The fascinatingly awful Turkish superhero films of a few decades ago

Topics Hollywood | Coronavirus | Lockdown

A small mercy of the ongoing pandemic is that we get a break from the rash of lacklustre yet somehow blockbuster fantasy films that hits cinemas every summer. Hollywood franchise movies, which at first seemed visually enthralling and emotionally layered, are being churned out so routinely and with variations so slight, they have become, as Martin Scorsese scathingly put it last year, “sequels in name but remakes in spirit”. 

So I chose this moment, away from Marvel, DC and Disney, to check out more vintage and unique alternatives from the same general realm. Starting in the late 1960s, Turkey produced a number of low-budget, high-octane superhero and adventure movies. These have since achieved cult status for being bad knockoffs but were often far more original than people give them credit for. 

I learnt about the flashy experiments only two years ago when the film historian Ed Glaser began touring with his restoration of 1982’s electrifying caper, Dunyayi Kurtaran Adam (The Man Who Saves the World), also known as Turkish Star Wars. The screenings are not likely to return anytime soon. Still those who have the stomach for unsteady visuals can access VHS copies digitised on archive.org. It was such tapes circulating in the 1990s that made the film beloved outside Turkey in the first place.

Directed by Cetin Inanc, it is counted among the worst films ever made, which is another way of calling it avant-garde. When a natural disaster wrecked their set and budget, the lawyer-turned-filmmaker industriously spliced in shots from reels of the original Star Wars and documentaries of Soviet and American rocket launches, combined with soundtracks lifted most notably from Raiders of the Lost Ark

A poster from Dunyayi Kurtaran Adam

 
Turkish superstar Cuneyt Arkin, a spitting image of Alain Delon, starred as Murat in the intergalactic odyssey. He must ward off the supervillain Sihirbaz who is in desperate pursuit of a human brain to build a weapon that can finish Earth. Playing Jai to Arkin’s Veeru in this battle was Aytekin Akkaya, fellow action superstar. This was Indiana Jones meets sci-fi. Creatures of every description make an appearance: space aliens, mummies, the undead and abominable snowmen. Part pastiche, part fan fiction and, of course, a commercial hit. 

Of no small fame was its predecessor, T Fikret Ucak’s 3 Dev Adam (1973), preserved on YouTube. A potboiler featuring men in cosplay, no superpowers figure at all. The bad guy, a crazed artefact smuggler, just happens to like dressing as Spiderman. He makes his men wear the same costume to confuse the cops. The detective duo joins in by throwing on disguises — one becomes Captain America, the other an oft-forgotten Latin American hero El Santo. It is rather great to see men in capes taking the cab instead of flying. Star Trek got its Turkish imitation, Turist Omer Uzay Yolu’nda, in 1973. 

The Turkish filmmakers’ inspirations went further than America too, sometimes borrowing from Italy, France and Mexico. But the less said about the region’s earliest comics-related romps the better. There were the “Kilink” films (1967), based on photo books from Europe about a murderous Don Juan in a skeleton leotard, and Bedmen Yarasa Adam (1967) in which Batman and Robin were philandering justice warriors.

Developing indigenous plots around these well-known characters allowed the filmmakers to take the standard action film in new directions. Arkin’s popularity was such that he even starred in the superhero co-productions that the Italian Italo Martinenghi created with actors from Turkey and Yugoslavia. The badgood action films spawned in an era after military takeover in Turkey when directors had to stay away from political themes. By making the excessive violence inherent in the genre look aptly ridiculous, these movies performed something of a coup. A precedent for the self-deprecating humour the spoofs from Malegaon or Deadpool or Thor: Ragnarok would achieve decades on.

In later scholarship, the films came to be nicknamed “Turksploitation” for their exploitation of American pop culture subjects for money. Are Hollywood filmmakers any more sincere when they milk those subjects today?
ranjita.ganesan@bsmail.in


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