The character of Kara Murat first appeared in 1971, in a comic strip featured in the Turkish daily Gunaydin. Created by artist Abdullah Turhan and writer Rahmi Turan, he went on to stand beside figures like Tarkan as one of the most popular Turkish comic book heroes of the era. The transition of such characters from comic to screen was a natural one in the Turkish cinema of the day, and it was not long before producer Turker Inanoglu, a friend of Turan’s, purchased the rights to Kara Murat with the intention of doing just that.
That Inanoglu would set his sights upon actor Cuneyt Arkin to portray the hero was no surprise. It wasn’t just that Arkin, in keeping with Kara Murat’s near impossible manliness, was both devilishly handsome and a master of daring stunts, but also simply that the numbers were in his favor. With literally hundreds of films under his belt, Arkin was, by a wide margin, Turkey’s most frequently employed action star. Arkin’s vast filmography included a number of long-lived series, the Malkocoglu and Battal Gazi films among them. The initial Kara Murat film, 1972’s Kara Murat Fatihin Fedaisi, proved to be the impetus for another such series, meeting with enough popular success to prompt the release of sequels on a roughly annual basis up through and including 1978’s Kara Murat Devler Savasiyor. The first of these sequels was the 1973 release Kara Murat Fatihin Fermani.
Like Kara Murat Fatihin Fedaisi before it, Kara Murat Fatihin Fermani is set in the months surrounding the fall of Constantinople. However, despite my admittedly tenuous grasp of world history, I strongly suspect that a viewing of it would be ill recommended as research for an examination on Ottoman history, and in fact might lead you to academic ruin in that regard. As the film opens, Mehmet Khan (Bora Ayanoglu), the Ottoman sultan, is pitching woo to the Byzantine emperor’s beautiful daughter Iren. And here the problems begin. As far as I can gather, Constantine XI never even had any children who lived to adulthood, and here the emperor is depicted as having a whole litter of pulchritudinous female offspring.
In any case, Mehmet and Iren are in love and plan to marry. In return for her hand, the desperate emperor demands that the Sultan call off the attack on Constantinople and tear down his fortress on the Bosphorus. Mehmet scoffs at this proposition, saying, basically, that he will both screw the emperor’s daughter and take his kingdom, because that’s just how the Turks roll. And if you haven’t gathered already that this film –- like all of the Kara Murat films, I suspect – is meant to advertise the fact that the Turks virtually invented the very idea of masculinity, then the soon-to-be-vanquished Princess rhapsodizing over her “Mighty Turk” and swooning at the prospect of becoming an addition to his harem should neatly clue you in. And note that we haven’t even met our titular hero yet.
This occurs when the emperor, enraged by the Sultan’s defiance, orders his guards upon Mehmet. As if on cue –- because it is — Kara Murat (Arkin), the Sultan’s loyal guard, comes crashing through a window high above the palace floor, after which he singlehandedly fights off every weapon bearing man in the place while at the same time demonstrating a lot of flashy acrobatic moves and a flair for creative, physics-defying mayhem. This is the thing about Kara Murat Fatihin Fermani: For the large part, it seems like a fairly straightforward — if historically lax –- period epic, until Cuneyt Arkin comes along, at which point it becomes a showcase for all of his wacky stunt work, whether it involves propelling himself via off-screen trampolines, prop-assisted Gymkata style acrobatics, fancy riding, or doing consecutive somersaults with a chair attached to his butt. The movie, to mix things up, even features a “comedic” fight scene that pops up in a dramatic space where a straightforward one would have served just as well, and, all of a sudden, in addition to Arkin’s carnivalesque shenanigans, we’re seeing food fights and fat ladies landing in old men’s laps accompanied by exaggerated sound effects.
It is after one of Kara Murat’s especially prolific episodes of Byzantine bashing that Nikol (Kenan Pars), the Emperor’s unscrupulous Commander-in-Chief, suggests that a village of Turkish civilians be massacred in retaliation. The Emperor, still hoping to effect a truce with the Turks, forbids this, so Nikol and his men just go ahead and do it anyway behind his back. Sadly, the village they choose is the one in which Kara Murat’s gray haired old mom lives, and what’s worse, she ends up being dispatched by Nikol himself, who takes as a prize a necklace that we have just seen Kara Murat give to her. Soon after, Kara Murat comes upon her lifeless body. Heartbroken, he nonetheless realizes that continuing the cycle of violence won’t accomplish anything constructive, and instead pledges to seek grief counseling and move on with his life as best he can. The end.
Oh, I’m totally kidding. Of course he vows to get revenge.
Kara Murat asks the Sultan to relieve him of his duties so that he can go off in search of vengeance. The Sultan refuses, telling him to sit tight, and instead lays siege to Byzantium, bloodily claiming it as the Ottoman capital while decisively putting an end to the Roman Empire in the process. All of this is depicted by director Natuk Baytan and his crew with as much polish and sense of spectacle as they can muster within their means. This is not by a long shot a big budget film, but it is, at the same time, at least a half step above the impoverished, fly-by-night Turkish pulp movie productions of the 60s. There is a fairly impressive number of extras, some colorful costumes, a generous laying on of gore, and also the benefit of being able to film in some of the actual historical locations, all of which combine into a battle sequence that is, if not awe inspiring, at least not yawn inspiring, either.
With the Sultan’s army closing in, the Emperor and his court flee to the Isle of Lesbos. But in a last act of treachery, Nikol murders Iren, enraged by her insistence upon staying behind and awaiting the arrival of her beloved Mehmet. When he does arrive, the Sultan finds he now has reason to seek revenge himself, and dispatches Kara Murat to Lesbos with the killer’s discarded dagger in hand. There, Murat takes on the guise of wandering adventurer Adam Kosta and, by way of his considerable masculine charms and some conspicuous displays of strength, manages to spirit his way into the employ –- and bed –- of another of the Emperor’s daughters, the Princess Julia. (I believe Julia is played by Meral Orhonsay, who, along with her co-star Melda Sozen –- and in keeping with what was sort of a tradition in casting the female leads of the Kara Murat films – came to the producer’s attention by way of winning a beauty contest.)
Through Julia, Murat learns that yet another of the Emperor’s beautiful daughters, Elen (Sozen), has been overheard plotting with Nikol to seize the throne. He thus sets himself to moving from Julia’s good graces into Elen’s, in the hope of getting closer to learning the identity of Iren’s killer. Elen proves no match for the irresistible man magnetism that is Kara Murat, and quickly falls into his arms, thus sending Julia into a jealous rage. At the same time, Murat pays witness to the brutal oppression that the Byzantines have subjected the island’s Muslim population to since their arrival, which strengthens his resolve to follow through with his mission. The only thing that could stand in his way would be his hosts seeing through his masquerade and realizing that he is, in fact, an enemy in their midst. Which of course happens.
Throughout all of these intrigues, and a staggering number of sprawling fight scenes, Arkin’s Kara Murat proves himself to be virtually indestructible, fighting onward no matter how many times he might be pierced or lacerated. In a moment that presents an interesting parallel to one of Indonesian star Barry Prima’s no less archetypally macho Jaka Sembung movies, he is even captured and blinded by his enemies at one point, yet still manages to make a miraculous recovery. In another pivotal moment, an archer makes a human pin cushion out of Murat, only to have him pluck the arrows from his bloody torso and, using his bare hands, hurl them back into his attacker’s eyes.
I have to admit that, before watching Kara Murat Fatihin Fermani, I had never seen a Cuneyt Arkin film. (And, no, seeing the same few clips from The Man Who Saved the World over and over again doesn’t count.) But now, having seen just the one, I think I can say with confidence that I truly “get” his appeal. The film world has seen plenty of action stars who appear to have bought into their own hype, but with Arkin, alongside the expected overblown machismo and brutality, you also get the kind of good humor that suggests you’re not supposed to take any of it all that seriously. And given the outrageous, circus-like aspect of his physical feats here, that’s a very good thing. Arkin also brings an insane level of confidence to his performance, a sense of cocky effortlessness that serves to lighten the proceedings even when they’re at their most violent or melodramatic.
It also doesn’t hurt that Kara Murat Fatihin Fermani, though a little rough around the edges, is still an incredibly enjoyable film. When we’re not watching Arkin leap somersaults over his enemies, or fling a scimitar across a room with deadly accuracy, the story that we’re presented with is surprisingly complex and involving, featuring a wide assortment of characters with complex and shifting motivations. I think in this way the film is able to compensate for some of the richness lacking in its visual presentation, substituting a narrative generous in its ornateness in place of all of those aesthetic adornments that just weren’t in the budget. As a result, the film achieves some of the epic sweep one hopes for in a well honed swashbuckler, but on a mere ghost of the budget — and the effort made is enough to inspire in the audience the goodwill necessary to meeting it half way in terms of both suspension of disbelief and willful ignorance of some of the more visible seams.
Apparently the demand for sequels to Kara Murat would eventually outstrip the producers’ ability to mine the siege of Constantinople for plot material, and so we got films like 1976’s Kara Murat, in which our hero battled 15th century Chinese coke dealers. (Also, the Italians had gotten involved by this point, which pretty much guaranteed that things were going to get sloppy.) No matter how crazy things got, however, I imagine that Cuneyt Arkin still kept things grounded with his winking demeanor and easy charisma. Of course, after watching Kara Murat Fatihin Fermani and enjoying it as much as I did, I fully plan to find out for myself.