This Turkish funded American film with a 1960 vibe is still full of follow-your-dream, woman power and on-the-same-page sexuality. The romance of the film suffers with this modern touch. Our idealistic heroine seems a tad bratty and our handsome Ottoman lieutenant seems to miss a thrust when he asks if she is certain that intimacy is what she wants. But, I get ahead of our somewhat silly tale.
1914 is our setting. First, we are in Philadelphia, which is portrayed as anything but the city of brotherly love. Our young American, Lillie Rowe ( Hera Hilmar ) has informed her wealthy parents that she is sickened by the injustice heaped on Black Americans , and she is going to follow a young doctor ( Josh Hartnett ) to Turkey to give the mission where he practices nursing services and medical supplies , including her dead brother’s motorized truck. Why Lillie is adamant about crossing seas and ministering in a foreign clime is unclear. “Mother, I will sail to Istanbul! I have booked the passage.” is all the detail we get. Certainly, it is not just because of Dr. Jude, who will soon be thrown over for Ismail, the dashing Ottoman lieutenant, who will escort her through the dangerous terrain.
A fast two months of boats, trains, horses, the motorized truck, and walking gets Lillie to Anatolia, on the Eastern Front, right before the start of WWI. Her military escort in Turkey is our lieutenant. He tells her that she can not be in the men’s section of the train car. There are customs that need to be observed.
As a period piece there are lots of flaws, but the action keeps coming and they escape when bandits steal the supplies and resurface to sell them at the twenty-four bed mission hospital. Here, we meet Dr. Woodruff ( Ben Kingsley) and see the jealousy between Jude and Ismail. Jude warns Lillie, ” He is not your friend. He is here to gather information.” Jude has been hiding guns in the chapel for the Christian Armenians.
Music by Geof Zanelli pushes our emotions Dr. Zivago style, though there is no Lara’s theme to identify. Lillie’s protector is our handsome soldier ( Michael Huisman ) who provides the love triangle, pitting doctor against warrior.
The cinematography is wide-angle lush and, at times, stirring. Horseback rides through waving wheat fields, mountain surrounded lakes, and sweeping clouds fill many scenes. Istanbul’s mosques, markets and harbors are equally emotionally drawing.
The battles are not large, but more like small bands of Christian Armenian villagers against a few Imperial Ottoman soldiers. The picture has been criticized for down-playing what became one of the first studied genocides of the modern world. Here, our Muslim officer metes out fair release instead of certain death.
Ben Kingsley, as Dr. Woodruff, provides the father figure for the young clinic workers. He had set up the foreign hospital with his wife, and he has lost her to the cause. He uses ether to drug himself to sleep. He understands love and loss, and recognizes that Lillie has fallen deeply in love with the Ottoman lieutenant. Neither does he miss the fact that Jude has fallen in love with Lillie.
“The Ottoman Lieutenant” seems like a throwback to the past while trying to change our knowledge of it. Note the ironic Christian doctor Jude’s fight scene, but don’t expect to get a true history from this film. American Director Joseph Ruben and writer Jeff Stockwell had their focus elsewhere. The flashback narration only tells us how Lillie was changed by the world she so heartily wished to change.