Film Review: Fetih 1453

If you see only one Turkish epic about the siege of Constantinople this year, it should be <i>Fetih 1453</i> ("fetih" meaning "conquest"), and no, that's not a snotty joke. Fetih has intrigue, dancing girls, hunky men, incredible production design, a (

Like all historical epics, Fetih 1453 should not be taken as historical gospel…any more, indeed, than the gospels themselves. But it is rip-snorting entertainment on a grand scale, and from a perspective you're unlikely to see in a Hollywood movie: You'd be hard-put to get the average American to finance a movie in which the fall of Christian Constantinople to the Muslim Ottoman Empire is a good thing. But in every other way, it's the kind of picture old-school movie buffs often lament Hollywood just doesn't make anymore.

Only the last third of its 160-minute running time is devoted to the siege itself; the rest charts the inexorable path to war and hopscotches between the seats of power. The first is the court of Sultan Mehmet Han (Devrim Evin), a young ruler with several strikes against him, notably that he was briefly placed on the throne as a 12-year-old after the death of his older brother, only to be rudely removed when it became clear that people wanted a real leader—like his father, Murat Bey, not some stripling in fancy clothes. Mehmet is exiled to a distant outpost, setting up a lifetime of father issues, but spends the intervening years wisely, transforming himself—with considerable help from sword-master Hasan (Ibrahim Celikkol)—into the kind of man capable of taking his father's place.

When word finally arrives that his father has died, 19-year-old Mehmet is now married and a father himself (his son pointedly named not for his father, but for his beloved grandfather, Bayazid), as well as a warrior, scholar and poet. Still, he comes to the throne beneath the shadow of his earlier disgrace; his own closest advisors have their doubts about his ability to lead, mistaking his early overtures to envoys from various neighboring nations as weakness rather than instinctive strategizing of the “keep your enemies close” variety, and several think Mehmet's determination to conquer Constantinople, which his own father tried and failed to do, is reckless at best and potentially ruinous madness at worst.

Emperor Constantine XI (Recep Aktug) sits at the apex of a once-great empire laid low by disease and its estrangement from Rome, whose authority in matters of religion and state has been emphatically rejected by Byzantium’s ruling elite. But Constantine is a pragmatist and overrules his own advisors when it becomes apparent that Mehmet is gearing up to take a run at Constantinople. The city may still have the most awe-inspiring fortified walls of any city in the known world, a formidable arsenal and a unique sea defense in the form of a massive underwater chain that can be manually raised (thank you, slave labor!) to repel hostile ships. But Constantinople's survival depends on keeping its enemies at a distance; if its walls can be breached, it's painfully vulnerable. Constantine needs help and makes overtures to the Vatican, even though he knows that accepting Rome's assistance will mean submitting to its authority.

None of which is lost on the Pope and his cardinals, who are as much men of the world—a turbulent, fractious world where might makes right—as they are men of the cloth. They're happy to send Constantine military support if it means subsuming the beating heart of Eastern Orthodox Christendom.

All of this history unrolls behind the story of Mehmet's struggle to win the respect of his subjects and the romance of Hasan and Era (Dilek Serbest), a feisty girl whose adopted father, Urban (Erdogan Aydemir), is the greatest engineer of his day and raised his brilliant, willful daughter to live up to her fullest potential in every way. And she, it turns out, has quite the knack for designing and overseeing the construction of mechanical devices. Mehmet engages the father-daughter team to build a cannon capable of shattering Constantinople's wall—though he thinks they're a father-son team; Era knows better than to imagine a girl could work side by side with men in a military foundry, so she trims her hair, binds her breasts, dons male-appropriate attire and answers to the name Elias. This ruse precipitates the story's most oddly—unintentionally?—curious moments, as Hasan and Era-Elias bill and coo publicly without attracting so much as a sideways glance. Now that's entertainment.