Yeşilçam Swashbucklers and the Director who Saved the World

EDITOR’S NOTE: In light of the recent events concerning the passing away of the esteemed actor, Cüneyt Arkın, we wanted to take a moment to pay respects to him. Arkın has worked with Çetin İnanç in the 1982 feature film, “Dünyayi Kurtaran Adam” (“The Man Who Saved the World”) amongst many others. Cüneyt Arkın was one of the linchpins of Turkish cinema, who always gave his all to his performances even when the industry was impecunious, we salute his dedication, passion and unyielding support for the dramatic arts, may he rest in peace and keep inspiring the new generation of Turkish performers.

The rise and golden age of Yeşilçam are accepted to be the beginning of the 1960s. These years saw a great increase in the production of domestic movies and how they became a major form of entertainment for cinema audiences. The annual movie production in Yeşilçam was on such a steep rise that some actors worked on several movies in a single day. For example, an actor who played the emperor of the Byzantine Empire in the morning could act in a melodrama movie in the evening. This meant that some actors’ filmography went above 100 titles in those years. Öztürk Serengil’s anecdote about his exchange with Ingmar Bergman sums the situation up rather well. During an interview with a Swedish newspaper during his visit to Stockholm, Serengil states that he has worked on 267 films, and yet he doesn’t know of Ingmar Bergman. Bergman’s reply to him is even more interesting. Here are Öztürk Serengil’s recollections:

“I was greeted at the Stockholm Airport by about 40 Turkish workers and our press attaché Safter Yılmaz, who welcomed me with flowers. Safter Yılmaz worked really hard to arrange an interview with the biggest newspaper in Sweden. They captioned the headline of this interview “Turkish actor who has filmed 267 movies says ‘I haven’t heard of Ingmar Bergman’ about the world-famous director.” Ingmar Bergman checkmated me the next day by replying with a joke that would become the talk of the town for months: ‘What I didn’t understand is whether this Turkish actor shot 267 films or photographs.’”

In Cem Kaya’s documentary titled “Remake, Remix, Rip-Off: About Copy Culture & Turkish Pop Cinema”, which focuses on the adventure period (“Avantür film” in Turkish) of Yeşilçam, famous character actors of Yeşilçam state that they don’t even recognise themselves when they come across a movie they have forgotten acting in. The Yeşilçam and adventure film megastar Cüneyt Arkın says “If you put the negative rolls of my movies together, you would go around the world twice.” in the same documentary.

Melodrama films dominated this period; however, there was another genre that the Anatolian audiences, especially in Adana, were addicted to. They didn’t get tired of watching the same topics in different scenarios over and over again. These films varied from popular comic book scrips to mafia or even horror movies. The first examples of this genre were the works of Yılmaz Atadeniz; Spider-Man (Örümcek Adam), Il Grande Blek (Çelik Bilek), and even the Italian villain Kilink. 

These superhero movies weren’t accurate adaptations. On the contrary, the films were produced to bring different genres and subjects together like a collage. For example, Batman’s belt and The Phantom’s mask were added to the Superman costume, while Spider-Man, who originally is a good hero, stole historical artefacts and committed murder in the Yeşilçam version of the story. Dracula most certainly stopped in Istanbul while Tarzan travelled in the city on an elephant. Cappadocia could be the main backdrop of Anatolian Western movies. 

Due to the fact that copyright laws didn’t exist at the time, movie makers could use any soundtrack they wanted in their movies and added bits and pieces from other films to their own work. Therefore, these adventure films of the 1960s and 1970s came to be known as quirky collage productions that got the attention of many cinephiles and academicians from all over the world. 

These films also featured local elements. The characters were adapted into the Turkish psyche, and the cultural codes of the Anatolian geography were embedded in them, which gave these films an air of interpretation. As can be seen in Cem Kaya’s documentary, the main themes of an unknown Western culture were directly copied and dressed in local cultural conduct, resulting in an entirely new form. Therefore, these movies transcended the boundaries of Western vs. local cinema. The most fitting example of this is the 1979 movie titled “Superman Returns” (Süpermen Dönüyor) by Kunt Tulgar, who passed away last March. It would be inaccurate to view this film simply as a B-movie because of its bizarre production methods, which included the use of Christmas decorations to create sky visuals, the addition of a Barbie doll that wears the Superman costume, the use of James Bond, Indiana Jones and Superman soundtracks by John Williams, the gaps in the scenario and montage mistakes. I think this kind of approach to the adaptation genres applies rather well to the story of Turkey. How can we adapt to cultural elements that are foreign or adapt them to us? This question is right at the centre of this movie like Kryptonite and raises another inquiry: “What if?” 

In the original story, Clark Kent finds himself with a family living in the rural USA, who would possibly vote for Trump during the elections. Kent grows up with his family’s ethical values—which align with American values—and all of these values remain with him as he saves the world. In Kunt Tulgar’s version of Superman, Clark Kent becomes Tayfun and his path leads him to the rural areas of Turkey. He grows up with Turkish traditions and ethics. He doesn’t like the small village life and dreams of going to the big city to become a journalist. His mother makes him “tarhana” soup (a traditional soup made with a ground mixture of fermented vegetables and grains). Tayfun kisses his father’s hand to ask his permission to go to the big city. The family keeps the Kryptonite chunk that came from the space with him in a lace handkerchief (as is the Turkish tradition for keeping precious things safe). His mother makes him a traditional flatbread called “bazlama” and gives him pocket money before he sets on his journey. Tayfun then obviously saves the world, but his family’s values keep guiding him. This is where cultural translation and interpretation kick in. The local and national Superman’s story has different layers to it.

That being said, both the Academy and movie critics have kept their adventure films genre at an arm’s length for many years. In this sense, adventure films became the scapegoats of the restricting argument about what is high culture and what is low culture. The interest in adventure films was re-ignited in the 1990s. “The Man who Saved the World” (Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam) was screened by the Boğaziçi University’s Cinema Club and received the attention of its members. People discovered these films on digital platforms with the help of the internet in the following periods. A recently established annual festival, called “Fantasturka”, focuses solely on these movies. 

The first detailed work on adventure movies, a book titled “Fantastic Turkish Cinema”, belongs to Metin Demirhan and Giovvani Scognamillo, who recently passed away. Another important work is another book, “Jet Director Çetin İnanç” (Jet Rejisör Çetin İnanç), that is a biography, written by Pınar Öğünç. The first edition of this book was published by Roll Publications in 2006. İletişim Publications re-released this book in the previous years. “Jet Director” is the result of the long and detailed interviews Pınar Öğünç had with Çetin İnanç. 

Legendary adventure film director Çetin İnanç has been immortalised by his cult movie “The Man who Saved the World”. However, when we look into his own life story, we see a director whose extraordinary experiences go beyond his movie. 

Çetin İnanç’s childhood and youth took place in Ortaköy during a period before non-Muslims had to leave the area. Çetin İnanç’s love for movies started with Aydın Arakon’s 1951 film “The Conquest of Istanbul” (‘İstanbul’un Fethi’) and Lütfi Akad’s 1953 production “Ipsala Murder” (‘İpsala Cinayeti’). He would then re-enact these movies with his friends from the neighbourhood. Even though he enrolled in law school with his family’s encouragement, Çetin İnanç wanted to be a football player. He ended up being “in a loose relationship” with his studies, in his own words, which resulted in one of his relatives introducing him to Orhan Günşiray, who was a famous actor at the time. Çetin İnanç initially was an errand boy for Orhan Günşiray’s Office. His acquaintance with Günşiray was his first step into the world of cinema. 

Çetin İnanç was introduced to the movie stages on the set of Atıf Yılmaz’s movie “Curse You Mr. Osman” (Allah Belanı Versin Osman Bey). İnanç was his assistant director for a long period until he started filming his own movies. He was the assistant in the production of important movies in Turkish cinema, such as “My Prostitute Love” (Vesikalı Yarim) and“Law of the Border” (Hudutların Kanunu). He made friends with Yılmaz Güney during the filming of the latter and even shared drinks with him. However, his career in cinema evolved on a different path. 

He found himself in the business of adventure movies due to his struggle to make a livelihood. The conditions to shoot the movies he wanted never represented themselves. In his own words, “he has gone to the dark side”. 

“I found myself on a path when I made an adventure film that was successful. In a sense, I have gone to the dark side. I was shooting and directing films while I was also an apprentice myself. If one of the films doesn’t make it, if a business executive from Adana says, ‘No chance, this isn’t working out’; you would be done for.”

Çetin İnanç’s first movie was the famous comic book adaptation of Il Grande Blek (Çelik Bilek), produced by Yılmaz Atadeniz. Instead of directly adapting this character, he took artistic freedom to reinterpret it using Anatolian cultural elements. He showcased his talent for domesticating comic book characters when he made The Phantom (Kızıl Maske) kiss his father’s hand or when he wrote this character as living in a typical Turkish bachelor house with crystal chandeliers and side tables covered with lace. 

Çetin İnan shot the spaghetti Western “Çeko” with Yılmaz Köksal in the years that followed. He was in the same league Kadir İnanır’s bad-boy movies and Ayhan Işık. İnanç’s main concern was the gross yield of the movies rather than their quality. He adapted the American films he watched in the theatres. Bonnie and Clyde became Cemo and Cemile. He focused on revenge films because he loved the Adana region, where this genre was popular. The themes of his movies stayed the same but the timelines and context changed.

However, his struggles with censorship and economic challenges were never ending. He focused on whatever genre was popular at the time. He filmed religious movies if that genre was on the rise. If the audience wanted movies about folk singers, he filmed them. He even contributed to the famous erotic movie scene of Yeşilçam. He travelled abroad on occasion, for example, he went to Jordan. He worked with the crown prince of Jordan, who dreamt of becoming an actor, and was hosted by the king of Jordan himself in the palace. Not only that, but he shot a local version of the Rocky series with a karate player called Serdar, whom he met by coincidence in Izmir. One of the best aspects of the book is how Çetin İnanç talks about these times in a joking and self-deprecating manner. Pınar Öğünç skillfully wrote Çetin İnanç’s story; instead of an interview, the book reads like a novel.

Saving the World with Cüneyt Arkın

Cüneyt Arkın had a special place in Çetin İnanç’s career. Together they gave life to murderous ninjas, cruel criminals, zombies and Egyptian mummies. They saved the world, hand in hand. Çetin İnanç and Cüneyt Arkın travelled to space and saved everyone by defeating the evil Magician who was trying to take over the world. However, as Arkın put it, they also bankrupted their producer. 

Today, The Man who Saved the World is accepted as a cult movie. It has gained somewhat of a fame as the “Turkish Star Wars”. It is the most well-known movie shot by Çetin İnanç while also being listed in top worst movies of all time. Back in the day, it was a movie young people would watch for a laugh. However, we have recently seen an increasing and serious interest in this movie by the followers of fantasy genre, who have been debating on the techniques used while filming it. 

Çetin İnanç ended up using scenes from other movies due to financial shortcomings. These included scenes from Star Wars, mummies, the soundtrack of Indiana Jones and Flash Gordon. Some people argue that this hybridisation makes The Man who Saved the World a rather interesting film that crosses the boundaries of different genres; an example of pastiche cinema. To this day, Çetin İnanç says he does not have a copy of the film or its poster as he used the posters to wrap up plates and glasses while moving from Izmir to Istanbul. Çetin İnanç shot 134 movies in his caereer. Some, he filmed in a day; some took him a week. His nickname “Jet Director” is derived from this abundance. In a sense, you are reading about the history of Yeşilçam as you read his story. You read about how Yeşilçam couldn’t become a successful industry despite putting out 200 films annually; about how money was never enough to make dreams come true. It is about censorship and about how the military coup affected the cinema sector in Turkey. Above all, you witness the sad story of a director who couldn’t shoot the movie of his dreams in the entirety of his career in cinema. 

“I never thought about what I’d become when I grew up. I used to say “I will grow up to be happy” when people asked. That is why I have avoided everything that I feared would make me unhappy. I never took things too seriously. I am still a dreamer; I still don’t take life too seriously. I guess this worked out in my career. Some people call me “boloney film maker”; life is boloney! Who among us isn’t?”

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