So, what is the real conundrum about Faruk Aksoy’s “Fetih 1453” (The Conquest 1453)? Should we embrace it because it’s a major historical action drama, a $17 million enterprise undertaken by us Turks, on our very soil, or do we actually have the right to criticize its consistently “penetrating” machismo that is ultimately symbolized by the massive canon built in order to destroy the walls of Byzantium?
But I guess the funniest thing is that this cannon is actually built under the craftsmanship of a woman who disguises herself as a man. You do the gender mathematics.
Surely this film will be a box office hit; in fact, it might even topple the record of “Recep İvedik 2” (which, by the way, is also an Aksoy Film production). To be honest, watching this film as a Turk, it’s very hard not to get carried away by the film’s 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 İstanbul by Sultan Mehmet II, and 1923, the founding of the Turkish Republic.
Yes, the CGI is very good, yes, the battle scenes are choreographed properly, yes, the sword fights are convincing, yes, the costumes are designed meticulously, yes yes yes, it’s one hell of a show in which armies of Ottomans display all their might and glory. And just like on that day, “we” conquered İstanbul and still feel proud about it in our collective memories, and we can possibly feel proud of this major Turkish blockbuster, with its high production values, not to mention that it will probably be watched all around the Middle East and the Muslim world. But let’s be honest, just as many were perturbed by the portrayal of the Persians in “300” as barbaric monsters, many will perturbed by the portrayal of the Papacy and the Greek Orthodox peoples of the Byzantine Empire in “The Conquest 1453.”
If a film makes such an effort to rigorously portray the Ottomans as a complex state that has many political dynamics and Sultan Mehmet II as a human being who also has his own doubts, then should it not at least try to do the same for the other side? Obviously, the filmmakers did a lot of research and expended a lot of effort to depict the Ottoman state as genuinely as possible, but why has this not also been the case for the Byzantines? In the film, Emperor Constantine XI and his statesmen seem to have been transplanted from a comic book universe where there are no gray lines between good and evil. These men are just purely vile degenerates who have lost themselves 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 say is, “Oh those godless Turks!” because you see, they just hate the Ottomans so much.
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 Şahika Koldemir as Sultan Mehmet’s ever-supportive wife, we do not see one substantial female character in the court of Constantine. The abundant use of voluptuous “pleasure servants” can only account for one thing and one thing only: the Eastern male mentality’s occidental appropriation of seeing the Western woman as an outlet for its repressed fantasies. Seriously, how crass can it get? In fact, this entire predisposition seems like an even better reason to “conquer” İstanbul.
As in all historical dramas, some historical inaccuracies must be allowed for the sake of creating fictional cinema, yet when historical cinema is used as a tool to reflect on our national and cultural identities, then “The Conquest 1453” is a muddled pool of hypocrisy. While it 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 Ayasofya, 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 watching 160 minutes of muscular male bodies building weapons of war, violent battle scenes and gatherings of detestable Byzantines without any hint of this tolerance sprinkled throughout? You can’t just get away with a peaceful one-liner after breeding so much enmity. Obviously, the filmmakers were trying to do their best and offer a message, but this does not mitigate the general outcome of the film: extreme patriotism.
This film will reach millions, but its influence will be seen in the months to come. 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.
(The Conquest 1453)
Directed by: Faruk Aksoy
Cast: Devrim Evin,
Dilek Serbest, Recep Aktuğ