The Turkish Lobby Played a Long Game – And Won
by Dexter Van Zile
How is this for a movie idea?
The inhabitants of six peaceful villages located in a vast, but crumbling, empire receive an edict from government officials telling them to pack their things and prepare for their relocation, which will take place in eight days. Having heard rumors of terrible massacres resulting in the death of their kinsmen elsewhere in the empire and guessing that a similar fate awaits them if they comply with the order, the villagers, who are mostly artisans and farmers, ascend a nearby mountain with the few antiquated guns they own and small herds of livestock.
Atop this mountain, they build a compound to hold off their attackers. There they wait, atop a mountain that looms over a vast sea to the west and a wide plain to the east. They fly banners telling passing ships of their plight in hopes of being rescued.
Soldiers from this crumbling empire repeatedly attack this poorly armed band of villagers, but fail each time to overrun their compound. In one instance, the villagers cause an avalanche to fall down on their attackers in a scene reminiscent of the Red Sea crashing in on the Egyptians as they chased the ancient Israelites into the wilderness. Eventually, the soldiers give up trying to overrun the compound and decide to simply starve them out.
Things look pretty bad for the villagers, but just when things look the bleakest, warships from a powerful navy see the banners. The villagers send out swimmers who tell their story to a ship’s captain. After learning of the villagers’ plight, the captain orders that they be rescued. A battleship lays down a barrage on the empire’s soldiers. The villagers are ultimately delivered to their new homes out of reach of the regime intent on marching them out into the desert to die.
Yes, it sounds like a fantastic story imagined by someone who spent his adolescence playing Dungeons and Dragons.
But it’s true. These events took place on the Anatolian Peninsula in 1915. The heroic villagers were approximately 5,000 Armenians slated for destruction by the Young Turks, the founders of modern-day Turkey. Their rescuers were the French navy and their new home was Anjar, a city in Lebanon.
The mountain where these Armenians made their last stand is Musa Dagh, or Moses Mountain, located in what is known today as the Hatay Province of Turkey. The sea to the west is the Mediterranean and the vast expanse to the east is the Antiochian Plain.
The story is true. It happened.
The miraculous story of Musa Dagh was memorialized in The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a novel written by Franz Werfel, an Austrian Jew in the early 1930s. According to a note at the beginning of his text, Werfel learned of the events while traveling the Middle East. He came upon gaggle of “maimed and famished-looking refugee children, working in a carpet factory” in Damascus. He asked the owner of the factory about the origins of the children and learned they had lost their parents in the “Hell” that had befallen the Armenian people beginning in 1915.
Werfel’s masterful book, written in German, served as an ominous warning of the Shoah that was to afflict the Jews in Europe in the 1940s. It became a world wide best seller despite being banned in Germany, Turkey and France. The Jews who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto read Werfel’s book as inspiration in their fight against the Nazis. The book became a favorite of future U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
Recognizing the epic nature of the story, MGM purchased the movie rights to Werfel’s text in hopes of making a hugely successful movie. MGM never made the movie.
Why? The Turkish lobby.
MGM never made the movie because of a campaign of obstruction by the Turkish Government which to this day has never admitted the crime it has perpetrated against the Armenian people in the opening years of the 20th Century.
In a successful effort to convince MGM to not make the movie, the Turkish government threatened to deny the company the license it needed to show its other movies in Turkey. Turkish officials promoted antisemitic conspiracy theories about the book’s author. In an effort to distance themselves from the story, which so clearly embarrassed the Turkish government, Armenians living in Turkey burned a photo of Werfel in effigy to show their contempt for its author. (That’s dhimmi behavior par excellence.)
To make matters worse, the U.S. State Department lobbied MGM on behalf of the Turkish Government and the Hays Office, created in the 1920s to prevent the on-screen displays of profanity and immoral sexual behavior, participated in the campaign to censor the movie even though the objections to the movie were purely political. In response MGM agreed to show a script of the movie to the Turkish government, but the movie still never got made.
Periodically, MGM prepared to make the movie and every time the news of its impending production hit the trades, the Turkish lobby again pulled out all the stops to prevent it from being made.
Eventually, MGM sold the rights to an Armenian businessman in the U.S. who knew very little about the movie business. He did his best, but produced a disappointing movie that sank into oblivion soon after it was released in the early 1980s. The businessman eventually sold the rights to a company in Germany, which has yet to produce a film. Sylvester Stallone and Mel Gibson (yes, Mel Gibson) have both expressed an interest in making the film, but have been the targets of letter-writing campaigns organized by Turkish activists who want to keep a quality-made version of Werfel’s text movie from ever hitting the screen.
Historian Edward Minasian, documents this long sad story in his book Musa Dagh (Cold River Studio, 2007). In sum, the Turkish government, with help from the U.S. government, was, for decades, able to block the production of a movie by a U.S. company. Minasian’s outrage is palpable – and justified. “A foreign government must never be permitted to stop production of an American motion picture,” he wrote.
Turkey would never allow its filmmakers to be bullied in such a way. Audiences in Turkey are treated on a regular basis to movies demonizing the United States and Israel. In fact, there is a movie franchise in Turkey called Valley of the Wolves dedicated to demonizing Israel and the U.S. An article in Bloomberg published in 2006 reported the following about the first movie of this franchise:
The movie, [Valley of the Wolves: Iraq] the most-watched Turkish film ever, depicts U.S. soldiers in Iraq as brutish and shows a Jewish doctor harvesting Iraqis’ organs for sale. ”
The film is absolutely magnificent,” Turkey’s parliamentary speaker, Bulent Arinc, said after watching it, according to the London-based Times newspaper.
More recently, Turkish filmmakers have produced Valley of the Wolves: Palestine, which demonizes Israeli soldiers who landed on board the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish-owned vessel that participated in the flotilla that tried to break the blockade of Gaza in 2010. Apparently, the movie, based on the confrontation on the Mavi Marmara portrays vessel as ferrying only innocent “aid workers” when in fact, its passengers included jihadis who were looking for a violent confrontation with the Israelis in the Mediterranean Sea.
So here is how it shakes out: Turkey is, with the help of the U.S. Government and the Hays Office, able to prevent the production of an epic movie – based on real-life events – for decades. Eventually, the movie got made, but it was not any good.
Decades later, movies, completely divorced from reality, that demonize the United States and its ally Israel are all the rage in Turkey.
What is wrong with this picture?
Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).