Turkey is on a roll these days. With both its economy and regional diplomatic profile growing, now comes a film to boost the feel-good mood – an epic about the 15th century conquest of Constantinople that fuses national pride with Hollywood-style ambition.
“Fetih 1453,” (“Conquest 1453”) casts good guys (aka Muslim Ottomans) against bad guys (aka Christian Byzantines), transforming a clash of empires and religions into a duel between right and wrong. The capture of what is today Istanbul set the stage for centuries of Ottoman rule over parts of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
Director Faruk Aksoy’s $17 million extravaganza – Turkey’s most expensive movie – is not just a popularized account of history, spiked with romance, swordplay and gaudy costumes. It also matches a modern identity that elevates an imperial past once held in disdain, and reinforces faith, ethnicity and a message of tolerance in an often contradictory brew.
Turkey eludes easy definition. It looks eastward, projecting soft power across an unstable region, but it is part of NATO and a candidate for European Union membership. Its biggest city, Istanbul, is divided between Asia and Europe. Its population is mostly Muslim; the constitution is secular.
So many Turks look to history, or at least a comfortable version of it, for a reassuring answer to the question: Who are we?
Films from Turkey have done well at international festivals for years. But “Conquest 1453” is something new, a homegrown echo of “Troy,” “300” and other dramas that pit ancient civilizations against each other in panoramic, digitally enhanced scenes of blood-soaked glory.
The Turkish film lacks the polish and crossover appeal of a global hit. However, it has broken Turkish box office records since opening two weeks ago. It was released in some European countries, including Germany, home to a large ethnic Turkish minority, and producers say it will be shown in the Middle East and elsewhere later this month.
The film tells of Sultan Mehmet II, a national icon today, and his 50-day siege of Constantinople, the last bastion of the Byzantine Empire. It depicts real events: the raising of a giant chain across the entrance to the Golden Horn inlet to block Ottoman ships, the overland transfer of Ottoman vessels on wooden rollers to the harbor, and the construction of a monster cannon to punch holes in the city walls.
The movie indulges in caricature. The Ottomans are devout and resolute. Byzantine Emperor Constantine and his aides drink and lounge with women in wispy outfits. When Mehmet finally enters the gates, he tells cowering Orthodox Christians that they are free to worship.
They smile in wide-eyed, wondrous gratitude. Then the sultan, just 21 years old when Constantinople fell, hoists and kisses a child like a modern politician angling for the cameras.
While the Ottomans exercised a religious tolerance generally lacking in Europe at the time, the movie does not mention the sacking of Constantinople – a ritual event cut short by Mehmet – nor the edict that turned the soaring Haghia Sophia church into a mosque. Today, it is a museum, and worship is barred.
The film’s publicist, Filiz Ocal, said in an email that it had rectified a “very important deficiency” because the Turkish public had yearned for such a portrayal, and that every nation wants to introduce its “magnificent achievements” to the world.
“It is a production for us that focuses on one of the most important stages of the rise of a people, who again have started to rise on history’s stage,” critic Atilla Dorsay wrote in Turkey’s Sabah newspaper. However, he said the movie got stuck “in some excessive nationalism and nationalist propaganda in some places.”
David Cuthell, an associate professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, compared the Turkish emphasis on triumph and sacrifice in the forging of a national identity to the fall of the Alamo in 1836, which saw Texan defenders entered American lore by fighting to the death against an overwhelming Mexican force.
He also saw parallels with Sylvestor Stallone’s “Rambo” movies, stalwarts of American pop culture that indulge in themes of victory and vengeance.
“It makes the Turks feel better about themselves culturally and gives them a sense of grounding,” said Cuthell, who teaches a seminar in Turkish diplomacy. He said Turkey’s emerging pride in the achievements of the Ottomans, whose perceived failure to modernize was denigrated in the early years of the secular republic, dovetails with the current government’s economic successes since it came to power a decade ago.
Turkey is more democratic than many neighbors, but there are concerns about the religious freedom of minorities and other rights. Constantinople was the headquarters of Orthodox Christianity, and today’s Ecumenical Patriarchate operates under restrictions.
Islam was the glue binding the Ottoman Empire. A forcibly recruited unit, the Janissaries, was recruited from Christian converts. In “Conquest 1453,” the sultan and troops kneel in prayer. In another scene, Ottoman sappers tunneling toward the walls discover they are trapped, shout “God is Great” in Arabic, and ignite gunpowder, blowing up themselves and some enemy soldiers.
A Greek newspaper called the movie “Turkish propaganda.” A Christian association in Germany also criticized it. Ocal, the publicist, said criticisms of the film “broaden our horizons.”
Baki Tezcan, who is researching Ottoman history in Istanbul, said Turkey traces its history to Manzikert, a battle in 1071 in which Turks defeated a Byzantine force in what is today eastern Turkey. He said the legacy of prior civilizations, along with intermarriage and religious conversions, is usually sidelined in favor of a defensive, ethnically based vision.
“It is posed as if, ‘There were some people here, and then we came, and now it’s our history,’” said Tezcan, an associate professor of history and religious studies at the University of California, Davis. “This movie is kind of like that. Turkey has a lot of trouble narrating a past in which there are other than ethnic Turks.”