Reflecting upon the life and work of Syrian-American producer and director Moustapha Akkad, it feels somehow un-avoidable to begin with death. In November 2005, Akkad and his daughter Rima were attending a wedding at a hotel in Amman when an Iraqi suicide bomber walked in, ordered an orange juice, and detonated his bomb belt. Both were killed in the blast, alongside dozens of others. The horror of the attack that claimed Akkad’s life was laced with a sense of sinister irony. The jihadists had managed to silence one of Islam’s most soft-spoken advocates—a man who had not only dedicated a substantial part of his largely U.S.-based career to countering the negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims but had also embodied an urbane and open-minded form of Middle Eastern–ness that was once synonymous with the Levant but has, of late, been in increasingly short supply.
Lion of the Desert
The most tragic irony of Akkad’s death, though, may be its inexorable logic in retrospect. His odd two-track career as both the successful producer of the Halloween films and the embattled director of The Message (aka Mohammad, Messenger of God, 77) and Lion of the Desert (81)—two ambitious epic projects dear to his heart and cause—made for a life that was equally steeped in the American Dream and Middle East fatality (and bloodshed). Akkad, to his great bafflement, also made a few Islamist enemies along the way. Although it took him seven years to raise the money for The Message and arrive at a script about Mohammed’s life and the birth of Islam that met with the approval of both Sunni and Shi’a authorities, the film still managed to elicit anger and condemnation from the usual all-too-eager-to-be-outraged hard-liners that plague every doctrine. When The Message was released in 1977, a band of armed Hanafi Muslims, a splinter group from the Nation of Islam, stormed several buildings in Washington, D.C. and took over a hundred hostages (killing a journalist and a policeman along the way), demanding, among other things, that the film be “destroyed.” Ambassadors from Egypt, Pakistan, and Iran (which was only a few months away from the first protests that would lead to its Islamic Revolution) were dispatched and the standoff eventually defused, but The Message’s American theatrical run never recovered.
Akkad was intent on making The Message to introduce Western audiences to his faith, to dispel their apprehensions and misconceptions. The sentiment was noble and the project entirely orthodox—closer, to use a Christian parallel, to TV’s Jesus of Nazareth than to The Last Temptation of Christ. Loyalty to religious dogma, of course, rarely translates into incisive or innovative filmmaking. Paradoxically, however, Akkad’s determination to win the approval of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo and the High Islamic Congress of the Shi’a in Lebanon (the stricter Saudi clerics of the Muslim World League in Mecca withheld their blessing) might well be what yielded his film’s most innovative characteristic: a silent and unseen protagonist.
Abiding by Islam’s firm ban on pictorialization (which forbids depicting not only the Prophet’s likeness but also his voice), Akkad was forced to devise a way of telling the story of Mohammed, after his revelation, without the audience ever seeing or hearing him—or, for that matter, any of the other central figures of the Faith such as his wives or his trusted cousin and son-in-law Ali. Mohammed’s presence is only ever implied throughout, while his thoughts are voiced aloud by whatever disciple is at hand. Sometimes we glimpse the edge of a shadow (some clerics took issue with that), or, when Ali forges ahead into battle, the tip of a sword. In the most important scenes, Akkad resorts to point-of-view shots. The device does not always work (the film’s 180-minute running time does not help—three hours is a long time to spend hinting at a hero), but it does make for truly bizarre viewing. The feeling of bizarreness is amplified when you start to wonder whether the use of the point-of-view-shot device in Akkad’s subsequent production—Michael Myers’s first killing in the opening sequence of John Carpenter’s Halloween (78)—was somehow inspired by this experiment.
Finding a deferential way around the depictive limitations of Islam was only one of the difficulties Akkad faced in bringing the project to life. There were money issues, as there often are on pet projects, and the production was an ambitious undertaking for a directorial debut—one that could hardly titillate Hollywood executives. Akkad had to look elsewhere, mostly east. The governments of Libya and Morocco, where the shooting was to take place, offered backing. Six months into filming, however, the Moroccan government, yielding to increased Saudi pressure, shut down the production. In the end, it was Muammar el-Qaddafi, of all people, who saved the project, and the set was moved to Libya to complete filming. (Dictators are often keen on cinema, so long as it does not contradict their vision of the world. This is not always a bad thing either. More recently, Vladimir Putin facilitated the financing of Aleksandr Sokurov’s Faust.)
Akkad did not make things easy for himself either, whether it be in opting to simultaneously shoot two versions of the film—one in English and one in Arabic (entitled Al-risâlah)—using different actors, or, as rumor has it, by rejecting Muhammad Ali’s offer to play the role of Bilal, Islam’s first muezzin, for fear that Ali’s fame might overshadow the film’s spiritual intentions. (It was an idealistic decision—if indeed the story is true—that he might have come to regret, as the film could certainly have benefited from more good publicity in the U.S.) He did, however, cast Anthony Quinn as Hamza, Mohammed’s wise uncle and staunch companion, who, given the prohibitive rules on representation, became the de facto hero of the film. Irene Papas also starred, albeit in the minor and almost caricatured role of Hind—the movie’s sole female part—the vengeful wife of Mohammed’s arch enemy, Mecca’s ruler Abu Sufyan (who was the only character played in both versions of the film by the same actor, Michael Ansara).
In some ways, the making-of is more captivating than the film itself. The financial complications left their mark on the production values. The prologue, for instance, which sees Muslim emissaries dispatched to the courts of the Emperors of Byzantium and Persia and the Patriarch of Alexandria urging them to adopt Islam, has an almost Monty Python–esque quality. Maurice Jarre’s Academy Award–nominated score does feel, 40 years and a lot of world music later, overbearing and ponderous. On the other hand, these flaws also give The Message a certain dated, fragile charm. More significantly, however, the religious strictures, which did in the end produce the film’s uniquely eerie feature—the silent unseen hero—also severely curtailed its narrative potential. Although instructive of the sanctioned version of the events that led to the rise and spread of Islam, an epic that is visually dominated by secondary characters—all decent and loyal, fighting a succession of enemies, all perfectly odious until they finally see the light and convert—can get a little repetitive and unsatisfying.
One unexpected shortcoming of The Message however, is that “The Message” itself—or at least the spiritual one, and since we are talking of faith here, the spiritual should play a part—remains something of a mystery. We do learn a lot about the Prophet’s social message, and it is, as expected, one of equality and justice, of charity and consideration—for prisoners of war, and even trees—and a remarkably emancipatory one with regard to slaves and women. There is much talk of peace, too, and though the film is a succession of battles, this righteous fighting feels familiar even if a little cognitively dissonant. The Old Testament was not much about turning the other cheek either. Akkad’s own personal message, his earnest desire to bridge the faiths, is also clearly expressed, particularly in the scene—which he once mentioned as his favorite—in which persecuted followers of Mohammed are advised to flee Mecca and seek refuge in Abyssinia, a country ruled by a Christian king “where no man is wronged.” It’s all very commendable and makes you wonder whether today, the target audience for the film, aside from the most bigoted fringes of the West, would be some of those Islamic elements that tend to dominate the news. But the less prosaic, more mystical aspects of the faith remain unelucidated. Had he not received his ideas directly from God in a grotto (off-screen, of course), Mohammed would come across as social reformer—and warrior—more than prophet (no less of an achievement, really).
In 1981, after five years and the success of Halloween, Akkad returned to directing for the story of another Arab warrior, the rebel fighter Omar Mukhtar, “the lion of the desert,” hero of the Libyan resistance to Italian occupation. Once again, Qaddafi was the principal backer of the $35 million project, even lending his soldiers for the battle scenes. (Not surprisingly, Mukhtar is a national icon in Libya. Qaddafi was always eager to claim his mantle; so were the rebel leaders who recently cast him out.) And once again, Quinn and Papas starred, though Rod Steiger, John Gielgud, and Oliver Reed also joined the cast. This production was a much smoother affair. Controversy was limited to an Italian ban on the film—Il Duce’s army was certainly not portrayed in the kindest of lights—which was only lifted in 2009, to honor Qaddafi’s first state visit to Rome during that ultimately brief period when he was a leader Western capitals were keen to honor. But though generally well-received by the few who saw it, Lion of the Desert, Akkad’s second and, as it turned out, final directorial endeavor, was a colossal commercial failure. (Akkad would spend many years trying to secure funding for a film on Saladin—another great Muslim warrior, perhaps the greatest—but died just as the project was about to materialize.) Lion of the Desert certainly deserves to be rediscovered, however, for it is quite a remarkable work.
Lion of the Desert
In the opening scene, Steiger’s very camp Mussolini roars the vow that he will “not have a handful of Bedouins stop the progress of 40 million Italians,” then dispatches his cruel general Graziani (Reed) to Benghazi to handle the situation—but the moment does not actually set the tone at all. Under the trappings of an old-fashioned melodramatic saga with the occasional—not entirely unpleasant—cartoonish moment lies a film of much acumen and depth. It is not merely the insight into insurgency, counter-insurgency, and the relations between the Arabs and the West that distinguishes the film but its enduring relevance over 30 years later. Parallels flood your mind as you watch Graziani sending the first tanks into the desert: Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, the inefficacy of the UN (then the League of Nations), not to mention, obviously, the more recent events in Libya. Mukhtar’s men vow never to surrender: “We die or we fight . . . We will have the next generation and the next . . . I will live longer than my hangman.” Graziani gripes that he doesn’t “seem to have an enemy to fight . . . They have no form, no continuity of movement, no fixed positions” (echoing somehow, it is interesting to note, the predicament facing the leaders of Mecca with Mohammed in The Message: “How do you fight someone whose strength you don’t understand?”). It is dispiriting to see that so little has changed in a hundred years.
Yet the most curious aspect of Lion of the Desert is that it manages to go beyond this reflection on the seemingly unchanging mechanisms of oppression, resistance, and the clash of cultures—into somewhat less comforting and more thought-provoking territory. Brutal as he may be, Graziani, “the butcher of Benghazi,” is never made entirely hateable. When he finally captures Mukhtar, it is with a sense of sadness more than triumph, a sadness tinged with an odd form of attachment. The contradiction is not entirely unfamiliar; it brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s dictum about the inevitability of killing the thing you love. No lover could have spoken “more possessively of the object of his love,” wrote Hans Keilson in his haunting novel The Death of the Adversary. He was alluding to Nazism and its victims. There is certainly much more to be examined about the strange ties that bind us to those we hate.