'The Ottoman Lieutenant' is stuck in No man's land
March 11, 2017
"The Ottoman Lieutenant” – When someone brings up WWI in conversation with me - and quite frankly, it is usually pertaining to a movie like “Paths of Glory” (1957) or “Legends of the Fall” (1994) - brutal trench warfare in Western Europe immediately comes to mind. Poison gas, barbed wire and chewed up bodies scattered across muddied fields in a place reserved for hell called No man’s land can horrify the bravest of men in 2017. The Great War (later named WWI) obviously impacted communities across the globe, and with “The Ottoman Lieutenant”, director Joseph Ruben focused on an area of the world not usually associated with this conflict, Turkey.
The year is 1914. Tensions are rising between the Armenians and Turks and war is imminent. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, an idealistic 23-year-old American nurse named Lillie (Hera Hilmar) meets Jude (Josh Hartnett), a doctor, who gives a presentation about his rural mission in Turkey. With a desire for adventure – and some unsaid desire for the doctor – Lillie decides to trek to Turkey to donate medical supplies and an automobile in person and then wishes to stay.
Dr. Woodruff (Ben Kingsley) immediately objects to Lillie working at the mission and gruffly exclaims, “This is no place for a woman.”
Interestingly, throughout the movie, the audience witnesses plenty of female nurses walking around the hospital with no apparent objection from Woodruff, so his stern stance and offhand comment are puzzling.
What is not puzzling is the overall narrative of “The Ottoman Lieutenant”, because despite the potential for layered insight into The Great War’s impact on Turkey, the film instead presents a paper thin love story, or actually a love triangle, in the most predictable and mundane of terms.
The third party in question is the Ottoman lieutenant himself, Ismail (Michiel Huisman), who escorts Lillie from Istanbul to a distant locale in the middle of nowhere, where the mission rests. Immediately, Ismail shows disdain towards her and her idealism, but soldiers follow orders, so he appropriately guides her to her destination. The landscape – filmed in Istanbul and Cappadocia, Turkey – is quite striking, beautiful the eye and feels like a dystopian American western, especially when Ismail and Lillie run into trouble with a band of thieves.
On the other hand, since one can easily foresee that Ismail will steal Lillie’s heart, a serious point of contention will soon exist – and does come to fruition - between the lieutenant and Jude. Over the course of Lillie’s nursing work and thoughts of two eligible men, she carves out sporadic moments of narration to explain the fighting in Europe - and now in Turkey - with accompanying film footage. On occasion, the front page of a newspaper reaches the big screen to outline a tent pole, historical event, but we only see glimpses of fighting on set with the principal characters.
All in all, the film feels like a 1-hour 46-minute television episode of “M*A*S*H*”, in which Lillie cares for the sick or injured and then complains about the war during her off time. The main differences are that the film’s leads evoke zero emotion (for this audience member) and not even five seconds of comedy are spoken through the entire picture. Although, the eventual fist fight between Jude and Ismail in the mission’s courtyard is an eye rolling, comical farce.
Outside of some truly gorgeous scenery and a bit of context on the Armenian/Turkish conflict, “The Ottoman Lieutenant” feels like it deserves a demotion to a made-for-network-television movie. This love triangle moves in just two dimensions and could be easily told during peacetime or war at any time in recorded history. Since this one includes clashes between Muslims and Christians, there are some appropriate lessons which theoretically could be applied in today’s world.
I’m not entirely sure what I learned other than “The Ottoman Lieutenant” is neither an intense war picture or an intriguing love story. Unfortunately, it just feels stuck in No man's land.