utbah ibn Rabi’ah.
    • Rosalie Crutchley as Sumayyah.
    • Bruno Barnabe as Umayyah ibn Khalaf.
    • Michael Godfrey as Baraa.
    • John Humphry as Ubaydah.
    • Ewen Solon as Yasir.
    • Wolfe Morris as Abu Lahab.
    • Ronald Leigh-Hunt as Heraclius.
    • Leonard Trolley as Silk Merchant.
    • Gerard Hely as Poet Sinan.
    • Habib Ageli as Hudhayfah.
    • Peter Madden as Toothless Man.
    • Hassan Joundi as Khosrau II.
    • Abdullah Lamrani as Ikrimah.
    • Elaine Ives-Cameron as Arwa.
    • Mohammad Al Gaddary as Money Lender.
    • Ahmad Marey as Young Christian.
  • Arabic version:
    • Abdullah Gaith as Hamza.
    • Muna Wassef as Hind.
    • Hamdi Ghaith as Abu Sufyan ibn Harb.
    • Ali Ahmed Salem as Bilal.
    • Mahmoud Said as Khalid.
    • Ahmad Marey as Zayd.
    • Mohammad Larbi as Ammar.
    • Hassan Joundi as Abu Jahl.
    • Sana’ Jamil as Sumayyah.
    • Martin Benson as Khosrau II.
    • Damien Thomas as Young Christian.

Production

While creating The Message, director Akkad, who was Muslim, consulted Islamic clerics in a thorough attempt to be respectful towards Islam and its views on portraying Muhammad. He received approval from Al-Azhar in Egypt but was rejected by the Muslim World League in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

Financing for the project initially came from the Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, Kuwait and Morocco, but when it was rejected by the Muslim World League, Emir Sabah III Al-Salim Al-Sabah of Kuwait withdrew financial support. King Hassan II of Morocco gave Akkad full support for the production while then-Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi provided the majority of the financial support too.

The film was shot in Morocco and Libya, with production taking four and a half months to build the sets for Mecca and Medina as imagined in Muhammad’s time. Production took one year; Akkad filmed for six months in Morocco but had to stop when the Saudi government exerted great pressure on the Moroccan government to stop the project. Akkad went to al-Gaddafi for support in order to complete the project, and the Libyan leader allowed him to move the filming to Libya for the remaining six months.

Akkad saw the film as a way to bridge the gap between the Western and Islamic worlds, stating in a 1976 interview:

I did the film because it is a personal thing for me. Besides its production values as a film, it has its story, its intrigue, its drama. Besides all this I think there was something personal, being a Muslim myself who lived in the west I felt that it was my obligation my duty to tell the truth about Islam. It is a religion that has a 700 million following, yet it’s so little known about which surprised me. I thought I should tell the story that will bring this bridge, this gap to the west.

Akkad also filmed an Arabic version of the film simultaneously with an Arab cast, for Arabic-speaking audiences. He felt that dubbing the English version into Arabic would not be enough, because the Arabic acting style differs significantly from that of Hollywood. The actors took turns doing the English and Arabic versions in each scene.

Music

The musical score of The Message was composed and conducted by Maurice Jarre and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.

Depiction of Muhammad

In accordance with the beliefs of some Muslims regarding depictions of Muhammad, his face is not depicted on-screen nor is his voice heard. Because Islamic tradition generally forbids any direct representation of religious figures, the following disclaimer is displayed at the beginning of the film:

The makers of this film honour the Islamic tradition which holds that the impersonation of the Prophet offends against the spirituality of his message. Therefore, the person of Mohammad will not be shown (or heard).

The rule above was also extended to his wives, his daughters including Fatimah, Zainab, Umm Kulthum, Ruqayyah, his sons-in-law, and the first caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali ibn Abi Talib his paternal cousin). This left Muhammad’s uncle Hamza (Anthony Quinn) and his adopted son Zayd (Damien Thomas) as the central characters. During the battles of Badr and Uhud depicted in the movie, Hamza was in nominal command, even though the actual fighting was led by Muhammad, Hamza and Ali.

Whenever Muhammad was present or very close by, his presence was indicated by light organ music. His words, as he spoke them, were repeated by someone else such as Hamza, Zayd or Bilal. When a scene called for him to be present, the action was filmed from his point of view. Others in the scene nodded to the unheard dialogue or moved with the camera as though moving with Muhammad.

The closest the film comes to a depiction of Muhammad or his immediate family are the view of Ali’s famous two-pronged sword Zulfiqar during the battle scenes, a glimpse of a staff in the scenes at the Kaaba or in Medina, and Muhammad’s camel, Qaswa.

Release

In July 1976, five days before the film opened in London’s West End, threatening phone calls to a cinema prompted Akkad to change the title from Mohammed, Messenger of God to The Message, at a cost of £50,000.

Awards and Nominations

The film was nominated for an Oscar in 1977 for Best Original Score for the music by Maurice Jarre.

Potential Remake

In October 2008, producer Oscar Zoghbi revealed plans to “revamp the 1976 movie and give it a modern twist,” according to IMDb and the World Entertainment News Network. He hoped to shoot the remake, tentatively titled The Messenger of Peace, in the cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

In February 2009, Barrie M. Osborne, producer of The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings film trilogies, was attached to produce a new film about Muhammad. The film was to be financed by a Qatari media company and was to be supervised by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

Trivia

  • Released in both separately-filmed Arabic and English-language versions, The Message serves as an introduction to early Islamic history.
  • It was an international co-production between Libya, Morocco, Lebanon, Syria and the United Kingdom.
  • The film was nominated for Best Original Score in the 50th Academy Awards, composed by Maurice Jarre, but lost the award to Star Wars (composed by John Williams).
  • Production stopped when the financiers withdrew their support, leaving cast and crew stranded for two weeks in Morocco (in a hotel with broken air conditioning; they slept under wet towels).
    • Financing was eventually supplied by none other than Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi.
  • This film was made in both English and Arabic with two different casts, the lone exception being Andre Morell who is credited as Abu-Talib in both versions.
    • Scenes were shot back to back in both languages.
  • It took 4 ½ months to build the ancient city of Mecca.
  • The University of Al-Azhar in Cairo and the High Islamic Congress of the Shiat in Lebanon were involved in approving the accuracy of the film.
  • In accordance with Muslim beliefs, Mohammed could not be depicted on screen nor could his voice be heard.
    • This rule extended to his wives, his daughters and his sons-in-law.
    • This left Mohammed’s uncle as the central character (played by Anthony Quinn).
    • In the completed film, actors speak directly to the camera and then nod to unheard dialogue.

Production & Filming Details

  • Director(s):
    • Moustapha Akkad.
  • Producer(s):
    • Moustapha Akkad … producer.
    • Harold Buck … associate producer.
    • Mohammad Sanousi … associate producer.
  • Writer(s):
    • H.A.L. Craig.
    • Tewfik El-Hakim.
    • A.B. Jawdat El-Sahhar.
    • A.B. Rahman El-Sharkawi.
    • Mohammad Ali Maher.
  • Music:
    • Maurice Jarre.
  • Cinematography:
    • Jack Hildyard … (photographed by).
  • Editor(s):
    • John Bloom.
  • Production:
    • Filmco International Productions.
  • Distributor(s):
    • Tarik Film Distributors (1976) (UK) (theatrical).
    • Tarik Film Distributors (1977) (USA) (theatrical) (English-track).
    • Svensk Filmindustri (SF) (1977) (Sweden) (theatrical).
    • Syncron Film (1977) (Norway) (theatrical).
    • Greater Union Organisation (GUO) (1976) (Australia) (theatrical).
    • Sofilmes (1977) (Portugal) (theatrical).
    • Anchor Bay Entertainment (USA) (DVD).
    • Continental (2007) (Brazil) (DVD).
    • Front Row Filmed Entertainment (2017) (United Arab Emirates) (all media) (Middle East, North Africa & Iran).
    • Manga Films (2006) (Spain) (DVD).
    • UFA Video (West Germany) (video).
    • Winkler Film (2007) (Germany) (DVD).
  • Release Date: 30 July 1976 (London, UK).
  • Rating: PG.
  • Running Time: 177 minutes.
  • Country: US.
  • Language: English.

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