A historical drama about the Turkish conquest of Constantinople was one of the most successful movies of the year in Turkey. For Zaman’s critic, a film burdened by inverted orientalist stereotypes about the west, and bearing a message of tolerance that rings false.
Faruk Aksoy’s latest film, Fetih 1453 (“The 1453 Conquest”) is a real conundrum. Should we embrace it because it is a major historical action drama and a $17 million production filmed in Turkey by fellow Turks? Or do we have the right to criticize its consistently ‘penetrating’ machismo, symbolized by the massive cannon built in the film in order to destroy the walls of Byzantium? The irony is that this cannon is built under the craftsmanship of a woman who disguises herself as a man. You do the gender calculations.
Surely this film will be a box office hit; in fact, it could topple the record of Recep ?vedik 2 (another Aksoy Film production). Watching this film as a Turk, it is hard not to be carried away by its self-serving politics of power and righteousness. For each of us can remember properly only two dates from our history lessons: 1453, the conquest of ?stanbul by Sultan Mehmet II, and 1923, the founding of the Turkish Republic.
Yes, the CGI is very good; yes, the battle scenes are choreographed beautifully; yes, the sword fights are convincing, and yes, the costumes are meticulously designed. And of course it’s one hell of a show, in which armies of Ottomans display all their might and glory. Just as ‘we’ conquered ?stanbul and still feel proud of it in our collective memory, we can also feel proud of this major Turkish blockbuster, with its high production values, and potentially large viewing audience throughout the Middle East and the Muslim world. But let’s be honest, just as critics were perturbed by the portrayal of the Persians in 300 as barbaric monsters, Askoy’s portrayal of the Papacy and the Greek Orthodox people of the Byzantine Empire is equally disturbing.
The filmmakers clearly did extensive research and spent effort to depict the Ottoman state and Sultan Mehmet II as genuinely as possible, but this was not the case for the Byzantines. In the film, Emperor Constantine XI and his statesmen seem to be transplanted from a comic book universe where there are no gray lines between good and evil. These men are portrayed as vile degenerates, lost in gluttony and self-importance; their dialogue is so rudimentary that even a middle-school student could have written their scenes with more finesse. When talking about the Ottomans, all they can say is, “Oh those godless Turks!” because you see, they flatly hate the Ottomans.
And what about the half-naked women who seem to prance around in the Byzantine palace? While we have two major female characters on the Ottoman side, Dilek Serbest as Era the cannon builder and ?ahika Koldemir as Sultan Mehmet’s ever-helpful wife, we do not see a single substantial female character in the court of Constantine. The film’s abundant use of voluptuous “pleasure servants” only bears one explanation: the Eastern male mentality of viewing the Western woman as an outlet for repressed fantasies. Seriously, how crass can it get? In fact, this entire predisposition seems like an even better reason to ‘conquer’ ?stanbul.
As in all historical dramas, we must allow for a certain amount of historical inaccuracy. But we should also view historical cinema as a reflection of our national and cultural identities, and in this light The 1453 Conquest becomes a muddled pool of hypocrisy. On one hand it feeds our collective paranoia, seeing the West and westerners as an unwelcoming and disreputable crowd. But it also reinforces our collective aspirations for superiority in two very contradictory ways: initially by promoting the nation’s authoritarian drive for power and overwhelming toughness, and then by trying to make amends with an all-embracing and tolerant attitude. This empathic response is revealed in the final scene when Mehmet II, having entered the Haga Sofia, holds a blonde child in his arms and declares, “Not to worry, people of Constantinople, you can practice your religion however you like.” These last words are indeed historical fact, but how should we digest this final scene, after we have watched 160 minutes of muscular male bodies building weapons of war, violent battle scenes, and gatherings of detestable Byzantines, without any hint of tolerance sprinkled therein? A peaceful one-liner hardly redeems a film filled with so much enmity. Obviously, the filmmakers were trying to do their best to offer a message, but the unmitigated outcome of the film is clear: extreme patriotism.
“The Conquest of 1453” will reach millions and its influence will be seen in the months to come. The demeaning and Orientalist depictions of the East in Western blockbusters are infuriating; we should have the decency not to make the same mistakes.
15 May 2012