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Mohammad Messenger of God

Mohammad Messenger of God(1976)

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Mohammad: Messenger of God, titled simply The Message after its first release, stars Anthony Quinn as Hamza, an uncle of Mohammad who helped lead the battle to establish Islam as a new world religion. It's the kind of smart yet rough-and-ready role that made Quinn an enduring star in pictures like Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata! (1952), David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Michael Cacoyannis's Zorba the Greek (1964). The movie itself is a well-crafted historical epic about the life of Mohammad, the early years of Islam, and the spread of the new religion in the Arabian Peninsula during the seventh century. It's lively and colorful, replete with action-packed battle scenes and arduous treks across blistering desert sands. Some elements seem old-fashioned today - the narrator's solemn vocal tones, some stagy acting - but overall it's an earnest and entertaining look at a religion and a region that are even more relevant to Western audiences today than they were when the picture premiered in 1977.

Making a movie on this subject posed a particular challenge for producer-director Moustapha Akkad, since Islamic tradition forbids visual depiction of the prophet. Akkad circumvented this difficulty by placing two printed statements right after the opening titles. The first announces that authoritative scholars and historians of Islam have approved the "accuracy and fidelity" of the film, and the second tells the audience that "the person of Mohammad will not be shown" because Islamic tradition holds that "impersonation of the prophet offends against the spirituality of his message." The movie keeps its promise, leaving Mohammad unseen along with his wives, daughters, sons-in-law, and caliphs.

This said, however, Akkad is resourceful enough to make Mohammed present in numerous scenes anyway - standing, sitting, or riding just out of camera range, or represented by subjective shots in which the camera becomes his proxy, letting us see things through his eyes as organ music hums softly on the soundtrack. The subjective shots are a risky maneuver on Akkad's part, since when a character speaks directly to Mohammed by speaking directly into the camera, it's as if we viewers were literally taking the prophet's place. Be this as it may, the film effectively tells Mohammad's story without violating the prohibition against showing him, although disagreements with Akkad reportedly led his Islamic advisors to resign before shooting began, which in turn caused the government of Morocco to cancel its cooperation with the filmmakers. The end credits state that the picture was shot in Morocco and Libya, and the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi is said to have provided some of the financing.

The narrative of Mohammad: Messenger of God begins in Mecca, a city of great importance since it's the home of the Kaaba shrine, which houses the many idols - more than 350 of them - worshiped by clans and tribes in the region. To the consternation of his family and friends, Mohammad has withdrawn to a cave for reasons no one understands. Then word starts circulating that the angel Gabriel has appeared to him, commanding that the impotent idols be cast out in favor of Allah, the only true God, and telling Mohammad himself to be the chief propagator of the faith, much like the Hebrew and Christian prophets before him. The message of Islam is contained in the Koran, a wellspring of wisdom and poetry that must definitely have come from God; after all, the people close to Mohammad believe, an illiterate like him could never have written it on his own.

The new religion has many radical elements - women have rights, infanticide is wrong, all Muslims are equal, even animals must be treated decently - that meet with strong resistance from leaders invested in the status quo. Ridiculed and attacked on every side, Mohammad, the loyal Hamza, and their growing band of followers seek refuge in Abyssinia and then travel on to Medina in a journey so crucial to the religion that it received its own distinctive name, the Hegira, and came to mark the beginning of the Islamic calendar. The faithful build a mosque in Medina and remain there until God tells Mohammad the time has come for a return to Mecca and a decisive battle against the pagans who drove him into exile. The story ends with this fateful clash and Mohammad's death at age 62. Then the film closes with spectacular images of modern-day Mecca, where throngs of pilgrims visit the Kaaba and the magnificent Masjid al-Haram, the largest mosque in the world.

The sincerity and good intentions of Mohammad: Messenger of God come across clearly, but these admirable qualities didn't prevent a ruckus when it was ready for release. Protesters had already attacked the film, mistakenly thinking that Mohammad would appear on screen, played by either Charlton Heston or Peter O'Toole - obvious candidates for a false rumor like this, since Heston had played Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956) and the title character in William Wyler's Ben-Hur (1959), while O'Toole had played the eponymous hero in Lawrence of Arabia, one of the few movies with even more sand than Akkad's film puts on display. Controversy flared up with added strength before the world premiere; according to a New York Times report, Black Muslims seized hostages in three Washington locations, demanding cancellation of the film's release. This time the protesters had the correct star in mind - they knew Quinn had the leading role - but they thought he was playing Mohammad, not Mohammad's uncle. The situation was eventually defused, but the bad publicity appears to have hurt the box-office performance of the $17 million production, and its Academy Award nomination for Maurice Jarre's original score was not enough to compensate.

Akkad filmed two versions of Mohammad: Messenger of God, one in English for general release and another in Arabic for Middle East audiences. This necessitated shooting each scene twice with different casts; a less committed filmmaker might have simply dubbed in the Arabic dialogue during postproduction, but Akkad evidently wanted to preserve the unique spirit he found in Middle Eastern acting. The most noticeable casting difference involves the character of Hind, a formidable female enemy of Mohammad and his message. She's played by the legendary Greek actress Irene Papas in the English-language version - Papas and Quinn had scored a phenomenal hit with Zorba the Greek in 1964 - and by the legendary Syrian actress Mouna Wasef in the Arabic edition.

Born in Syria and trained in the American film industry, Akkad directed only one other movie during his career: the World War I drama Lion of the Desert, starring Quinn again, in 1981. But he had great success as a producer of John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) and seven sequels thereof, which were vastly easier to raise money for than films about religion. Akkad died in 2005 of wounds received when terrorists bombed hotels in Amman, Jordan, where he and his daughter (who was killed instantly) had traveled to attend a wedding. Although he's best known for producing a horror-movie franchise, Mohammad: Messenger of God was surely the film that mattered most to him.

Director: Moustapha Akkad
Producer: Moustapha Akkad
Screenplay: H.A.L. Craig, in collaboration with A.B. Jawdat al-Sahhar, Tewfik al-Hakim, A.B. Rahman al-Sharkawi, Mohammad Ali Maher
Cinematographer: Jack Hildyard
Film Editing: John Bloom
Art Direction: Norman Dorme, Abdelmouneim Chukri
Costume Design: Phyllis Dalton
Music: Maurice Jarre
With: Anthony Quinn (Hamza), Irene Papas (Hind), Michael Ansara (Bu-sofyan), Johnny Sekka (Bilal), Michael Forest (Khalid), Garrick Hagon (Ammar), Damien Thomas (Zaid)
C-177m.

by David Sterritt

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