Director Moustapha Akkad brought us The Message in 1976, a religious epic running nearly three hours devoted to the origins of Islam and the history of Muhammad. Stars Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas headline this sweeping tale, detailing the early history of the Islamic faith and its teachings in respectful fashion. Epic in scope and in the grand tradition of biblical epics that were once very popular, The Message is a finely crafted movie intended for curious Westerners and faithful Muslims about one of the world’s largest religions.
The Message religiously adheres to Islamic traditions in its depictions of history and scripture. That includes the Sunni belief that depictions of Muhammad are strictly forbidden, forcing the most important person in its narrative off the screen and voiceless. In place of an actor portraying Muhammad, The Message uses a first-person perspective from the camera of other characters interacting with the prophet. Muhammad’s teachings from the Quran are told to the audience through proxies and by other characters. It is this aspect of The Message that most Westerners and non-Muslims will find less than ideal from a storytelling perspective.
The story in The Message is directly taken from Islamic history. The angel Gabriel visits Muhammad in 610 with revelations from God. These revelations form the Quran, the holy text of Islam. Muhammad and his followers face opposition in Mecca for their beliefs in one God. The Message focuses on the conflict between Mecca’s native polytheism and Islam’s monotheism as the driving force that led to eventual warfare. The ruling classes of Mecca were wedded to older, polytheistic religions and were upset by Islam’s message of equality and brotherhood.
Muhammad’s uncle Hamza (Anthony Quinn) leads his armies as Muhammad’s followers are eventually exiled to Medina. The Message is keen on depicting military conflicts between the early followers of Islam and Mecca’s rulers before Arabia was unified under one rule. Quinn’s role is less prominent than the marketing would have you believe and he disappears for long stretches in the plot.
Director Moustapha Akkad accomplished a nearly impossible task by furnishing an entire epic about Muhammad without getting a chance to actually show Islam’s central figure. The Message is a polished story with high-quality ingredients common to religious films. Profoundly moving at times for a Muslim audience, the movie has something to offer for viewers of different faiths.
Anchor Bay has found yet another questionable transfer for one of director Moustapha Akkad’s films. Like their recent BD for Lion of the Desert, The Message arrives on Blu-ray in a heavily-cropped 1.78:1 transfer at 1080i. That is deeply problematic for the religious epic’s sweeping 2.39:1 cinematography. Once again the film transfer appears to have been sourced from an older telecine intended for broadcast distribution. This time at least the film print looks in vastly better condition than the erratic one found on Lion of the Desert.
Anchor Bay has provided the 178-minute international cut of The Message on a BD-50, the version intended for English-speaking audiences. The video encode in AVC averages 25.74 Mbps, nearly at the limits of capacity for the BD-50. Aside from minor chroma noise in the encode, compression handles the film-like grain without error. The Message was a superbly-filmed movie with excellent clarity and pitch-perfect lighting, leading to very few scenes of inferior-looking quality. This production had a huge budget for its day and was rock-solid in its technical craft, shot on location in Morocco and the Middle East.
The film print is in remarkable condition. Only a few stray lines indicate any type of damage to the film elements. The older transfer has been left untouched by digital noise reduction, though actual Hi-Def detail is largely missing from the image. The picture quality lacks the clarity and sharpness of more recent film scans. Only the impact of The Message’s panoramic photography saves this transfer from being a complete miss on Blu-ray.
Contrast and color fidelity are both quite nice, rendering the color palette evenly balanced with realistic flesh-tones. The moderate grain structure is kept in check by the film-like transfer, though some back-lit shots have minor instances of halos.
The primary audio is an odd 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack. The score by composer Maurice Jarre is suitably sweeping in symphonic form, peppered with elements from Middle Eastern music. Dialogue is mostly anchored to the center channel with a light sprinkling of very minor surround cues. The 1976 film’s audio sounds dated in terms of fidelity and has a highly compressed mix. Some unusual reverb and echo make the dialogue oddly robotic in the 5.1 mix. This is a serviceable mix at best for a score that was once nominated for an Oscar.
A secondary 2.0 PCM soundtrack provides the better listening experience, lacking some of the harshness found in the 5.1 DTS-HD MA presentation. No subtitles of any kind are included.
For an epic production that means so much to Muslims across the globe, this release by Anchor Bay is quite lacking. It contains no special features, including the loss of a 45-minute documentary originally found on Anchor Bay’s own DVD release. Director Moustapha Akkad actually shot two different versions of The Message, one with English-speaking actors and a separate Arabic version. The longer Arabic version has been included on some international editions of The Message but is absent on this BD.
Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For more information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.