Originally released as “Mohammad: Messenger of God,” this middle-seventies religious epic about the beginning of the Islam faith would have been more at home in the fifties or sixties, when such fare as “The Ten Commandments,” “The Robe” and “King of Kings” were fashionable.
Still, that’s how long it took for the story to reach the screen. Hollywood had bandied around the idea of making a movie about “Mohammad” for years, but insisted on showing the prophet. Since Muslim religion insists that showing a prophet is sacrilegious, this would have been unacceptable to the 700 million Muslims who populate the world. It took producer-director Moustapha Akkad until the middle seventies to come up with an acceptable way to tell Mohammad’s story without actually showing him. Akkad hired screenwriter H.A.L. Craig to come up with a functional script that presented the story as accurately as possible. To insure this, Craig shares credit with numerous scholars who were hired to fact check the script. Akkad chose to use the camera as the point of view for Mohammad. Even though this forces characters to speak directly into the camera, it’s an acceptable cinematic device. Since the original city of Mecca is now a sprawling metropolis, Akkad had to rebuild the city in the Saudi Arabia desert. When you first see the city, you think it’s a matte painting. Then when the characters walk through it, you realize that they built the entire city. It’s amazing and truly epic. There’s a lot that’s epic in “The Message.” It’s grand entertainment, even when it’s not engaging entertainment. Like all great desert epics, there’s lots of widescreen vistas, thousands of extras, more camels than a cigarette vending machine, and a sense of history. You may not care about the origins of the Muslim faith, but you can’t deny the film’s ability to educate and entertain at the same time. I was enthralled with the director’s ability to tell such a large story in such intimate detail. Even with the stodgy dialogue, the characters are well drawn and vivid. Anthony Quinn is marvelous as Hamza, the uncle of Mohammad, who rides into town thirty minutes after the film starts and leaves an hour before it’s over. During that time, Quinn commands the screen. He’s strong and honorable, the sort of man you would want to follow into battle. The bad guys are represented by Michael Ansara as Abu Sofyan, and Irene Papas as his wife Hind. Sofyan is the leader of the merchants of Mecca, who rely on the tourist trade to keep them wealthy. When Mohammad starts sending messages that there is only one God, the news doesn’t sit well with the merchants, who make a killing hawking over 300 Gods. Their very existence threatened, the merchants rally against Mohammad and his followers, and force them from Mecca. The desert dwellers find shelter in the city of Medina, where they practice what they preach. Of course no decent religious epic is complete without a religious war, and “The Message” features two. There’s lots of sword play and piercing arrows, with major casualties on both sides. Even though the script preaches every now and then, “The Message” is not preachy. A fine group of actors ground the film with honest performances. Even at three hours, “The Message” doesn’t wear out it’s welcome.
VISION: [ ] EXCELLENT [ x ] GOOD [ ] RESUSCITATE [ ] D.O.A.
Working from a less-than-pristine print (there are obvious scratches and some fading), the digital transfer on “The Message” is impressive. The two-sided DVD restores the film’s original 2.35:1 widescreen ratio, which features solid colors and flattering flesh tones. Jack Hildyard’s gorgeous landscapes look better than ever, filling the screen with strong, earthy tones and hard as rock blacks. The film’s cinematic lighting (especially the color controlled night shots) helps differentiate the little details, all of which survive intact on this transfer. No visible compression artifacts or pixelation. Powerful blues, stark reds and decent color timing.
HEARING: [ ] EXCELLENT [ x ] GOOD [ ] RESUSCITATE [ ] D.O.A.
While the Dolby Digital Stereo soundtrack doesn’t completely engulf you, it gets the job done. Maurice Jarre’s stylized music sounds terrific, while the dialogue is strong and clear. No noticeable distortions, while sound mix explores the entire range of highs and lows without a problem.
ORAL: [ ] EXCELLENT [ ] GOOD [ ] RESUSCITATE [ x ] D.O.A.
No closed captions or subtitles.
COORDINATION: [ ] EXCELLENT [ x ] GOOD [ ] RESUSCITATE [ ] D.O.A.
“The Message” includes a 20-minute documentary “The Making of an Epic.” Combined with the actual running time of the film, there’s 220 minutes of information stored on this DVD. It’s a flipper, but the break comes naturally. The documentary is most fascinating. It’s here where you’ll learn about the struggle Akkad, who later produced the “Halloween” films, to get “Mohammad: The Messenger of God” to the big screen. Akkad realized that Hollywood would never make the film, so he went outside the system and produced it himself. To improve the film’s theatrical chances, Akkad shot two versions of the film: the English-language version on the DVD, and another version in Arabic with an all Arabic cast. The logistics of shooting the same film with two different casts is but one of several fascinating tidbits offered in the documentary. For instance, the extras in the battle scenes were trained by the Libyan Army. And there’s a great moment with Anthony Quinn, talking with the director about making a movie about something other than violence, all the while the production crew sets up a bloody battle in the background. There’s also theatrical trailers in English and Arabic featuring the two different casts, and a still gallery. My chief complaint? The chapter stops don’t register. There are 18 chapters listed on the scene access menu, but one of them are displayed on the machine. The chapter counter stays at one, even though the time counter advances. If you click on the scene in the menu, it does take you to that scene. However, if you punch the chapter advance button while watching the DVD, you end up with something like 38 chapter stops on each side. I’ve noticed this on several Anchor Bay DVDs, and while their audio and video quality has improved tremendously, this little irritation needs to be addressed.
PROGNOSIS: [ ] EXCELLENT [ x ] GOOD [ ] RESUSCITATE [ ] D.O.A.
Forget about the chapter stops. For some reason, “The Message” (then known as “Mohammad: Messenger of God”) virtually disappeared from sight after it’s initial release. Now it has surfaced on DVD. It’s not a great film, but it is compelling. Rent if you’re just curious, buy the DVD if you’re looking for something of substance to fill your library.
VITALS: $29.99/Rated PG/180 Min./Color/18 Chapter Stops (listed)/Keepcase/#DV10482
ATTENDING RESIDENT: John Larsen
PATIENT: THE MESSAGE
BIRTH DATE: 1976
HMO: Anchor Bay Entertainment