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  OF PROPHETS AND PROFIT: MOHAMMED IN THE MOVIES.  
   
   
 

Any religious movie worth caring about will stir up massive controversy. But as newsworthy as film adaptations of the Greatest Story Ever Told continue to be, nothing compares to the brief, violent, and deeply problematic history of putting the prophet Mohammed on screen.

According to the Shari'a, the Islamic holy law formulated after Mohammed's death, depictions of the Prophet and many of his close companions are strictly forbidden. Visual representations of Mohammed are considered tacit lies, since no man-made image could ever express the sanctity of the prophet and his disciples.

This is a highly logical restriction. The book is always better than the movie, as any quidditch-kibitzing Harry Potter fan can attest, and with

 
 

no reliable sources for what Mohammed actually looked like, how do you cast one smoldering Mediterranean over another? To avoid belittling misinterpretations, the father of Islam is not an easy mark for every hack with a Hi-8 camera and delusions of grandeur.

Remarkably Hollywood, that hotbed of heroic Ku Klux Klanners, crook-nosed Jewish antagonists and general cultural annihilation, had never blundered into a full-fledged Mohammed-on-film disaster. But in 1976 a Syrian-born director, Moustapha Akkad, began shooting a film called "The Message," an epic in the tradition of "Lawrence of

       
 

Arabia" about the contentious birth of Islam.

Because excising the Prophet from his own story would be impossible, Akkad was forced to make a film whose protagonist was, in effect, absent. A Muslim himself, Akkad knew what was at stake -- no one had ever successfully attempted a play, much less a film about the Prophet. If he pulled it off, he'd be the cinematic voice of the Muslim world. If not, they might literally kill him.

In the late 1970s, the so-called fundamentalist revolution was sweeping the Arab world, and as the West continued to plunder the oil-rich lands of Mohammed's birth, the excesses of Hollywood were square in the sights of the new fanatics.

Akkad's solution was simple: Shoot around the protagonist.

Mohammed never appears in "The Message," but he's presented in the first-person in a tactic worthy of the most laughable B-movies. When necessary, Akkad uses the camera to represent what the Prophet sees. He goes places, people talk to him, and, oddly enough, he does things. Like a recurring slasher-cam or brain-jacked Malkovich, you are strapped into a cranial shotgun seat to see Mohammed's life and times unfold. He gives plenty of commands, but you never hear his voice, whipping the screenplay and supporting characters into a frenzy of clumsy explication.

While never graceful, Akkad's spectral Mohammed generally stays out of the way. The real star of "The Message" is Anthony Quinn as Hamza, the Prophet's bad ass uncle, and film's apparent sole box office hope.

Hedging his bets, Akkad decided to shoot two versions of the film, one in English, and another in Arabic. This meant reshooting nearly every scene and hiring alternate leads. If the film flopped in the U.S., maybe the Middle East would be more receptive.

But the Arab world was already playing telephone with news of Akkad's film, mangling facts with fiction and topping the finished rumor with a dash of cross-cultural bias. The rumor was that a Mohammed movie would be made, starring a big-name American celebrity. And since it involved the Americans, who were sure to add insult to sacrilege, then obviously Charlton Heston was in the title role of the Prophet. The final, distilled word-of-mouth amounted to, "Screw you and your huge religion, America is making a movie starring Moses as Mohammed."

This didn't sit well with the devout. Bomb threats were already being called in, so Akkad hired four Islamic clerics to oversee the production, trying to quash any unfounded rumors. Shooting began in Morocco, with a sprawling replica of ancient Mecca and the requisite cast of thousands. But soon enough, the clerics quit -- though they retained writing credits, a perfect film industry paradox. Then King Faisal of Saudi Arabia managed to convince Morocco's King Hassan that the false Mecca built for the movie was *too* good and might draw pilgrims away from the real holy city. Akkad was promptly kicked off his own set, and out of Morocco.

Desperate to finish his film, Akkad needed a new country to shoot in and as luck would have it, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi came to the rescue. Akkad moved the production to Libya, and "The Message," and its Arabic-language companion, "Al-Risalah," was nudged across the finish line with the help of a reviled, terrorist-sponsoring dictator.

As the date was set for the U.S. release, things clearly couldn't get any worse.

Then, on March 9, 1977, a group of black Muslims attacked three buildings in downtown Washington D.C. and took 149 people hostage. They had plenty of demands, but the only coherent one was to prevent the upcoming release of "The Message." Despite all of Akkad's efforts, these terrorists were positive that Anthony Quinn

 
       

would be playing Mohammed.

Thirty-nine hours later, the siege was over -- a reporter was dead and dozens of hostages had been stabbed, beaten or shot. "The Message" bombed, and Akkad went on to direct one more flop, "Lion of the Desert," funded in large part by Qaddafi, before making a considerable fortune as the executive producer of all eight "Halloween" films. (He's currently trying to find backers for a film about Saladin, Islam's greatest champion during the Crusades. So far, no one's biting.)

The only other attempt to film the

 
 

Prophet without dare filming him came in 2002, with the animated movie, "Muhammad, The Last Prophet," directed by Richard Rich, a veteran Disney animator who had also directed "The Fox and the Hound."

"The Last Prophet" was released in the Middle East after being sanctioned by the same Islamic authorities who had originally banned the appearance of Mohammed on film, and who now demanded that Hamza, the character portrayed by Anthony Quinn in "The Message," appear only from behind. (Despite this limitation, Hamza manages to kill lots of people at unsatisfying angles.) The animated film borrows Akkad's Prophet-cam technique, and in one pivotal scene Mohammed is critically wounded in battle -- a rock hurtles into the camera. In an incredibly stupid visual, his followers rush toward the audience -- right into the camera -- wide-eyed, crying Mohammed's name.

"The Last Prophet" never hit U.S. theaters, and has yet to be released on DVD. And while Islam continues to gain followers at an astonishing rate, no one's rushing to improve on Mohammed's awkward, even creepy cinematic appearances. To Westerners the Shari'a might seem repressive, anachronistic, and even dangerous. But is it really without merit? Maybe turning a beloved, revolutionary religious leader into a big ticket commodity, complete with merch, teaser trailers and a national debate engineered to boost ticket sales, is an act worth condemning.