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Korkusuz Kaptan Swing

Reviewing the types of films that I do, I’ve become no stranger to mixed feelings. Korkusuz Kaptan Swing, for example, while leaving me less excited than other of Onar Films’ DVD releases, still feels like it should be a peak experience for me. After all, it’s a Turkish film that’s based on an Italian comic book that’s set in an imaginary America during the Revolutionary War. For someone as obsessed as I am with how the familiar gets refracted, refined and/or re-imagined through the lenses of different filmmaking cultures, you’d be hard pressed to concoct a more tantalizing recipe — unless, of course, you were to concoct a Thai movie that teamed Ultraman with a Hindu monkey god, or another Turkish movie in which Santo and Captain America join forces to fight a caterpillar-browed Spiderman. Neither of those two films, however, hold up a funhouse mirror to a well-tread episode of American history the way that Kaptan Swing does. And it is that strange depiction of my country’s forefathers’ struggle for independence that, more than anything else, makes the film come across to my tired Yankee eyes as being a product of a place oh, so very far from home.

It’s hard to imagine what the Turkish pulp cinema of the sixties and seventies would look like without the influence of the Italians. Not only did Turkey’s B movie brigade pick up pointers from the Italian film crews who flocked to their country in the sixties (thanks to it being a suitably exotic location for Eurospy and Peplum films that was both accessible and inexpensive to shoot in) but they also drew upon Italian comics — or fumetti — for some of their most enduring characters, most notably that skeleton-suit-wearin’ rogue Kilink. Less enduring, but nonetheless noteworthy is Kaptan Swing, based on the Turkish translation of the Italian comic Il Comandante Mark.

Il Comandante Mark was the creation of a celebrated trio of Italian cartoonists — Pietro Sartoris, Dario Guzzon and Giovanni Sinchetto — who worked under the collective name EsseGesse. Specializing in Western-style adventures set during the American Revolutionary War, they had their biggest and most long-lasting success with Captain Miki, a series begun in 1951. Captain Miki made his Turkish debut in 1955, in the pages of the children’s magazine Billy Kid, but his popularity soon warranted the creation of his own comic book, Tommiks, that same year. As time went on, other of EsseGesse’s fearless, Redcoat-fighting frontiersmen would follow Miki’s lead into the pages of Turkish comics, including Il Grande Blek (as Teksas), Kinowa (as Kinova-Tex) and, in 1966, Il Comandante Mark (as Kaptan Swing, but you knew that already).

As presented in the comic, Il Comandante Mark was a young child of French nobility who, after being shipwrecked off the North American coast by British warships, was rescued and raised by a tribe of Native Americans. Instilled with an unshakable sense of honor and justice, and trained in all manner of physical combat, he eventually came to be the leader of a loose anti-royalist militia called The Wolves, who together fight against the evil British Redcoats while defending the poor and downtrodden settlers from their cruelties. True to its comic strip origins, it’s a wonderfully un-nuanced conflict, a black and white portrayal of good against evil that’s ideal fodder for the Turkish pop cinema of its day, which typically only needed a loose starting-off point from which to stage an endless series of reckless physical stunts and wild, free-form brawls.

Following that model, Kaptan Swing, the motion picture, indeed has little more than a whisper of a plot. But, unfortunately, rather than that providing a framework for the usual wall-to-wall action, it instead frees up space for a great deal more than the usual amount of broad, comic relief shenanigans. In this case, that may be more of a problem with the source material than it is the fault of the filmmakers. EsseGesse were known for providing their heroes with a more than reasonable share of goofball comedic foils, and Il Comandante Mark was no exception, coming saddled with an expansively caricatured Indian sidekick called Sad Owl, a grizzled old prospector type called Mr. Bluff, and Flok, a funny looking dog (who is called “Puik” in the movie and given voice by an off-screen human actor making “ruff ruff” sounds).

By accounts, Kaptan Swing was a scrupulously faithful adaptation of the original comic, as can clearly be seen in how closely the costumes and the look of the actors match the appearances of the drawn characters. This is most likely a testament to just how popular the book was in Turkey at the time. And while such efforts are both admirable and surprising — especially given that they’re coming from a film industry that usually played pretty fast and loose with its source material, not to mention the copyrights protecting same — that holding sacred of the text here has the unfortunate consequence of insuring the presence of Sad Owl, Mr. Bluff and Puik in all of their pratfalling, compulsively mugging glory (and in the case of Sad Owl, in the person of a disconcerting Sid Ceasar ringer by the name of Suleyman Turan). As a result, Kaptan Swing comes off less like a comic book movie than a live action cartoon. Making matters worse is the fact that the filmmakers seem to regard the mere presence of these familiar characters as comedy in itself, freeing them from the onus of having to give them anything to do that could actually be considered funny. Having one of them greedily gnaw on a turkey leg while making a funny face or being bitten on the ass by the dog seems to have been considered suitably hilarious to comprise a generous portion of the movie’s running time, and if you have a problem with that, you’re probably going to find Kaptan Swing pretty tough going.

Of course, the reader should take my opinions on this subject with a grain of salt, because, while I’ve been known to enjoy a good comedy on occasion, I have a de facto dislike for the notion of comic relief. This is not only because it is almost never actually funny, but also because it always seems to appear in those films that least need it. For instance, when I’m watching a Bollywood film in which a go-go dancing Laxmi Chayya in a spacesuit heralds the arrival of flying saucers in India, or in which a brawny guy is beaten up by a Colecovision skeleton in a wedding dress, do I really need Johnnys Walker or Lever crossing their eyes and sticking their tongues out between bared teeth? Likewise, what comedic dimension could the height gags of Chucho Salinas or the squashed hobo hat wearing of Tin Tan possibly add to a movie in which a team of Mexican female wrestlers fight a ping-pong-ball-eyed mummy, or in which Blue Demon is presented as an expert on paranormal phenomena? I even object to the term “comic relief”, because the only thing it ever seems to relieve me of is the enjoyment of whatever movie I’m watching.

Anyway, all of this moaning of mine is not meant to underplay the fact that, to some extent, Kaptan Swing does indeed play as an action film. Leading man Salih Guney, a veteran of Turkish cinema at an early age who first made his name in juvenile delinquent films in the mid sixties, cuts quite a dashing figure, and handles all of his roughhousing duties with a satisfying amount of credibility. The measure of any male star in these old Turkish films is his ability to hurl himself heedlessly into the fray without the luxury of a stunt double, and Guney does not disappoint, demonstrating a swashbuckler’s ease with the blade as well as being handy with his fists. The scenes where he mixes it up with his sworn enemies, the malevolent Redcoats, are, to my mind, those in which Kaptan Swing most convincingly demonstrates its reason for being.

And speaking of the Redcoats, what magnificent enemies they are, resplendently sheathed in uniforms that consist of red long johns with baggy white Japanese schoolgirl socks pulled up to their knees, topped off with pointy felt hats that have shiny gold paper decorations and straw-like bright orange hippie wigs flowing out from underneath them. Their commanding officers are afforded a little more dignity, but still have to wear gray wigs that make it look like they have cats sleeping on their heads. The whole look is so gloriously absurd that I was instantly overcome with delight every time these guys showed up on screen, immediately forgetting whatever agonies I’d suffered at the hands of Sad Owl, Mr. Bluff and their stupid dog. I did some fruitless searching around to see if I could determine what the inspiration for this particular interpretation of period military attire was (they most closely resemble the uniforms of German Hessian soldiers, who played a major role in the American Revolution on the side of the English), but, whatever the case, the end result is that these soldiers look like a cross between overgrown elves and backup dancers in a grade school production of The Nutcracker. There’s definitely a concept at work there, but I’m afraid there’s a language barrier, an ocean, and thirty-odd years between me and any clear understanding of what it was.

The plot of Kaptan Swing, what there is of it, struck me as a bit odd, because it involves the apparent death of a character who has a major recurring role in the comic. That seemed like a pretty bold move — impossible coming out of Hollywood, where the potential for a sequel is always a consideration — but judging from my previous experience with Turkish cinema and its unpredictable ways, not an inconceivable one. As such, we see Mr. Bluff going off to meet with a clandestine shipment of supplies for the Wolves, only to be betrayed by the cowardly village miller — who is in cahoots with a bunch of mangy pirates — and turned over to the Redcoats. The British commander is desperate to uncover the Wolves’ supply route, and so has Bluff tortured and, when he won’t give up the information, executed by a firing squad… or, at least, as I said, apparently so. From this point, the rest of Kaptan Swing plays out as a revenge drama, with Swing and Sad Owl trying to find out who among the villagers is the traitor while clashing repeatedly with the evil commander and his vicious army of witchy-haired soldiers. What the pirates have to do with anything, I have no idea, but their dutiful accessorizing with all of the appropriate eye patches, hook hands and colorful scarves adds nicely to the movie’s eccentric sartorial stew.

In addition to his loyal crew of tiresome oafs, Swing also has at his side his busty perpetual fiance Betty, who is portrayed here by the winsome Gulgun Erdem, an actress who we last saw in Iron Claw, the Pirate, and who also appeared in the awesome sounding Superman vs. Fantomas, as well as many dozens of other Turkish actioners. At first it seems that Betty is only on hand to provide eye candy, as she spends much of the film’s first half dancing suggestively around the campfire for the benefit of Swing and his men and carting around an impressive pair of jugs. As the story progresses, however, Betty proves, in the best Turkish cinema tradition, to be quite a fighter in her own right, taking on a somewhat pointless undercover mission that involves her dressing as an Indian squaw and ultimately leading a climactic charge that saves the hide of the hopelessly outgunned Swing.

As far as technical execution, Kaptan Swing is pretty much standard issue for the hastily made Turkish pop films of its day. The camera work is mostly utilitarian, primarily concerned with simply making sure that all of the action remains in frame, but providing the occasional, composed-looking shot to startle you into the realization that the person behind the lens might actually have had some artistic aspirations. Director Tunc Basaran would have come to the project well prepared, having already directed a couple of Westerns, as well as numerous films adapted from other sources, such as the first Tarkan film and the notorious Turkish version of The Wizard of Oz. Like any Turkish director worth his salt, he’s adept at filming action, and would get a better opportunity to showcase that strength a couple years later in the sleazy and highly enjoyable superhero romp Demir Yukruk: Devler Geliyor (aka Iron Fist: The Giants are Coming).

I have to admit that violent costumed crusader movies like Demir Yukruk are pretty much my meat when it comes to Turkish films, which doesn’t predispose me to championing a less fanciful entry like Kaptan Swing. Though don’t get me wrong; it is fanciful. Unless things get far worse than they already are, this is a film that has precious little chance of ever being shown to a high school American history class. It’s just that I prefer my Turkish films to feature swinging masked heroes with scantily clad female sidekicks, also-masked sadistic villains, and just the one usual, only intermittently appearing comic relief character (hey, I’m not asking for miracles). Still, those Redcoats were pretty amazing. I wonder if there was ever a movie where Kilink fought them. Onar?

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