Akkad, Moustapha (1930–2005)
Moustapha Akkad (also Mustafa) was one of the few Syrians to reach international stardom as a producer and director in Hollywood from the 1970s until his death in a terrorist bombing in Amman, Jordan in 2005. He produced two classics; one on the early years of Islam under the Prophet Mohammad, and the other a Libyan-funded film about resistance leader, Omar al-Mukhtar, of the 1920s and 1930s. Both were also performed in Arabic. Akkad also produced the horror classic Halloween and its many sequels.
Moustapha Akkad was born to a Muslim family on 1 July 1930 (some sources say 1935) in Aleppo, Syria where he attended the local French school. After Syrian independence
from the French Mandate in 1946 he completed his secondary education at the American Aleppo College. There Akkad discovered his love of acting in the theatre arts classes taught by American Douglas Hill. Hill applied for a scholarship to enable the nineteen-year-old Akkad to attend the Theater Arts Department of UCLA.
Akkad's studies at UCLA coincided with the insurgency in Algeria against the French. Los Angeles director Sam Peckinpah contacted Akkad when searching for an Arab assistant while developing a film on the conflict. When the Algerian Revolution ended the film was dropped, but the bond between Akkad and Peckinpah remained. After graduating, Akkad accepted Peckinpah's invitation to work with him as a production assistant at MGM studios on the movie Ride the High Country. Akkad later moved to the CBS News Department and, with Peckinpah's encouragement, produced his own show "As Others See Us." He then formed Akkad International Productions, specializing in documentaries as well as features. The success of one of these early documentaries, Caesar's World, broadcast across the United States, allowed him to open offices for his film company in Beirut, London, and Hollywood.
INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS
In 1972, Akkad founded Filmco International Productions. In 1976 Akkad produced and directed through Filmco his first blockbuster in the Arab world, al-Risalah (The message), starring the Egyptian actor Abdallah Ghaith and Syrian actress Mona Wasif. This film made Akkad a household name in the Arab World and re-runs are common on Arab satellite television even today, decades after the movie's release. Its popularity in the Arab world prompted Akkad to release a version in English in the United States. Mohammad: The Messenger of God starred Anthony Quinn as Hamza, the uncle of Prophet Mohamed, and Irene Papas as Hind, wife of the Mecca notable Abu Sufyan. It was the first feature film with popular lead actors in cinema history to deal with the Muslim community and the beginnings of Islam. The movie received positive reviews in the United States and opened in three thousand theatres across the country.
Some American Muslims, however, were outraged by the idea of a Hollywood movie on Islam, apparently assuming that it somehow constituted a Jewish attack on their faith. In Washington D.C., a group of African-American Muslims stormed the B'nai Brith office building and took twenty-two hostages, threatening violence unless the film was withdrawn from circulation. Akkad negotiated with the Muslims' leader, Khalifa Hamaas Abdul Khaalis. "Let me show you the movie," Akkad offered. "If you find it objectionable, I will burn it." The Muslim leader refused the offer, and Akkad was forced to withdraw the film from circulation. Later the movie was released for a second time. Khalifa, however, threatened from his jail cell to burn the theaters showing the film, and many potential moviegoers kept away from the film. Although Akkad had carefully solicited the approval of various Islamic authorities before creating the film, it was nevertheless banned in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. One criticism of the movie was that it showed the camel and cane of the Prophet of Islam—by Islamic code, nothing related to the prophet can be depicted in art. It was only after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran approved the film for distribution in Iran that it came to be widely viewed and praised in the Muslim world.
Describing his classic film The Mohammed: The Messenger of God, Akkad said:
I did the film because it is a personal thing for me. Besides its production values as a film, it has its story, its intrigue, its drama. Beside all this I think there was something personal, being a Muslim myself who lived in the west I felt that it was my obligation my duty to tell the truth about Islam. It is a religion that has a 700 million following, yet it's so little known about it which surprised me. I thought I should tell the story that will bring this bridge, this gap to the west.
Following the 11 September 2001 attacks on Washington DC and New York City, the Pentagon purchased many copies of Mohammed: Messenger of God to show to troops preparing for military duty in Afghanistan and, later, in the Middle East, so as to help them better understand the Islamic faith. "Sadly, even after watching the film" Akkad commented a few years later, "they still did not understand the truth behind Islam."
In 1978 Akkad produced Halloween, a low-budget horror movie costing $300,000. A major success at the U.S. box office, the film was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, starring Janet Leigh. Akkad hired Leigh's then seventeen-year-old daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, to play the lead role. The film is considered one of the most important and influential of the horror genre. All but one of the Halloween sequels featured the same character, Michael Myers, as an unstoppable psycho-killer. Akkad's described Halloween as a movie in which "horror is based on suspense—there is nothing of blood, gore or special effects."
The success of the film led to seven sequels, the last released in 2002 in the United States. Akkad also produced and directed the seven sequels, the last Halloween: Resurrection in 2002. The series was highly profitable, although it was only the first film that became iconic.
In 1981 Akkad produced and directed Lion of the Desert, a biography on Libyan nationalist Omar al-Mukhtar, who led an armed revolt against the Italian occupation of Libya and was executed on the orders of Benito Mussolini in 1932. The film starred Anthony Quinn as Mukhtar, Oliver Reed as General Graziani, the officer in charge of crushing the Libyan revolt, and Rod Steiger as Mussolini. Despite an impressive cast, the film was not a box office success though it has since been screened many times on U.S. television and is a perennial favorite in the Arab world. Mainly because rumors surfaced that the film had been financed by mu'ammar al-qaddafi, it got negative reviews, recalled Akkad. One reviewer said it was a film about "ayatollahs on horseback." Libyan television repeatedly showed the scene of Mukhtar's hanging—classic in the Arab world—in December 2006 when Qaddafi tried to draw parallels between the executions of Mukhtar and saddam hussein in Baghdad.
Akkad had a studio at Twickenham in Great Britain and he tried to buy Pinewood Studios from the Rank Organisation. In 1986, he produced a comedy Free Ride. With a lackluster cast and plot, it went unnoticed. The following year he returned to the horror genre, producing An Appointment with Fear, which also flopped. In 2001 he began preparations for his third epic, Saladin, a high-budget Hollywood production with Sean Connery cast in the role of the Muslim sultan. Akkad lacked the funding for the project, so he toured the Arab world from 2003 to 2005 seeking support for his Saladin project. At one point he brought Connery with him to Damascus. The film, which was to cost $80 million and to be filmed in Jordan, was described by Akkad shortly before his death: "Saladin exactly portrays Islam. Right now, Islam is portrayed as a terrorist religion. Because of a few terrorists are Muslims, the whole religion has that image. If there ever was a religious war full of terror, it was the Crusades. But you can't blame Christianity because of a few adventurers did this. That's my message."
THE WORLD'S PERSPECTIVE
Moustapha Akkad was never hailed or honored in Hollywood, probably because of his Syrian descent and for not being a prolific director and producer. Over his thirty-year career he produced the timeless Halloween movies, The Messenger, and Lion of the Desert. Only the Halloween movies were hits in the United States. The others were popular in his native Syria, the Arab, and Muslim world. Therefore, a rising generation of moviegoers in the United States did not really know Moustapha Akkad. His 2005 death in a terrorist attack received minimal mention in the U.S. press. Only Arab and Middle East-oriented reports and publications covered his brutal murder thoroughly. The news of his death hit Syria like storm. He was its famous son who had made his mark in Hollywood. As far as the Syrians were concerned, Akkad was their Alfred Hitchcock. The same applied to the Arab world, where his movies still air on satellite television many times a year. Syrian actors and actresses, also mourned Akkad greatly. In the years following Akkad's death the Syrian press has been reporting news on a new Moustapha Akkad in the making, his son Malek. Malek Akkrad wants to continue his father's legacy and produce the long-awaited Saladin epic.
Akkad died before completing the Saladin project. On 9 November 2005 he was mortally wounded in a terrorist bombing at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Amman, Jordan while attending a wedding with his daughter Rima, who was killed instantly. Akkad later died in a hospital on November 11 and abu mus'ab al-zarqawi's al-Qa'ida group in Iraq claimed responsibility for the attack. Akkad received a hero's funeral in Syria where President bashar al-asad posthumously gave him the Syrian Medal of Honor. Akkad's tragic murder was particularly troubling for Syrians who took great pride in his achievements in Hollywood. There is a sad irony in that Akkad, who spent his life dispelling stereotypes about Islam and Arabs, should have fallen victim to Islamic fundamentalism. In fact, despite his popularity with Arab audiences, Akkad had been the subject of fundamentalist threats in the past.
The Amman bombings deprived the Arab world of a man whose work represented a potent weapon against the massive media machine propagating negative images of Arabs and Muslims in the United States. He and Egyptian actor omar sharif were two of only a few Arabs with considerable influence in Hollywood. Akkad produced films that presented an Arab and Islamic perspective rarely seen by the American public.
His classic movie Mohammed: Messenger of God, presented a nuanced image of Islam in direct contrast to the perversion of the religion promoted by criminals such as osama bin laden. Muslim fanatics who threatened to kill Akkad in 1976 when he produced Mohammed: Messenger of God succeeded three decades later. Professor Juan Cole, president of the Global Americana Institute, who was monitoring the terrorist activities and war in Iraq with his highly influential website www.juancole.com, wrote after Akkad was killed:
The Iraq conflict has become a bad horror film. It has killed the grandfather of the Halloween movies. And it has snuffed out the man who wanted to bring real Muslim heroes such as the Prophet Muhammad, Omar Mukhtar, and Saladin to American film-going audiences. Now, his last project will remain unachieved. Saladin was a Kurd from what is now northern Iraq, and he defeated the Crusaders with a legendary chivalry that inspired their respect. [bu Mus'ab al-] Zarqawi's henchmen inspire only horror, not respect. They have no chivalry, only bloodthirstiness. They are Michael Myers, not Saladin.
Author's interview with Moustapha Akkad. 28 April 2005.
Cole, Juan. "The Strange Death of Moustapha al-Akkad" 15 November 2005. Available from http://www.juancole.com/2005/11/strange-death-of-moustapha-akkad.html
Davis, Scott. Light in the Palace. Seattle, Wash.: Cune Press, 2006.
Moubayed, Sami. Steel & Silk: Men and Women Who Shaped Syria 1900–2000. Seattle, Wash.: Cune Press, 2005.