Fetih 1453 or “Conquest” 1453 is a Turkish historical war epic from 2012 that depicts the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks led by Sultan Mehmed II or Mehmed the Conqueror. The movie was a major hit however, being rightly criticized as “historically inaccurate” which in my opinion is an understatement. The movie was viewed by current Turkish wannabe Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who apparently “liked the film very much”. As a believer in a falsified image of the Ottoman Empire of the past and a delusional and highly prickly strongman, his liking the movie a lot should already be a red flag against the movie.
Anyways let us get down to what was good about the movie before we point out the flaws. The sets were definitely lavish and the battle sequences are quite grand. However, the camerawork is shoddy at best – apparently with the entire budget being devoted to CGI (However, the CGI work is so fake, you can tell exactly which parts of each shot were built in a computer and as a result, the film often looks as if Mehmed the Conqueror lived his entire life in front of a green screen), costumes and sets, there was very little left for a decent cameraman, who they seemed to have hired from a random wedding ceremony film crew. The camerawork, swoops all over the place and changes perspective with no consideration for coherence, and is highly disorienting and edited in a very distracting, choppy way. The lighting which is sourced from candles, often looks electric and the colour looks awful.
The movie also indulges in an unnecessary love triangle between two Turkish actors who could be identical twins of each other, with long hair, bulging biceps and a consistently constipated look on their faces, and their love interest, the daughter of a weapons manufacturer – who dresses up as a guy to defy gender norms and helps her father build a big ass cannon – just looks like a chick in a bandana instead of a boy. What’s more, she cuddles with her boyfriend in the middle of an encampment full of soldiers who are apparently convinced that she’s a guy called Idris. Score one for gay rights right there – it’s nice that Erdoğan was cool with gay rights being so prominently promoted in a macho Turkish propaganda film.
Overacting, which I thought was the sole domain of most Indian Bollywood actors, reaches new heights championed by the Turkish actors who can give many of Bollywood’s stars a run for their money.
Now, once the technical flaws of the movie are covered, let us come to the more blatant propaganda features of the movie. The ending is one of the most infuriating ones we’ve seen in a while. After the Ottomans win the war and gain access to Constantinople, their Mehmed waltzes into where the women, kids and elderly are huddled and assures them that they won’t be forced to convert to Islam (quite different from the relatively modern Islamic conquerors). The Romans’ expressions of fear suddenly transform into dazzling smiles as if the man in front of them wasn’t responsible for killing half the men in their town. Extremely believable stuff right there, right? Well, the truth is quite different.
Mehmed II granted his soldiers three days to plunder the city, as he had promised them. The women of Constantinople also suffered from rape at the hands of Ottoman forces. According to Barbaro, “all through the day the Turks made a great slaughter of Christians through the city“. According to historian Philip Mansel, widespread persecution of the city’s civilian inhabitants took place, resulting in thousands of murders and rapes, and 30,000 civilians being enslaved or forcibly deported. People of both genders were raped inside Hagia Sophia. Loukas Notaras and his son were executed after Notaras refused Mehmed’s demand to offer his son for the sultan’s pleasure. According to Steven Runciman most of the elderly and the infirm/wounded and sick who were refugees inside the churches were killed, and the remainder (mainly teenage males and young boys) were chained up and sold into slavery. Also, after its conquest, the Church of Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque until 1931 and which then became a museum under the secular Republic of Turkey which as we know is currently being dismantled by the radical Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. So apparently, war, pillaging, rape, forced conversion and imperialism are all fine and dandy if it’s the Muslims doing it. Conveniently this was omitted from the movie as this wouldn’t really work in a propaganda piece.
The movie portrays Mehmed’s conquest of Constantinople as a major feat but if we look at history during that period, though the Ottoman Turks managed to conquer a city which several invaders before them had been unable to achieve, the Eastern Roman Empire was a shadow of its former self, by the year 1450, having shrunk to a few square kilometers outside of Constantinople itself. The city was impoverished and depopulated, and by 1453 consisted of a series of walled villages separated by vast fields surrounded by the 1000 year old Theodosian walls. Definitely not a major achievement especially when you have massive cannons at your side. The Ottoman Army is shown to consist purely of Turkish ethnicity (no wonder a radical Islamist like Erdoğan is a fan) instead of the ethnically diverse Ottoman army of the time which included Balkan Islamic converts as well as Christian vassals and even the elite Janissary soldiers of the Sultan included several who were Christian when they were taken to be trained as Janissaries.
Fetih 1453 could have been a masterpiece of Turkish and also modern cinema had it focused more on the reality of the Ottoman Empire and the battle of Constantinople. 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, religious audience to Turkish cinemas and especially endeared it to the President and wannabe Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, chiming as it does with his vision to “raise devout generations … who should embrace our historic values“.
Some in Erdoğan’s party were demanding it be shown in schools as an antidote to the Hollywood version of history – not that the film is itself entirely innocent of historical license, 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.
Mehmed the Conqueror was a great ruler with his own flaws like others preceding and succeeding him but to portray him in this over-the-top manner as an Islamic messiah saving Romans from the destruction he brought with him is a deliberate falsification of history. The Ottoman Empire too was never a radical Islamist state but rather during its golden era was a mixing pot of religions, arts and culture and scientific knowledge. The secular Turkish nation that existed from 1931 until Erdoğan decided to destroy it, also deserves a movie that portrays historical facts accurately and not a CGI infested propaganda piece that would only insult the past glory of the Ottoman Empire.
Avoid unless Erdoğan’s forcing you to watch it. Watch Kingdom of Heaven instead for a more balanced take of the era and to see a truly devout and liberal ruler in Saladin as he takes on the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem.