Review of The Ottoman Lieutenant (Joseph Ruben, 2017, Turkey/EUA, 106 min.), Luís G. Rodrigues & Tomás Ferreira

Imagem: Fotografia de 1915 da evacuação dos arménios que resistiram em Musa Dagh. Aqui, vê-se a sua subida a bordo do navio de guerra francês ao largo da costa síria, em Setembro de 1915. Autor desconhecido.

Texto de Luís G. Rodrigues e Tomás Ferreira

The Ottoman Lieutenant, directed by Joseph Ruben, aims to portray the typical climate of instability that precedes any war through (what a surprise!) an American nurse who intends to fairly contribute to the (again) American mission hospital in the Anatolian region of Van by taking there her dead brother`s truck filled with medical supplies for the abounding patients in desperate need of care in the remote region. One thing we have to point out from the start, and that is that there were really American missions in Anatolia in the eve of the Great War, mostly associated with Christian Protestant organizations and some of them made important humanitarian contributions during the war. However, the problem is the way that this historical reality, that took place at a time when the USA were still pursuing a policy of non-involvement in world affairs that did not concern them directly, known today as isolationism, is made to resemble in character and and spirit  American interventions in every region of the globe that have taken place in the last seven decades or so, which rest on the self-centered Americanization of the terms of engagement with other countries and peoples and that obnoxious and at the same time endearing happy-go-lucky attitude of obliviousness to the local specificity and complexities of the situations the US meddles in.

The main character, Lillie (interpreted by Hera Hilmar) meets a daring American (!!) young doctor called Jude Gresham (Josh Hartnett), who impresses her with his selfless persona and gives a “lecture” regarding the already mentioned American (at this point lets just embrace the factual Americanization and not underline it any more) mission and how it changed his perspective of life, perhaps in the same way that Lillie voices over the beginning of the movie with a cheap cliché: “I thought I was going to change the world but of course the world changed me” (and there is no need for us to thank the writer, Jeff Stockwell, for this breathtakingly original line).

Naturally, in such a production, our heroine encounters the systemic oppression of women in her crusade to help a foreign country, even from her parents. Nevertheless, she breaks free of the constraints of those stereotypes, which perchance could be one the best things in the movie, due to the fact that it is crucial to represent on screen the emancipation of women and the stories of exceptional women of every time and place, so that the unfortunately slow progress, in many countries and cultures, of women’s rights can gain more attention. The only sad thing about it is that the makers of The Ottoman Lieutenant apparently cannot decide which of the several causes touched on, apart from that of the laundering of Turkey’s war reputation and consequent deception about historical facts pertaining to the Armenian Genocide, they want to focus on and, so, they attempt to treat them all, which leads to a total mess in the narrative.

So, to pick the plot up where we left off, two months later (oh yeah, abrupt time-lapse, we know…), Lillie arrives in Turkey by sea with her truck, whereupon she encounters Ismail Veli, the lieutenant of the title, a member of the Ottoman Imperial Army. Yes, yes, you guessed it! Another love triangle in an historical war movie – very reminiscent, including in the fistfights between the two men involved, of Pearl Harbor (Michael Bay, 2001), a film whose tone is one of melodramatic patriotic enthusiasm –, another attempt at dealing with the topic of the experience of the Great War in the Ottoman Empire, just like The Promise (Terry George, 2016), that, you guessed it again, also gives us a love triangle. How enjoyable it is to see that creativity is alive! Actually, here we must suspect (or rather, be sure) of political whitewashing and a bit of foul play at work. This movie is a Turkish/American co-production which entered production before The Promise and which was clearly conceived as a way to brush The Promise aside along with its brave depiction of the historical reality of the Armenian Genocide, and is surely, as Cara Buckley, writing for The New York Times, shows in her article of 20th April 2017, “Battle Over 2 Films Reflect’s Turkey’s Quest to Control a Bitter History”[1], only the latest attempt by Turkey to censor the truth about its wartime crimes.

At this point in the narrative, Lillie finds herself in a complex situation (or so the director wants (and fails to compel) us to think). She is told that her truck can only reach the American mission hospital if it is escorted by an Ottoman military officer. Maybe not that complex, right? She has just met a military officer and the solution is right at her disposal. These weak plotlines are a constant in this movie, the list goes on and on. In the end, it has everything: a love triangle, fistfights, exotic lanscapes, old traumas (and evil or, at least, disreputable Armenians) and yet, or precisely because of all that, it is an artistic failure. As Goethe said, “Man sieht Absicht und man wird verstimmt”[2], that is, we see the intention and that exasperates us.

Before finishing this critique, we would just like to point out two situations that are both funny and sad. When Ismail and Jude, the lieutenant and the doctor, meet, the American doctor “speaks” Turkish or, let’s say it correctly, the bad dubbing of his voice speaks Turkish. Then, another sequence in which the natives chase the Lieutenant and Lillie with guns and really bad shooting accuracy, remembered us those Stormtroopers in Star Wars that rarely hit the target so that the heroes can succeed at their mission.

To conclude, “The Ottoman Lieutenant” is not only an ideologically-saturated movie but also an inept piece of cinematography and an artistic failure. It is time to put aside the narrative of the “American Savior” that only really saves when it is coaxed, as it was in 1917 and 1941, as well as, in the case of Turkey, the mask on inocence, the diplomatic bullying and whitwashing, all of which this film’s history and content shows instances of. Let us speak honestly about historical reality, recognize our history and make peace so that we can, in fairness, build a better future. That won’t come about if we keep giving in to lying political narratives and bullying from countries like Turkey. We should let the Armenian story be told, not mute it. A Pope one of us greatly admires once spoke of caritas in veritate[3]; let us also have a vox veritatis about. Until we do, the only victory is for the likes of Erdogan. And, for God’s sake[4], when we do talk about these things, let’s make good art in which to tell our stories, not cartoons like this film.


[1] Which can be consulted here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/20/movies/the-promise-the-ottoman-lieutenant-turkey-armenian-genocide.html

[2] Goethe, as quoted in Lev Tolstoy, “Shakespeare and the Drama”, which can be found in many collections of Tolstoi’s writings. For Portuguese readers, we advise this recent one: Lev Tolstoi,  Os Últimos Escritos, trad. António Pescada, Lisboa: Relógio d’Água, 2018 (cf. p. 185).

[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate (Vatican City, 29th June 2009).

[4] Cf. Shakespeare’s Richard II, Act II, Sc. 3, v. 155.

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