by Zainab Cheema (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 11, Safar, 1434)
In a silver screen extravaganza, Fetih 1453 attempts to revive the glory of the Ottoman Empire and with it the sagging fortunes of Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan who fancies himself as a modern incarnation of the Turkish sultan.
If the popular Ramadan series‘Umar, based on the life of the Prophet’s (pbuh) companion, showcased how Arabian television channels are mastering the celluloid testosterone of Hollywood blockbusters like Lord of the Rings and 300 to re-imagine their own religious-national histories, then Turkey certainly isn’t to be left behind.
If the popular Ramadan series‘Umar, based on the life of the Prophet’s (pbuh) companion, showcased how Arabian television channels are mastering the celluloid testosterone of Hollywood blockbusters like Lord of the Rings and 300 to re-imagine their own religious-national histories, then Turkey certainly isn’t to be left behind. Turkey’s answer to the swords-and-sandal epic is Fetih 1453, which depicts the conquest of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) from the perspective of Sultan Mehmet II.
In the words of the periodical al-Ahram, “…the film glorifies the image of a strong and powerful Turkey through a key historical event: the conquest of Constantinople by Sultan Mohamed II in 1453ad.”
Fetih opened in February 2012 in Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries, and has recently come out on DVD. While Mehmet II enjoys the quite demonic reputation in Europe, he is a beloved and gloried figure in Turkey — one of the great patriarchs of the Turkish nation, whose portrait hangs throughout Istanbul’s hotel lobbies and government offices across the photograph of Kamal Ataturk. In the words of the periodical al-Ahram, “…the film glorifies the image of a strong and powerful Turkey through a key historical event: the conquest of Constantinople by Sultan Mohamed II in 1453ad.” Director Faruk Aksoy has filmed the movie on an epic scale, the wide panoramic shots of battles, sieges, sword-fights, and of lush, fertile landscapes of the Turkish Empire, attesting to a mastery of the cinematic repertoire Hollywood has used for over a century to showcase American and European exceptionalism.
Religious history, and its imaginative framing, is an integral part of how Middle Eastern nationalisms accouter themselves. In the Turkish imagination, the divine mandate to rule comes from the figure of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, the Prophet’s (pbuh) companion who died in one of the early battles against the Byzantines and who was buried near the city’s old walls. (Today of course, his beautiful mausoleum is squarely in the center of the sprawling metropolis of Istanbul). In the opening sequence, we see Abu Ayyub al-Ansari speaking to friends, delivering the Prophet’s (pbuh) prediction that Constantinople would be conquered by a blessed army, and with a blessed commander at its head. (The hadith is reproduced on the film’s website; and the film painstakingly frames the narrative within that prophesy). The film then moves to a CGI-eagle flying across the lush lands of Ottoman Sultanate — in this case, prophecy (rather uncomfortably) gives its benediction to the heraldic symbol of imperialism from days of Rome.
Mehmet II is played by Devrin Evin, a handsome, young man with a pensive face and dark hair and beard. The character is charismatic enough to carry off the weighty mantle he wears (pun intended) — we are shown what he can do in an early scene where he swordplays with Ulubatli Hasan (the second hero) in an attractive Ottoman courtyard, the athleticism framed by one of the old Turkish fountains that art historians love to catalog. Once his father Murad II dies, Mehmet II (resumes the throne), and will spend the rest of the film wrestling with the map of Constantinople that he is trying to conquer, and by realpolitiking with his court of advisors. Fetih 1453’s $8 million budget (an astronomic sum for Turkish film) unfurls in the pageantry of gorgeous Ottoman robes, swords, and interiors.
Historical film is never a simplistic replay of the past — it is eminently about the present, and its worries, concerns, and desires.
Historical film is never a simplistic replay of the past — it is eminently about the present, and its worries, concerns, and desires. Mehmet II reveals himself to be obsessed by Constantinople — “either I will conquer Constantinople, or Constantinople will conquer me!” he exclaims at one point. In the monologue he delivers before his father’s dead body, he remembers how his father always lived with the dream of conquest in his eyes, and never had the time to hold his son in his arms (surely not true, since Murad II voluntarily abdicated in favor of peaceful retirement at one point in his career). Some of the film’s moving scenes center around Mehmet II replaying the same history with his own son, Bayezid II; but when he is being robed for war, he sees his child’s awestruck face and kneels to embrace him.
If Hollywood often likes to imagine the Muslim woman as a “native informant,” someone who is all too willing to collaborate with the Western savior in exchange for freedom from Islam, Fetih 1453 shows numerous scenes of blond, busty Byzantine women colluding with Hasan and other agents of Mehmet II to pass on valuable secrets about the Byzantine Emperor Constantine and his advisors.
If Hollywood often likes to imagine the Muslim woman as a “native informant,” someone who is all too willing to collaborate with the Western savior in exchange for freedom from Islam, Fetih 1453 shows numerous scenes of blond, busty Byzantine women colluding with Hasan and other agents of Mehmet II to pass on valuable secrets about the Byzantine Emperor Constantine and his advisors. Besides Era, the cross-dressing canon-maker (whose back story is plausible), there is no apparent reason for their collaboration (are they unhappy with how they are treated? Do they feel an ideological pull toward the Turks, beyond the overwhelming appeal of their masculinity/Turkishness?) Era is an exception, a spunky heroine orphaned by a Byzantine raid and brought up by Urban the canon-maker, who takes her as his daughter after rescuing her from Constantinople’s slave markets. With clear blue eyes showcasing her ambiguous heritage, she falls in love with Ulubatli Hasan — their love scene is rather reminiscent of the one between the French princess and William Wallace in Braveheart.
Turkey certainly has reproduced the visual techniques of Hollywood, but unfortunately lacks the scriptwriters to produce dialogue that can lift a movie from expensive mass-entertainment into a memorable cultural production. The movie doesn’t really frame the story for the neutral viewer unfamiliar with Turkish history, but is in interlocution with the Turkish national memory that is already familiar with the events. For instance, the scene where the Turkish army routes Constantinople’s defenses by hauling its naval fleet over the mountain is never explained — we see shots of burly men heroically grunting and pulling, but we are never told why this is necessary in strategic terms. (The Astrolabe film did a better job on this point, though the quality of its animation was rather abysmal).
Some of the scenes also come across as heavy-handed. Also, most of the heroic swordplay is between Ulubatli Hasan and the Byzantine knight Giustiniani, rivals for both the city and Era. However, Giustiniani never does realize that Hasan has gained Era’s affections, which brings their constant exchange of menacing facial expressions into question. Plus, it is impossible not to notice how the two men (who look rather alike) serve as eye-candy for women in the audience — with their flowing, luscious locks and attractively tanned bare chests, they both could easily pose for the covers of romance novels. Ulubatli Hasan is the second protagonist of the film; the action hero to Mehmet II’s statesman, he is a historical figure who died atop the battlements of Istanbul planting the Ottoman flag over the city as his chest was riddled with arrows.
Fetih has been not been well received in Europe and in Middle Eastern countries with large Christian populations, like Lebanon. The film is accurate in depicting the alliances and tensions between the Byzantines and the Catholics who come to aid them — certainly, Byzantium was embittered by how the Crusaders looted and raided the city in the Fourth Crusade. But at the same time, Aksoy reproduces the us-versus-them dynamic of the best Hollywood blockbusters stigmatizing the terrorist Muslims. The film depicts the battles as a religious war between Christians and Muslims, as the whole army kneels behind Mehmet II in prayer. However in reality, Mehmet II’s army had as many Christian Greeks as Emperor Constantine’s, thanks to the complex system of alliances he cultivated across the Mediterranean. One also imagines that scenes such as Emperor Constantine exclaiming — “Drat the Turk, he is always one step ahead of us!” — was met with widespread delight by Turkish movie goers.
What Mehmet II desires is Constantinople, just as Turkey today desires Europe (via membership in the European Union). After the religious politics encouraged by the film, scenes contrasting righteous adhans with Byzantine priests making signs of the cross over the Christian army (the gesture is Roman Catholic rather than Byzantine), the finale is rather interesting. As we know, Mehmet II enters the desired city and meets the city’s exhausted residents in Hagia Sophia. Curiously, they are all blond women and children with a few old men sprinkled in between.
Noticing their fear, Mehmet reassures them that their faith will be tolerated under the Turkish Empire — and the women immediately break out into smiles, apparently well satisfied with the outcome of the bloody siege/battle. Mehmet takes a blond child in his arms, who plays with his beard — as Turkey becomes the new patriarch of the city. Turkish imperialism is not without religious toleration — but perhaps only for women and children, who must joyfully accept the new power? Again, this is reminiscent of True Lies and other action flicks, where the robed oppressed Muslim woman finds the delights of liberation under the protection of Western civilization. And since movie-making is a commentary of present-day desires and ambitions, other parallels emerge as Turkey spearheads NATO incursions into Syria, spurring thousands of Syrian refugees to cross the border. One can only hope that Recep Tayyip Erdogan proves to be as generous for the Syrian women and children as Aksoy depicts Mehmet II to be with the Byzantines.