'The Interview' Isn't The First Film Pulled Because of Terror Threats

Ed Araquel

Roughly 150 people were held hostage in Washington D.C. in 1977 by terrorists upset by the film 'Mohammad, Messenger of God'

Though the cancelled release of Sony’s The Interview, originally planned for Christmas Day, currently has the industry in an uproar, it’s not the first time terrorist threats have kept a film from theaters.

In 1977, a group of twelve radical Hanafi Muslim terrorists orchestrated a raid in Washington D.C., taking over three separate buildings – the B’nai B’rith National Headquarters, National Islamic Center and D.C. City Hall. They held roughly 150 people hostage over a two-day period from March 9-11. The uprising was planned in part as retaliation against the release of Filmco International Productions’ film Mohammad, Messenger of God (later retitled The Message: The Story of Islam).

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Mohammad, directed by Moustapha Akkad and starring Anthony Quinn, Irene Papas and Michael Ansara, was a biographical epic that detailed the life of the Prophet Muhammad of Islam. It became the center of a national crisis when members of the Black Muslim community, led by leader Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, publicly denounced the film and called for it to be destroyed, claiming it to be sacrilegious and “a fairytale about Mohammad." All claims were made under the false impression that Quinn played the role of Mohammad himself, which went against Muslim belief that any kind of representation of the Prophet should be condemned.

Though Akkad had in fact directed the picture in accordance with Islamic tradition (Muhammad was never directly seen or heard on-screen and the plot focused instead on Muhammad’s uncle, portrayed by Quinn, and his adopted son), the Khaalis-led dissident group staged an uprising at three locations in Washington, killing 24-year-old WHUR radio reporter Maurice Williams and D.C. police officer Mack Cantrell (who died in the hospital days later after being shot on the scene) and injuring eleven hostages. The raid lasted for 39 hours with the terrorist group demanding that Mohammad be removed from theaters across the country, in addition to the government handing over a group of men responsible for the deaths of leader Hamaas Abdul Khaalis’ relatives. The movie’s distributor, Irwin Yablans Co., complied with the threats by cancelling Mohammad’s release. Akkad, convinced that the Black Muslims were unaware that the film had been made in abidance with their religious laws, even went as far as to offer “to destroy the film’s negative if the gunmen viewed the film and objected to it,” as reported by The Hollywood Reporter at the time.

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Though only temporarily, the film was ultimately pulled from nine theaters in New York and Los Angeles in the wake of the attack for the safety of over 100 hostages, with no response from the Muslim group regarding Akkad’s offer. The weekend following the two-day siege, the director made the decision to bring Mohammad, Messenger of God back to theaters, disregarding the Hanafi Muslims' previous demands. The $18 million budget film sold over 100 advance tickets from March 9-11 and grossed $53,605 its premiere weekend in four major theaters in New York and Los Angeles (though a few theaters stood by their decision to not screen the film at all).

“Our plans to release Mohammad have not changed,” Akkad told THR in 1977 upon choosing to resume the film’s postponed run. “We cannot run our lives and businesses according to the wishes of terrorists.” He further emphasized: “I am sure the terrorists never saw the picture they were protesting. The sensitive spot was the title and Anthony Quinn’s role. They were very misinformed on what the picture is all about.”

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In a similar turn of events, major theater chains recently decided to drop The Interview after Sony received a threat that a national disaster on the scale of the Septermber 11 terrorist attack would ensue for theaters that played the film. Sony said it was left with no alternative but to comply with the demands of hacker group “Guardians of Peace,” recently confirmed by the FBI to be tied to North Korea.

Though President Barack Obama and a number of Hollywood stars have shown public disagreement with the company’s decision to cancel the film’s original Dec. 25 release, Sony stated on Dec. 17 that there were still no further release plans, whether in theaters or on VOD, for the North Korea comedy. Sony chief Michael Lynton said Friday the studio still has every intention to release the fillm in some form. 

Possibilities of the James Franco and Seth Rogen starrer making its screen debut are surfacing with proposals by Gawker and BitTorrent, both of which have offered to help Sony fight back and regain control over the film.

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