13 November 2006

1230) Turks in American and Western Cinema : Abdul The Damned (1935)

It was exciting to finally see ABDUL THE DAMNED, the British film directed by Karl Grune. I had finally found out the identity of photographs reproduced in one of the few "Turk" related books from my dad's collection, "Grand Turk"; they happened to be from this film. Furthermore, although we can determine from the title that the topic of Turks was going to get the usual "Turks are bad" treatment, ABDUL THE DAMNED is perhaps the only Western film that spotlighted Turkish history as the main subject, and for that the British studio and filmmakers deserve much credit. . .

In defense of the filmmakers, it's perfectly understandable that the Turks were going to look "bad." British and other Western audiences the film was geared toward had been raised with harrowing tales of the Terrible Turk, and it was perfectly natural to give 'em what they wanted, that Turks make wonderful tyrants and killers, along with a splash of lustfulness.

With all of the "Bloody Sultan" propaganda from the 19th and 20th centuries, we also knew we were in for Abdul's depiction as a despot... and no one is saying Abdul was an angel, although this general one-dimensional comic book portrayal (there are commendable shades of gray in the film) of the last major sultan is certainly not in tune with the reality. However, in light of these expectations where the Turks were going to be dealt dirt, it was very nice that the filmmakers tried to be fair, as well. Consider:

1) The hero, Talak Pasha, a captain of the Ottoman army (the film always says "Turkish"), who goes on to become the leader of the Young Turks, is very conscientious. Furthermore, his fiancée is the heroine, Therèse, the Viennese operetta star... a Westerner!

2) Sultan Abdul Hamid II is actually treated rather sympathetically. There is one scene where we even get an idea why he is forced to become the cruel tyrant the West loved and still loves to depict him as.

A menacing pose by Nils Asther was selected here

3) The chief of police, Kadar Pasha, who does the sultan's dirty work, is extremely charming, and played by a Swedish actor described in the DVD extras as "unbearably handsome," and once known as "the male Greta Garbo," Nils Asther. Now that was really nice! For example, the Turkish officer in the Australian film, THE LIGHTHORSEMEN, was also treated sympathetically, but the actor was given dark make-up and a terribly sinister scar. In point of fact, many of the Turkish characters in the film were portrayed by handsome men. (The producers could have easily engaged in an "ugly" casting call, MIDNIGHT EXPRESS-style; if you recall, the only good-looking people in that one were Westerners.)

(By the way, the leads are mainly played by non-Briton foreigners, including the heroine, who was an American. This might have been the way for the filmmakers to put over on British audiences that the characters come from different parts of the world, minimizing the English accent as much as possible.)

Despite these "nice" gestures, the script will slip in several of the usual digs, reminding the audience that "Turks are bad," going beyond the badness of the villainous sultan himself.

The film sets us up with the following scroll:

In the Christian year of 1908, the Moslem Empire of Turkey was ruled by Abdul Hamid II......


Last of the absolute monarchs, his people had lived in cruel oppression. At last they have broken into revolt, led by Hilmi Pasha, founder of the Young Turk party, distinguished from the old order by their white fez. Fearing their rising power, the Sultan promised to sign a new constitution guaranteeing liberty and civil rights to all...

Naturally, historic films are permitted license to distort events, for the sake of dramatic flow. For example, the plot will require for Young Turks to be distinguished from "old Turks," and thus it became necessary to create the "white fez" device for the Young Turks. In addition, the sultan had already come up with that constitution back in the 19th century, but suspended it. When the Young Turks came to power, they simply dusted off this constitution. And that "cruel oppression" term is the standard Western way of looking at the picture; compared to the ways of another absolute monarch, the Russian czar, the common people of the Ottoman Empire were living in a practical utopia. So we're not going to harp too much on historical inconsistencies.

A rousing "one for all, all for one" anthem was needed to symbolize the liberty represented by the Young Turks, indeed the running theme for the whole movie. While the British filmmakers performed a commendable job with their attention to period detail (even if they got carried away at times; but, hey! It's a movie), they came up with a horrible song that has "British" written all over it. What a pity the composer lacked the imagination or ability to put a taste of Oriental twang into the piece. Have a listen.

While we're on the topic of production value, they really went all out. The filmmakers actually went to Turkey to inject an air of authenticity for the exteriors, just as may be seen in MIDNIGHT EXPRESS! For example, as we share the same Point-of-View as characters on the Orient Express, we see a dab of what "Constantinople" looked like:

Actually, the bottom portion from the above photo was the actual set; it's possible their "special effects" department prepared a glass painting or something for the rest. But the producers' hearts were in the right place. One "neat trick" was a shot of the "real thing," probably from Dolmabahce Palace, dissolving into the version (focusing on the sign with Ottoman script) that was built on set:

Fritz Kortner

Abdul Hamid was ably performed by Fritz Kortner (Fritz Nathan Kohn originally; he escaped Nazi persecution by moving to the USA two years before this film was made); Kortner also played the role of the sultan's double, "Kislar, the Actor." We actually are afforded a "sort of affection" for Abdul Hamid, given the nuances of humor and humanity that Kortner provided.

Esmé Percy plays Ali

The rest of the cast did a fine job as well, another appealing performance was that of Ali, the chief eunuch, slimily played by Esmé Percy. (His skin was darkened, and probably the audience was expected to believe Ali was "black," since legend has it the eunuchs of the harem had to be black.) Ali acted as a sort of second-in-command, a role I was not aware was assigned to eunuchs.

As the film opens, there is a procession in the palace, and the kind of "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" kind of announcement that Westerners have come to expect is made:

"His majesty, Abdul Hamid the second, shadow of God and slayer of infidels!"

Ali struts out, however, and declares, "Our imperial master will receive no one today. At his command, the sublime will is to be indicated by myself."

An official points out "The protests from the British foreign office," which Ali brushes off with, "File it with their fifty other protests. And express his majesty's gratitude; it shall have his earnest and immediate attention." The official also declares, "These convicted persons are recommended to mercy." Ali sniffs, "His majesty, fountain of mercy, has granted it. They may choose... their own way of execution." Thus the film sets the stage for Abdul Hamid's murderous tyranny.

Okay! We're not going to harp about the history here too much, but in defense of the "Bloody Sultan," Hamid was known no less for his leniency. Albeit under pressure from European diplomats, Hamid not only pardoned the Dashnak maniacs who took over the Ottoman Bank in 1896 and rained bombs on the public from rooftops, but even those Armenians who tried to assassinate him in 1905. These unpunished terrorists, such as Armen Garo, would return years later to wreak further death and destruction.

The Armenophile Richard Davey served as a character witness in 1895: "It is impossible to withhold sympathy and respect for a Sultan of such blameless private life as Abdul Ahmed, who works incessantly at what he believes to be the welfare of his people. To accuse him, as I have seen lately, even in respectable English papers, of being a sort of Tackleton who delights in tormenting his Armenian subjects as that worthy did in scrunching crickets, is not only unjust but in preposterously bad taste. In the first place, the Sultan is so free from the spirit of cruelty which disgraced some of his ancestors, that it is difficult to get him to sign even the death-warrant of a murderer. He invariably commutes the sentence to imprisonment. He has much to contend with."

Whether Abdul Hamid deserves the black reputation that has been pinned to him is a matter for debate. If he was “the bloody assassin” and the “red Sultan” to most people, he was the hard-working, conscientious, much harassed but personally charming ruler to others. Those who have spoken for him have pointed out that the Sultan felt his Empire threatened by the Armenians, who, he knew or at least believed, were in league with the Young Turks, the Greeks, Macedonians, etc. They believe that Abdul Hamid was the victim of what we moderns call a persecution complex.

William Langer, The Diplomacy of Imperialism, 1968

Talak reads the order signed by sultan, as Hilmi looks

Hilmi Pasha (Charles Carson), leader of the Young Turks, is on his way to Istanbul, having been invited from a five-year exile by the sultan, to serve as Grand Vizier. No one is aware of his arrival, and the Orient Express is stopped by Captain Talak, the hero Turk of the film.

Now Talak is an interesting character in his own right. Played by John Stuart, he will go on to lead the Young Turks after Hamid will play a dirty trick on Hilmi later in the fim. Talak is a blend between the two most famous Young Turks, Talat Pasha (resembling the name) and Enver Pasha (resembling the man); note that he is a fairly good match:

Isn't it ironic that the two men designated as among history's worst villains, thanks to overwhelming pro-Armenian propaganda, would be relegated to such heroic roles in this film?

Therèse (Adrienne Ames) is at right; the actress was a
debutante (her first two husbands were millionaires), and died of cancer at forty. She was twenty-eight here.

The script has nice touches of humor throughout; also on the train we meet the heroine, Therèse, the Austrian opera singer whose troupe is on the way to perform in Istanbul. Sitting with an older woman (Annie Esmond), Therèse compliments the Turks: "Everyone seems very polite." The not very attractive woman replies, "Oh you will be quite safe in Turkey. I've been in Constantinople six times and I have never been accosted once."

But the old lady makes sure to tell Therèse (and us) that the land they are headed for leaves much to be desired. The nation is ruled by a heartless tyrant:

"Abdul the Damned is what they call him; ...the things that go on in that palace! He frowns, and men die like flies. He smiles, and they recover. Not the same ones, of course."

And the nation itself is not far from a hellhole:

"Constantinople: a wonderful city. But like everything in Turkey... beautiful; but very, very cruel."

Therèse listens as Talak expresses patriotic fury

Talak notices Therèse on the train, and as he was once stationed in Austria, we learn they have fallen in love and are engaged. A few scenes later, as Hilmi Pasha gives a speech regarding the new liberty, Talak angrily tells his wife-to-be that the cheering crowd is "drunk":

"Ideas they don't even understand. They want to borrow a parliament from England; an army from Germany; and a language from France. Everything that isn't Turkish."

Pro-Armenians might conclude "Talak-Enver" was into "pan-Turkism," but even this film gives the idea that what the concept meant, particularly in the hands of Ziya Gokalp, had everything to do with Turkish culture, and not Turkish ethnicity. Since the system was broken, the desperate Ottomans were looking for answers from "superior" Europeans, sacrificing, in essence, their soul.

Mention of "Armenian Atrocities"

The ambassadors

Finally, Abdul Hamid makes an appearance during another palace ceremony. The foreign ambassadors chatter between themselves:

Diplomat 1: "Abdul certainly looked the part. But I thought at least he would make a speech."

Diplomat 2: "He dislikes speaking in public. His mother tongue is Armenian."

Diplomat 3: "A-ha... the Armenian atrocities become understandable: a family affair."

Malik takes a potshot, ensuring the
admiration of Armenians for
generations to come.

That's it for reference to Armenians in the film, but an assassin takes a shot at the sultan soon afterwards, wounding the double. While questioned, he doesn't reveal his background, only saying that he will die for freedom, as thousands hate Abdul Hamid. In the credits, however, there is a character named "Malik, a spy." (Henry Peterson.) What do you think? There was no spy in the film, so this listing was likely for the assassin character. Looks like this character was meant to be an Armenian, a play on the real-life assassins from 1905.

There is a marvelous scene between Kadar and Hamid, where both cackle over the prospect of the lovely Austrian singer. ("By the way... ha ha ha ha... she has a very lovely voice... too!") At one nicely understated moment, Hamid turns to Ali who is also sharing in the merriment, and asks, "What are you grinning at," at which Ali quickly changes expression. Here is a representation of "The Lustful Turk," which certainly had no bearing on reality given the elder Abdul Hamid of 1908, but was an irresistible notion for British and Western audiences.

The doctor gets the point

The doctor (Clifford Heatherley) operating on what he thinks is the wounded sultan tells Abdul Hamid to stay back. After learning that the one he treated so disrespectfully was the real sultan, the doctor begins to shake with fear. The sultan orders the doctor to forget what he has seen, but he is already a marked man.

Kadar Pasha is called in for the questioning of the suspect, stating that the interrogators have hopefully not performed torture, as the new constitution forbids it. The sarcasm becomes apparent when Malik does not survive Kadar's techniques. Hilmi Pasha is unnerved when he learns of the sultan continuing with his old despotic ways.

After Hilmi leaves, the sultan asks Ali: "How did Hilmi know about the examination?" Ali replies, "The night has a million eyes."

The sultan then declares, "Find out which eye, and put it out."

The sultan and his top cop conspire on a murderous plot

Talak is shot. Aside from harem girls, the above miss is the only depiction of a Turkish woman in the entire film.

At the sultan's command, Kadar murders an Ottoman official so that the Young Turks could get the blame (here is where the plot device of the "white fez" becomes necessary; Kadar makes sure to wear a white fez), and he also shoots Talak, who happens to be with the victim at the time. Here, the character's resemblance to Talat Pasha surfaces, as Talat too was shot around 1915, but the tough Turk quickly recovered. (Talat wasn't tough enough to survive a bullet through the back of the head years later, however.) The Talak of the film proves to be superhuman; the bullet has no seeming effect on him, whatsoever. (When he tells his lover that he had been shot, she does not even bat an eyelash.)

Therèse prepares to give a show to the sultan

Kadar tries to get Therèse to accept his offer.

After Therèse wows the sultan with her performance, her maid hands the singer a note in the dressing room afterwards, adding the words, "There's one of those unspeakable Turks outside, Miss." The Turk in question happens to be the tall and handsome Kadar Pasha, so we can only gather the maid must be related to William Gladstone, or that the screenwriter had to get the phrase "unspeakable Turk" in the script somehow! Kadar enters, and tries to cajole the lady to accept a private invitation. She refuses, and while on his way out, Kadar runs into Talak paying a visit to his lady love.

There is a round-up of Young Turks afterwards, and Kadar makes sure to add Talak to the ones to be arrested.

"Nightmare country"

Talak: putty in Therèse's hands

Therèse and Talak have this following exchange, as we hear Muslim prayers in the background:

—No more politics. Nothing must keep us apart now. There's a boat sailing for France this evening.


—Yes. I have friends there. And everything is kind, and real, and secure. Not like this country. Full of smiles and treachery. Where even loveliness is a mask of evil. Let's go together; out of this nightmare country.

—You're right!

(Some patriot Talak turned out to be!)

But their plans go to pot when Talak gets arrested, and when Therèse pays a visit to Kadar, she learns her refusal of the sultan's "personal" invitation is the reason why. Kadar then threatens to send a report blaming Talak on his meetings with Therèse as amounting to espionage or assassination plots. Therèse explodes:

—That would be murder! I'll expose you, I'll make everything public.

—That would be denied. And you would be certified insane, young lady.

(It appears Kadar has much faith in getting Westerners to believe what Turks have to say.)

Kadar has the lady where he wants her.

Therèse then begs Kadar not to send the report. "All you have to do is reconsider the sultan's proposal," the sinister Kadar tells her. As Therèse's virtue hangs in the balance, she pathetically asks, "Is there no alternative?" to which Kadar replies curtly, "None."

Boxed into a corner, poor Therèse has no choice but to accept.

But instead of gettng ravaged, the sultan gives instructions for her to be "received like a queen."

Therèse gets an "extreme harem makeover,"
and is welcomed by the chief eunuch

Looks like these ladies may be jealous of Therèse?

Therèse gets trussed up by harem girls, and as she leaves to be by the sultan's side, the other women follow her with their eyes. How interesting that there is such a "politically correct" mixture of different types, in a film as early as this.

As the sultan enters, we are treated to one of the film's funnier scenes; Hamid fixes the imperfections of the standing guard. When he bumps into the extended rifle? of one, he takes a sword from one of the other guards, and is prepared to stab the offender, but changes his mind at the last minute. He's got a short temper and can kill on a whim, all right.

(Perhaps these guards have taken a tip from the "OH-DEE-YO" guards of the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz, holding the long spear-like axe-contraptions?)

Therèse is treated like royalty; not such a bad deal, perhaps

George Zucco!

At the banquet, the alarming sounds of rifle shots are heard (the firing squad commander is played by the great Greek-Briton, George Zucco), as the Young Turks are executed. (Since they are singing that annoying song about liberty and freedom, maybe they halfway deserve it.) But the violence is too much for Therèse, and she faints. The macho sultan carries her to the imperial bedroom, but doesn't lay a finger on her as she awakens. He learns the reason for her angst is the belief that Talak has been murdered, but the sultan assures her it is not so.

A perfect gentleman!

He understands Talak's predicament was all Kadar's doing. "Anybody under arrest without my knowledge shall be released," he declares, at which Therèse gratefully tries to grab his hand, but he says, "no, no, no," and leaves her with a salute. What kind of a "Lustful Turk" is this, anyway?

Talak is exiled to Salonica, where the other Young Turks are, and it won't be long before he presides over the seeds of revolution. In the meantime, the sultan falls hard for his latest acquisition; he plays the piano, while she sings her operatic tunes, in a scene reminiscent of "The Phantom of the Opera."

Come on, just a little smooch..! (Earlier in the film, we
were told Hamid had three hundred wives. Really,
what is that special about the haughty Therèse?)

Sultan Abdul Hamid finally makes a play for Therèse by trying to peck her shoulder, but she will have none of that. (How many hoops is this poor fella going to need to jump through?) We are then treated to some important character exposition:

Therèse: "It's strange... but I feel for you something that I've only felt for your victims. You seem so.... alone. Without friends. Surrounded by enemies. I feel..."

Hamid: "Sympathy! That's something new for me. Pity. A gentle form of contempt."

(He had better not invite greater wrath from the Armenians. Doesn't he realize the Armenians thrive on sympathy?)

Hamid continues:

"There was no pity for me, after the first attempt on my life, when I was a boy of eight. Ever since I am bound to crush every spark of revolt. That means an army, money, taxes. Taxes mean revolt. More soldiers to put it down. Bigger taxes. Vicious circle, you see. The more taxes, the more conspirators who join the white fezes in Salonica."

And Mel Brooks said, "It's good to be the king."

The film proves it! There was no "genocide"

One of the good things about ABDUL THE DAMNED is its avoidance of one-dimensionality. When Kadar's fate becomes known, he is very gallant, and Therèse expresses her "gentle form of contempt" toward him as well. How refreshing that the villains are not treated as those wearing simple black hats.

Kadar's confession inflames the masses, and it's off to the palace, armed with their cudgels, axes and other crude weapons of brutality. Turks love to massacre, that's one thing we know. Finally, one finds the sultan behind a curtain, and his minutes appear numbered.

The mob is off to lop off some heads

There he is!

However, Talak and the Young Turks arrive in time to save the sultan's neck. The sultan says he cannot be deposed, but one of the Young Turks instructs that he certainly can abdicate:

Talak: Have no fear; your personal safety is guaranteed by the government and the army. It is the wish of the people; there will be no bloodshed. You may go in peace.

Hamid: I am free? You mean you are not going to...

Talak: No. We are not murderers.

The character that represents Talat and Enver clearly says it: They are not murderers. There you have it; this movie, made a generation after "1915," proves there could have been no genocide!

As the sultan drives off in his coach, he presents a poignant look. He strokes his white cat (in real life, Hamid actually owned a white cat), a villainous habit that no doubt inspired Blofeld of SPECTRE years later.

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© Holdwater
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