Ever heard of Moustapha Akkad? Well, if you’re a horror film fan, you will have seen his name above the credits of the original Halloween films, as he was the film series producer. Akkad, who tragically died during the hotel terrorist attacks in Jordan in 2005, had wanted to make films with religious themes, but finding the finance for such personal projects proved difficult. After hitting on a winning formula with the Halloween franchise, Akkad never looked back, but he did leave behind two features – The Message (1976), about Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, and Lion of the Desert (1980), about the Libyan hero Omar Mukhtar, that have now been given a UK release on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Message was Akkad’s attempt to bring the story of Islam to the West. Set in 7th century Mecca, where idol worship had become commonplace, Mohammad has a vision of the angel Gabriel and calls to the people to worship one God only. Through the eyes of his family members (the film refrains from depicting the prophet in accordance with Islamic custom), we follow Mohammad’s journey as he fights to spread the word of God.
Boasting breathtaking desert photography, spectacular set pieces, carefully constructed sets, Maurice Jarré’s Oscar nominated score, and a cast made up of veteran British and European thespians, including André Morell, Anthony Quinn and John Gielgud, The Message is pretty impressive. And while the film’s main purpose is to dramatise Islam’s early beginnings, it’s got a Hollywood coating that gives it a swashbuckling Saturday matinee air – which isn’t a bad thing.
The film is not without notoriety, however. Not only was this film and Akkad’s Lion of the Desert bankrolled by the late Libyan dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, but also, in 1977, a group of black American Muslims in Washington took some hostages and demanded the film be destroyed because they thought the film actually depicted the prophet Mohammad.
While The Message earned the wrath of Muslim extremists, 1980’s Lion of the Desert was banned outright in Italy until 2009. Set in Libya during Italy’s fascist period, with Benito Mussolini aiming to expand his New Roman Empire in Africa, the multi-million dollar war film focuses on Libya’s national hero, the Bedouin leader Omar Mukhtar, as he rallies his countrymen against Italian occupation. But with only horses and primitive weaponry at the rebels disposal, they are no match for the Italians who, under the cruel hand of real life commander Rodolfo Graziani, use horrific methods to bring the insurgents and, ultimately, Mukhtar, to heel.
Shot with meticulous detail, particularly in regards to the vintage military vehicles used in the battle sequences, Lion of the Desert stars Anthony Quinn as Omar Mukhtar (who, ironically, became a symbol of freedom in the Libyan uprising against Gaddafi last year), Oliver Reed as the villainous Graziani, and Rod Steiger in a small role as Mussolini. While the dialogue might be little lame in parts (‘The mice couldn’t resist the cheese’), Jarré’s soundtrack resonates, the Libyan Desert scenery shines, the action is first-rate and the explosions are aplenty. There are also some standout emotional scenes that really bring home the horror of war – particularly the hanging of Bedouin women and Mukhtar’s now famous death scene. A first rate war film that deserves a new audience.