Fetih 1453: Blockbuster Turkish Epic Revels in Ottoman Past

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With Turkey’s geo-political star in the ascendant, it’s fitting that the country’s biggest ever film, released in theaters there Feb. 16, celebrates what is perhaps the Mediterranean world’s most defining historical moment. Fetih 1453 (or “Conquest 1453″) is a $17 million, chain metal-clad, scimitar-waving retelling of the 15th century Ottoman siege and eventual capture of the city of Constantinople — now Istanbul. When it debuted across screens in Turkey, the film commenced at 14:53 (2:53pm), the same digits as the year the great capital of the Byzantine Empire fell to the Turks led by Sultan Mehmet II, Fetih’s main protagonist. Its first weekend audience was the largest in Turkish cinema history.

The film took three years to make and employed some 15,000 extras. Your humble scribe has not seen it yet, but the trailer gives one enough of an impression: vast, CGI-generated armies assemble beneath streaming banners; arrows and flaming projectiles blot out the sky; a gigantic cannon gets wheeled out; horses whinny and bearded men say serious things.

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It seems standard fare for such nationalist, medieval epics, the sort of thing the Chinese film industry now churns out with lamentable predictability each year. But given the seismic historical significance of the siege, which saw the heart of Eastern Christendom fall into Muslim hands, Fetih 1453 has ruffled a few feathers. Some critics within and outside of Turkey have decried the “reverse 300” nature of the film — complaining that, like the Persians of Zac Snyder’s gory 2006 blockbuster, the enemy Greeks are depicted as pantomime, one-dimensional villains, craven, venal, evil. As you hear in the opening of the trailer, the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople is also framed in messianic terms — a religiosity that may play well to Muslim audiences in the Arab world. In response, a Christian group in Germany has called for the film’s boycott, while the movie’s producers claimed hackers from overseas attempted to crash its website earlier this month.

Such contentiousness belies one of the major narratives the film hopes to promote by dramatizing Turkey’s Ottoman past: that of the pluralism, diversity and tolerance of the empire that made its home in Istanbul. Jews and Christians of certain minority sects fared far better under Ottoman suzerainty than in Western Christendom. Yet despite a feel-good, multicultural end to Sultan Mehmet II’s derring-do, it’s hard to look past Fetih 1453‘s chest-thumping, Greek-vilifying bluster. One Turkish columnist writes:

While [the film] feeds on the common paranoia of seeing the West as an unwelcoming and disreputable crowd, it reinforces our collective consciousness’ aspirations for superiority in two very contradictory ways: initially by promoting the nation’s virile and authoritarian drive for power and crushing toughness but then by trying to make amends with an all-embracing and tolerant attitude as brought forth in the final scene in which Mehmet II, having entered [the Hagia Sophia], 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… you can’t just get away with a peaceful one-liner after breeding so much enmity.

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After being subdued by Turkey’s secular, military-dominated establishment for decades, pride in the Ottomans has seen something of a revival under current Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who embraced the empire’s legacy in an interview with TIME last year, seeing in the peaceful co-existence of Sunnis and Shia under Ottoman rule a lesson for fractious Arab societies now.

As with all empires, though, the Ottomans have no shortage of skeletons in their closet — not least the hotly disputed “genocide” of Armenians in the early 20th century. Of course, that has nothing to do with Turks reveling in a lush spectacle of one of their greatest national triumphs. But the world has little need for civilizational grandstanding. And besides, aren’t the Greeks taking enough of a pounding these days?

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