Moses, Jesus and Muhammad are all headed for the big screen – again.
News came Sunday at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival that Qatar-based Al Noor Holdings is backing a $150 million project about Islam’s founder.
The English-language film is set to be produced by Barrie Osborne, who has produced some of Hollywood’s biggest hits, including the “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Matrix.”
Osborne is also producing “Kingdome Come,” an epic film about the life of Jesus.
And a Lebanese film outfit announced in February a film about Jesus, “The Resurrected,” from an Arabic perspective.
The new Moses picture will come courtesy of Peter Chernin at Twentieth Century Fox, Variety reports. And you can forget Cecil B. DeMille’s Moses. This one will be shot extensively against green screens in the style of “300” and will no doubt feature graphic violence.
None of these religious figures is a stranger to the film treatment, of course – not even Prophet Muhammad, despite Islamic tradition that forbids visual depictions of the prophet.
“Presumably the film will show events surrounding his life and Mohammed’s effect on those around him,” Variety reports. “The narrative will run from the years from before his birth through to his death.” Muhammad was born in Mecca about 570 C.E. He died in Medina in about 632.
In 2002 Unity Productions Foundation produced a notable documentary called “Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet.” And way back in 1976 Anthony Quinn starred in “The Message.” Quinn didn’t play the prophet, however. Instead he played Hamza, Muhammad’s uncle, who functioned as a central character.
The fact that Muhammad himself wasn’t depicted in the film was lost on a group of Hanafi Muslims who, when the film was released in the United States in March 1977, stormed three buildings in Washington, D.C., and took nearly 150 people hostage. They claimed one of the reasons for their action was the filmed depiction of the prophet – a claim that wasn’t true.
Weird facts: “The Message” was partially funded by Libyan leader Muammar Gadafy. During the siege in D.C., Marion Barry (then a councilman who would later become mayor) was wounded. And the director of “The Message,” Syrian-born Moustapha Akkad, was killed in the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks in Amman, Jordan, in 2005.
Interestingly, in addition to producer Osborne’s big-budget film on Muhammad, a remake of the 1976 film was announced a year ago by producer Oscar Zoghbi. The Internet Movie Database lists the movie, titled “The Messenger of Peace,” as still in development and posts no new information.
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Depictions of Jesus, of course, know no end on everything from T-shirts and crucifixes to paintings and motion pictures. “The Jesus Film,” “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “The Passion of the Christ” are just three examples, and wildly different ones at that, of Jesus on film.
Osborne’s “Kingdom Come” will be directed by Dean Wright, a well-known visual effects supervisor (“The Lord of the Rings,” “The Chronicles of Narnia”) who is set to make his directorial debut with “Kingdom.”
The Internet Movie Database currently lists J. Dan Nichols as the writer. Nichols was the executive producer of “Luther,” the 2003 movie starring Joseph Fiennes as the 16th-century church reformer Martin Luther.
And as for the man who led the Israelites out of Egypt, Variety reports that the Moses script by Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, who have already scripted a smack-down version of “Moby Dick,” is complete and other pre-production work well under way.
Moses is also on tour these days as the lead character in best-selling author Bruce Feiler’s new book, “America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story.” Feiler, doing what he does best, sifts through historical record, expert opinion and personal account to fashion the narrative of how pivotal a figure Moses has been in U.S. history.
Muhammad, Jesus and Moses. These central figures, who have divided peoples and nations throughout history in addition to bringing them together, are once again surfacing as film subjects in the quest for both peace and money.
Make no mistake: No one bankrolls a major motion picture in order to lose money. But behind the “monetization” of those who have spoken for God is the rhetoric of bridging gaps.
“He was a profound genius who founded a religion whose name in Islam signifies peace and reconciliation,” Variety quoted Barrie Osborne as saying. “This is what our film will aspire to do.”
That rhetoric was familiar. When Moustapha Akkad made “The Message” in 1976, he said of Islam: “It is a religion that has a 700 million following, yet it’s so little known, which surprised me. I thought I should tell the story that will bring this bridge, this gap to the West.”
When the Lebanese feature film about Jesus was announced in February, Jamal Sannan of Eagle Pictures said, “This is a real attempt to go back to the mutual respect which existed between Christians, Muslims and Jews in this region for centuries.” (There’s no word on the current status of this project, which was originally scheduled for an Easter 2010 release.)
As for the Moses film, so far none of the chief players is pitching it as culturally important, though that’s precisely what Cecil B. DeMille did in 1956 when he dared open “The Ten Commandments” with a monologue he personally delivered about the importance of Moses to all humankind – and implicitly and especially to those living through the threat of communism.
This 21st-century Moses will have less to do with communism and cultural commentary and more to do with special-effects technology (even more so than DeMille’s version did). How the various Muhammad and Jesus projects are ultimately rendered will likely speak as much to interfaith understanding as to anything else – except the bottom line.
Cliff Vaughn is managing editor and media producer for EthicsDaily.com.