Release Date(s)1976 (July 19, 2022)
Studio(s)Filmco International Productions (Shout! Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: B-
The Message (aka Mohammad, Messenger of God or Ar-Risalah) was an intensely personal production for director/producer Moustapha Akkad. A devout Muslim, he wanted to bring the story of the prophet Muhammad to the screen, despite the nearly insurmountable challenges inherent in doing so. While the Quran doesn’t explicitly forbid portrayals of Muhammad, Islamic tradition regarding idolatry generally forbids visual or aural representations not just of Muhammad, but of any other prophet or religious figure as well. Telling Muhammad’s story required some creative filmmaking on the part of Akkad and his collaborators.
Their solution was to focus on the figures surrounding Muhammad, such as his paternal uncle Hamza (Anthony Quinn), and his adopted son Zaid (Damien Thomas), as well as the forces in opposition to Muhammad’s ministry led by Abu Sofyan (Michael Ansara) and his wife Hind (Irene Papas). Muhammad himself would stay offscreen, with the actors reacting to him, and repeating his dialogue back to him, but with an ethereal musical cue representing his own voice. Similar techniques had been used previously in films portraying Jesus, most notably in the 1954 William Wyler adaptation of Ben-Hur. Yet while the original Lew Wallace novel was subtitled A Tale of the Christ, both the book and the film are really the story of Judah Ben Hur—Jesus is an incidental character, and he appears infrequently. In contrast, The Message keeps Muhammad front and center (even if he’s actually offscreen), so expanding that concept to a three-hour film presented some unique difficulties.
Further complicating things was the fact that Akkad chose to film separate English and Arabic versions of the film simultaneously, with different casts. While Quinn, Thomas, Ansara, and Papas led the English-speaking cast, the Arabic version featured Abdallah Gheith, Ahmed Marei, Hamdy Gheith, and Mouna Wasef in the same roles. (Only a handful of actors such as John Bennet and Rosalie Crutchley starred in both.) While the same crew worked on set, the different languages required different editors: John Bloom handled the English version, while Hussein Afify assembled the Arabic cut. All of that would have been daunting enough, but it’s really remarkable that everything came together considering the vast sets and enormous quantity of extras that had to be marshaled for this truly epic production.
While the acting in the English version is occasionally as stilted as in any Hollywood biblical epic, and the camerawork that was used to keep Muhammad offscreen is sometimes a bit awkward, the whole film still works remarkably well. It helps that the screenplay by H.A.L. Craig stays reasonably faithful to recorded Islamic history. (He had several collaborators to keep things on track: A.B. Jawdat Al-Sahhar, Tawfik Al-Hakim, A.B. Rahman Al-Sharkawi, and Mohammad Ali Maher). The final film was still controversial, and while it was approved by some Arab groups, it was protested by others. It gained even more notoriety when the Hanafi militants who took 149 hostages in Washington, D.C. in 1977 included a request that the film be destroyed as a part of their demands. As is often the case, all of the protesters missed the point of the film. Akkad made The Message out of a sincere desire to bring the story of Islam to the world, and that message couldn’t possibly be any clearer in the finished film.
Cinematographer Jack Hildyard shot The Message on 35 mm film using Panavision R-200 and Arriflex cameras, both with anamorphic Panavision lenses, framed at 2.35:1 for the English language theatrical release. (The Arabic version appears to have had 70 mm blowups available in some territories, in which case the aspect ratio would have been 2.20:1, but it’s not clear if there were ever 70 mm blowups of the English version.) For this 2022 restoration, the original negative was scanned and digitally cleaned up at Deluxe UK, then color correction was performed by Silver Salt Restoration.
The Message was previously released on Blu-ray by Anchor Bay in 2013, using an aging 1080i master that had been re-framed at 1.78:1. That was a pretty low bar for this new restoration to clear, but the good news is that it does so dramatically. The image is significantly sharper and more detailed, with well-resolved textures for the rocks, sand, and gravel that permeate the film. The grain is even throughout, and while it’s a bit more pronounced than in the companion restoration of Akkad’s Lion of the Desert, it’s still quite refined. There’s some flickering during the opening titles that might be due to the opticals involved. Any dupe work involving opticals like that is also a little less refined than the surrounding material—for example, there are a handful of dissolves, and there’s also one scene featuring burned-in subtitles. One of the opticals during a montage late in the film has a noticeable scratch running through it, but that’s one of the only examples of damage on display. There are also a handful of other shots that appear to use dupe material, such as a shot of Anthony Quinn at 118:20, for no clear reason—perhaps there was some significant damage to the negative for those shots?
Just like the UHD of Lion of the Desert, it’s the high dynamic range grade that really shines for this presentation of The Message. (Both HDR10 and Dolby Vision are included on the disc.) The contrast range is strong, with deep black levels, but never at the expense of shadow detail. The colors are rich and strongly saturated—while the desert setting wouldn’t seem to offer much opportunity for an expanded color gamut, the costuming rises to the occasion. The contrast between the expensive clothing of the wealthy businessmen and the plain garb worn by Muhammad’s followers couldn’t be clearer. In the market scenes, there are some brilliant purples, reds, and blues in the silks on display. Compared to the relatively drab-looking Anchor Bay Blu-ray edition, it’s a night and day improvement, and it doesn’t appear to be a revisionary one like some other HDR grades of older films. It’s just a re-creation of the natural color detail that would have been on the original, unfaded negative.
Audio is offered in English 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English SDH subtitles. The Message appears to have been released in mono theatrically, and while there would have been a 6-track mix for 70 mm blowups, that may have only been for the Arabic version. Regardless, a 4-channel mix was created in 1976, and presumably that’s what was used for both the 5.1 and 2.0 tracks presented here. The 5.1 track sounds like a discrete encoding of that 4-channel mix, but the 2.0 track is still matrix encoded, so the differences between the two are relatively minor. The overall fidelity of both tracks is fairly limited, with little in the way of deep bass. The mix is focused on the front channels in both versions, with just a bit of ambience in the surrounds. The wonderful score by Maurice Jarre sounds quite thin here—it doesn’t do justice to the sound of the master tapes that were used for the soundtrack releases. Overall, the 5.1 track probably has a slight edge over the 2.0 thanks to better channel separation, but it’s still not a major improvement.
Shout! Factory’s 4K Ultra HD release of The Message is a three-disc set that includes a Blu-ray copy of the English language version of the film, as well as a Blu-ray copy of the Arabic version. Unlike Lion of the Desert, which was shot in English and dubbed into Arabic, the English and Arabic versions of The Message are completely different films, with different running times. There have been many online complaints about the lack of subtitles for the Arabic versions in both of these releases, and while the criticism is misguided in the case of Lion of the Desert, it’s a fair point with this film. The running times are different between the two versions as well, with the English version at 2:58:18, and the Arabic at 3:26:33. It isn’t simply a matter of shooting with two different casts; the films have significantly different cuts as well. Still, Akkad shot two versions for a reason, and he wanted the story of the film to be presented with a different cast for English-speaking audiences. Subtitles for the Arabic version would be appreciated, but it’s the English version that’s the main draw for non-Arabic audiences.
The following extras are included, all in HD:
DISC ONE: ENGLISH LANGUAGE VERSION (UHD)
- Audio Commentary with Moustapha Akkad
DISC TWO: ENGLISH LANGUAGE VERSION (BD)
- Restoring The Message (1:56)
- The Making of an Epic: Muhammad, Messenger of God (46:36)
- Promo Clips (23:33)
- Theatrical Trailer (3:52)
- Re-Release Trailer (2:15)
DISC THREE: ARABIC LANGUAGE VERSION (BD)
- Arabic Commentary with Moustapha Akkad
- Arabic Theatrical Trailer (4:43)
- Arabic Re-Release Trailer (2:21)
Since Akkad and his daughter Rima were both tragically killed during the 2005 bombings in Amman, Jordan, his commentary track has real historical value. Like his commentary for Lion of the Desert, there are some lengthy gaps, and it’s a bit dry as well, though he’s a little more energized here. Both films were personal projects for him, but he appears to have had more to say about this one. (He also opens with an interesting story about how Sam Peckinpah served as his mentor.) There are actually two separate commentaries here, one in English, and the other in Arabic, so this is yet another case where subtitles would have proved handy. Whatever differences that may exist between the two, commentary tracks typically aren’t subtitled, and it probably wouldn’t be worth sitting through both versions anyway.
Restoring The Message is a far too brief look at the restoration process, with a few comments from staff at Deluxe UK and Sliver Salt Restoration. The Making of an Epic is a vintage behind-the-scenes documentary from 1976 created by the film’s production company, Filmco International Productions, Inc. Moustapha Akkad opens it by talking about his own faith, and why the film was so personal for him. It then goes into practical details such as the construction of the massive historical Mecca set, the creation of the costumes, and the challenges inherent to shooting in the desert. There’s also an interesting discussion about why the film was shot in two different languages, and the unexpected issues caused by that decision—for example, the divergent styles of acting between the two casts sometimes required different lighting setups and camerawork. The Promo Clips are shorter subjects created by Filmco in 1976, each of which focuses on a specific aspect of the production.
Just like Shout Factory’s 4K Ultra HD release of Lion of the Desert, their UHD of The Message is a revelation compared to all previous home video releases. Finally getting the correct aspect ratio (2.35:1) after all these years was significant enough, but the color grade breathes new life into the film like nothing else could. I wouldn’t presume to speak for Moustapha Akkad or Jack Hildyard, but I suspect that they’d be delighted with this release. It’s the best way to experience The Message in your own home.
- Stephen Bjork