Turkish delight in epic film Fetih 1453
The turbans-and-testosterone CGI retelling of sultan’s conquest of Constantinople feeds on appetite for imperial Ottoman past
More than 5 million Turks have been to see the CGI tale of Mehmet II’s capture of Constantinople – part of a resurgence of interest in the country’s imperial past.
It’s the film that is making millions of Turkish hearts swell with even more patriotic pride than usual. Fetih 1453, a turbans-and-testosterone epic, has not just smashed all Turkish box office records with its all-action, CGI retelling of Mehmet II’s capture of the old Byzantine capital, Constantinople, it is being hailed as a reaffirmation that a resurgent Turkey still has world-conquering blood in its veins.
As the religious-minded daily newspaper Zaman noted, “Turks are feeling imperial again” after a decade of unprecedented economic growth, and are turning more and more toward their Ottoman ancestors for inspiration – in foreign policy as much as in interior design, food and fashion, with a neo-Ottomanist push to reassert Turkish diplomatic hegemony over the sultans’ former Arab and eastern European domains.
The film’s religious overtones – with a walk-on part for the prophet Muhammad, predicting the old Roman capital would one day fall to the faithful – have attracted a new, observant audience to cinemas and especially endeared it to the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, chiming as it does with his vision to “raise devout generations … who should embrace our historic values”.
Some in his party are now demanding it be shown in schools as an antidote to Hollywood’s “crusader mentality” – not that the film is itself entirely innocent of historical licence, for example its portrayal of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, as a hedonist (he was mostly celibate); the city’s magnificence (it had been comprehensively sacked by western crusaders in 1204); and the fact that there were far more Greeks fighting for the sultan than defending the walls. Nearly as many of Mehmet’s soldiers would have been praying to the Virgin on the morning of the final assault in May 1453, as to Allah.
In another scene, sappers tunnelling under the immense land walls that had not been breached in 1,000 years, blow themselves up with a cry of “Allahu Akbar” rather than be captured by the Byzantines. In reality, Mehmet’s tunnellers were orthodox Christians drafted from Serbia’s silver mines.
While the public may be besieging cinemas to see the film, the critical verdict has been far from unanimous, even at Zaman. The critic Emine Yildirim warned that it pandered to “extreme nationalism” and old Turkish stereotypes of their Christian neighbours. “As we are so infuriated by seeing demeaning and Orientalist depictions of the east in western blockbusters, we should at least have the decency not to make the same mistakes,” she said.
“Fetih 1453 is a muddled pool of hypocrisy. While it feeds on the common paranoia of seeing the west as unwelcoming and disreputable, it reinforces our aspirations for superiority.”
As if to prove her point, the commentator Burak Bekdil received a death threat after he satirised this tendency to supremacism. What next, he quipped, a film called Conquest 1974 to celebrate the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, or Extinction 1915, the Armenian genocide?
“Instead of shyly remembering 1453, Turks remind the entire world that their biggest city once belonged to another nation and was captured by the sword. It is quite hard to think of the British commemorating the conquest of London or the Germans that of Berlin.”
Infuriated bloggers later posted that Bekdil was an “ignoble Greek” who “should not be allowed to breathe air”. Another pronounced that his byline photo betrayed “Armenian features”.
Turkey’s foremost film critic, Alin Tasçiyan said with nostalgic Ottomania riding high, it was only natural film-makers should look again at the Ottoman legacy, particularly since it was deliberately neglected by Atatürk and his secularist successors. “It is about time we looked at the empire in a more objective way. It was a huge civilisation, why demonise it? It had good points and bad points.
“But let’s get one thing clear, this film is not that. Nor is it a movie made with political or religious motives. It’s purely commercial, very cleverly playing to the gallery.”
She said there was huge interest in Ottoman history precisely because it was taught so little and so badly. “History teaching in Turkish schools is rigidly nationalistic. The Ottomans were the opposite. They themselves were very mixed. At school, we were told the Ottomans conquered half the world then suddenly became bad, no explanation. Before you know it the sultan is plotting with the British. Luckily Ataturk came along and saved us.”
Yildirim said the film revealed a telling contradiction in the way Turks see themselves: on the one hand, an “authoritarian drive for power, but then trying to make amends with an all-embracing tolerance which you see in the final scene in which Mehmet II, having entered [the church of] Hagia Sophia, holds a blond child in his arms and declares, ‘Not to worry, people of Constantinople, you can practise your religion however you like.'”
Nothing sells like nationalism in Turkey, and the film’s director/producer, Faruk Aksoy – who has already made the $17m (£11m) budget back three times – is planning another epic on Gallipoli, where Atatürk, the founder of the modern republic, fought off the British. It’s a fair bet it won’t be Churchill’s finest hour.