Saturday, November 17, 2007


In the Ottoman Empire in 1908, the ruthless sultan Abdul Hamid II (Fritz Kortner) is in danger of being overthrown by the Young Turk movement, agitating for civil rights and a new constitution. The Sultan lives under such fear of assassination that all of his food is tasted for poison and most of his public appearances are done by a look-alike actor named Kelar (also Kortner). Abdul plots with the head of his police (Nils Ashter) to assassinate Hassan Bey, the leader of the Old Turks, and make it look as if it were the work of the Young Turks. Meanwhile, a Viennese singer and dancer (the very American Adrienne Ames) gives a command performance for the Sultan; infatuated with her, Abdul orders her to join his harem. She refuses until Ashter tells her that her boyfriend (John Stuart), an Army captain, will be in danger if she doesn't relent. The political intrigue seesaws back and forth until it gets out that the Sultan was behind the death of Hassan Bey. Abdul becomes more paranoid than ever and starts to go mad, seeking escape in watching a huge private floor show (which looks like a lot of choppy outtakes from a Busby Berkeley number). In the end, the Young Turks are victorious and allow Abdul to abdicate and leave in peace.

I know nothing about Turkish history, but I can only assume that, as is usual with Hollywood efforts at historical drama, the movie's narrative has little to do with what really happened, though the title character was a real person who actually was deposed by a coalition called the Young Turks. This movie is interesting but muddled--to be fair, the print I saw was a bit splicy and ran about three minutes short of the running time given by IMDb, which might have led to the omission of a few plot points. Just when I was getting the political plotting sorted out in my head, the focus would shift to the rather bland romantic subplot, made worse by the terrible acting of Ames, a third-rate Dietrich. The opening credits trumpet Kortner's dual role, but that device winds up not being terribly important in the film, though one of the best scenes involves a trick shot showing the Sultan and the actor in the same frame, looking at themselves in two mirrors set up diagonally in the background. Ashter is very good as the villain behind the villain, and Esme Percy does a nice job as an oily, obsequious eunuch. Patrick Knowles has a small role (though I did not recognize him here). Some of the sets are quite fabulous. I wouldn't necessarily want to sit through this again, but a restored print would be nice. (Also, the VCI disc I watched locked up for a few seconds at the beginning of every chapter) [DVD]

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