Over the coming months, millions of people will gaze at striking images of Istanbul in cinemas worldwide. Perhaps you will be (or have already been) among them? If so, you can skip the next paragraph - but if you have no idea what I am talking about, here it is:
A week ago, Skyfall, the 23rd movie in the James Bond series, premiered in the UK. Not surprisingly, this has caused much excitement: in Britain, Skyfall opened to rave reviews and a box office record. In Turkey its release on November 2nd is being awaited extra eagerly, as the dazzling opening sequence was shot in Istanbul.
While we certainly don't intend to revamp this page as a film blog, I'd like to take this opportunity to write about Istanbul on the big screen, appropriately starting with the occasional visit by Her Majesty's most famous employee and then moving on.
Skyfall starts very fast-paced, with a trademark James Bond car and motorbike chase through the Old Town of Istanbul, taking place mostly in the grand Eminönü Square and on the roof (!) of the Grand Bazaar. It then continues atop a moving train (!) and culminates on a stupendous railway bridge, the Varda Viaduct near Adana (by rights, Bond should be quite tired at this stage: the train ride from Istanbul to Adana actually takes about 20 hours...). Eventually, Bond finds himself on the beach at Çaliş near Fethiye, not far from the end point of our 2-week Cruise along the Lycian shore (predictably, location scouting has already appeared on the press).
Of course, this is not he first time a Bond movie was partially set in Turkey. You probably remember the very striking Istanbul scenes in From Russia with Love, a mere 49 years or 21 James Bond adventures ago (incidentally, we are not counting the non-canonical Never Say Never Again, nor the 2012 London Olympics flick Happy and Glorious with its most unusual Bond girl). The sumptuous views of the city and the Bosphorus are worth seeing again, but even more striking are the riveting chases - this time on foot and engaging the traditional Russian foes - shot within the Hagia Sophia and in the Yerebatan Cistern. They count among the most memorable moments in the whole series.
But no, Istanbul has not been waiting for Bond for all that time since 1963: one more Bond film presented the city. Don't worry if you don't recall: it was the poorly received The World is Not Enough (1999), in which the Maiden's Tower played a pivotal role as part of a convoluted story involving a nuclear submarine.
So, we at Peter Sommer Travels are glad to be able to say that two of our Turkish tours (Exploring Istanbul and In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great) take us to James Bond locations, while a third one comes near one. Incidentally, there is another former Bond set that occasionally crops up in our itineraries...
But let's be honest. Those films, whatever their merits as action adventures (and whatever those involved say), essentially use Istanbul, or any other locale, as eye-candy. The location is just a backdrop, a striking setting for a plot that is not otherwise engaged with the place. For sure, there's nothing wrong with that, but there are other ways of looking at that grand city, at Istanbul on the big screen (or your smaller home one).
In the following, I'd like to list and recommend some further films that offer different perspectives on what is one of the world's greatest cities - plus one that truly is just about Istanbul. (And no, I will not include the infamous Midnight Express, which was actually shot on Malta.)
- Topkapi (1964, by Jules Dassin). Still greatly entertaining, this witty crime story can lay claim to be one of the first lavish cinematic treatments of Istanbul, and also to be a seminal influence on the genre of heist movies. Although attention is firmly focused on the capers of its illustrious cast (including Melina Merkouri, Peter Ustinov and Maximilian Schell), it also offers a nostalgic vista of a much smaller and more slow-paced city.
- Distant (Uzak, 2002, by Nuri Bilge Ceylan). Winner of the 2003 Palme d'Or, this is a remarkable film telling the story of two relatives, Yusuf, an uneducated provincial Turk, and Mahmet, a cultured Istanbul urbanite, on their shared and eventually failing quest to find meaning in their lives. The film probably represents the most significant modern Turkish cinematographic take on the city. Don't let the stark-sounding plot summary discourage you -Uzak reaches impressive ratings from both professional critics and common viewers on Rotten Tomatoes, the internet's most important movie review site.
- Hamam (Il bagno turco/Steam: The Turkish Bath, 1997, by Ferzan Özpetek). Somewhat scandalous due to a sub-plot involving homosexuality, this unusual film is as much about the protagonists' self-loss and discovery as it is about falling in love with the city itself. It certainly offers some well-observed and hauntingly beautiful imagery of Istanbul.
- A Touch of Spice (Politiki Kouzina, 2003, by Tassos Boulmetis). Causing a major sensation in Greece (where it was produced), it tells the story of an Istanbul Greek, forced into exile in 1956, reconnecting with the city of his childhood through memories, personal encounters and food. Its original title is a pun, meaning either "kitchen/cuisine of the City (i.e. of Istanbul)" or "political kitchen".
- Alone (Issız Adam, 2008, by Çaçan Irmak). This story about a failed relationship between two Istanbul urbanites was a huge success in Turkey. In spite of its tendency towards melodrama, it is a compelling film, showing a contemporary Turkish perspective of the city, casting very talented actors and showcasing the potential of modern Turkish cinema.
But my main recommendation has to be
- Crossing the Bridge - the Sound of Istanbul (2005, by Fatih Akın). This is an extraordinary documentary about the musical scene of that amazing city. Akın is considered one of the greatest active directors in Germany (his origins are in Turkey, but he was born and lives in Hamburg. Incidentally, his - very gritty - most celebrated film so far, Head-On/Gegen die Wand/Duvara Karşı, is also partially set in Istanbul). Crossing the Bridge is an intimate portrait of a vibrant and diverse city, unique in its depth and its contagious love for Istanbul.
Conclusion? Well, there can't be one - draw your own. By all means, watch the James Bond movies (two of them at any rate) and then venture into the others if you feel inclined to do so. And please do let us know what you think.
Ah, one more thing. It was mentioned before, but if you are curious about Istanbul, why not try our Exploring Istanbul Tour?