The largest cannon ever smelted versus the strongest walls in the world
The year is 1453 and Constantinople is under siege by the Ottoman empire. History tells us that it will fall (Constantinople is now known as Istanbul, Turkey’s foremost city). But tell me: looking at the picture in your head, who are the villains in this battle? The warmongering Turkish force? According to Fetih 1453, you might just have been brainwashed by western films.
This is a lavish Turkish production that breathes the ambition to rival the siege epics of Hollywood. It has looked upon Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, perused Oliver Stone’s Alexander and drawn inspiration from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. It strives to bring an all-devouring war as seen through the eyes of the East. It is a war of the noble vision of the Ottomans against the squalid decadence of the Byzantine Empire.
With a rolling time of just under three hours it certainly feels the part of an epic. The story begins with the ascension of Mehmet II to the Ottoman throne. Uniting the forces of his lands, he follows the prophetic views of his forefathers, who saw Constantinople under their banner. Thus starts a political game that ultimately becomes a military campaign. The rulers of what was once Byzantium and the great Eastern Roman Empire look upon Mehmet II with arrogance. They cannot fathom what fate holds in store for them. The little king that could gathers his troops, eliminates rivals, builds fortresses and creates the awesome Dardanelles gun: a beast of a cannon that took three hours to load and half an hour merely to cool off after a single, thundering blast.
When the long-expected siege finally arrives, it’s hard not to be impressed. Fetih 1453 takes its time to show it in all its gruesome glory. It chronicles the various attempts to breach Constantinople’s walls, the feints to the side, the counter-attacks and the flanking maneuvers. Like with all good siege films, after a while it becomes pleasant and comfortable to imagine yourself in the trenches at torchlight. As a viewer, you dig into your seat and soak in the atmosphere. That this Turkish production, which cost a mere trifle for American standards (17 million dollars for the whole film), manages to produce these same thrills, is a true accomplishment.
But like most of its counterparts, it is unwilling to broaden its views on the conflict. Perhaps in reaction to the decades of presenting the Ottomans as aggressors and barbarians, it seeks to bring balance by presenting the total opposite view: Constantinople’s Greek leaders are craven creatures, Mehmet II a luminous being. For certain, he has his moments of doubt, a rare fit of rage. But when the walls of the city fall and he barges into the Hagia Sophia, he promises the frightened citizenry skulking inside freedom of religion. In reality, he sold them off into slavery and turned the church into a mosque. These are understandable changes, but a more nuanced view would’ve been more interesting and an attempt to set right the wrongs of Hollywood, rather than aping its defects.
At times the film brings unintentional slapstick. When two nigh-identical men start fighting each other and for ten long minutes you hear nothing but their strenuous grunts, as if they were playing tennis, it’s hard not to snigger. It’s a scene that would look silly even in Zack Snyder’s 300. Other times the special effects leave something to be desired. But it’s easy to forgive such hiccups, in light of its honest ambitions.
Fetih 1453 can easily be explained as a nationalistic rallying cry for the Turks, as I’m sure some Greek detractors will do. If you want to view it as such, it is a long nose to the Greeks, by their old Turkish enemy. I’d rather view the film as an impressive siege epic, that offers a traditional, rough, heartfelt quality many modern western efforts have become far too glossy for.