Let’s say you had to make up a list of historical moments that might serve as grand backdrops for sweeping, old-fashioned, Hollywood-style romantic dramas. How high would you rank the Armenian Genocide? How high would you rank any genocide? Watching Hotel Rwanda, you probably never hoped that, amid the carnage, Cupid might find a moment to arrow-prick the heart of Don Cheadle's character. Likewise, as Armenian refugees flee slaughter at the hands of the Ottoman Imperial Army in Joseph Ruben's handsomely mounted The Ottoman Lieutenant, you might wonder why the camera doesn't follow them and bear witness to their fate rather than continue its dogged documentation of the American heroine’s struggles with what my mother calls "kissing problems."
Love, battles, an abscess that, once lanced, spews like a mustard packet stomped on a sidewalk — this movie's got everything except gravity or a sense of emotional coherence. Applaud the vistas as Hera Hilmar’s restless American nurse Lillie caravans across the Anatolian steppe in the years just before the first World War, courageously bringing medical supplies to a remote outpost hospital staffed by the hunkiest and most idealistic American doctor (Josh Hartnett). Let your heart leap as she and Ismail (Michiel Huisman), the lieutenant of the title and that doctor’s rival for her affections, thunder on their horses across golden fields near Mount Ararat. Cover your ears as the score blares in its insistent, tireless, all-caps way that the wondrous scene you're beholding IS IN FACT WONDROUS INDEED.
Maybe you'll thrill a little to the minor swashbuckling of the truck-and-horse chase where Lillie and Ismail are set upon by the bandits that hide in the hills; you'll certainly shake your head when, just a scene later, now bereft of those vital medical supplies, our heroes find themselves alone together in a majestic canyon and take turns flirtily yodeling "hello!" — despite having just been ambushed. That’s not the biggest laugh here; for my money, nothing beats the joyous anachronism of Lillie’s early declaration that “medical science has been making amazing advances!” The script sounds texted, not written.
The Ottoman Lieutenant is all parts of a movie — parts that don’t fit well together. Some of them are lovely, especially the Eastern European location shooting, and a few of the story elements prove heartening in our own tumultuous times. The romance centers on Lillie and Ismail, a Christian woman and a Muslim man, though pretty much the whole of their discussions about their love and their differences comes in this speech: “Were Adam and Eve Muslim? Were they Christian? They shared the same God!” Also encouraging: The story turns on Lillie’s insistence — first in the States and then on the steppe — that any hospital she works in admit everyone. “This is no place for a woman,” the head doctor (played by Ben Kingsley) insists when she at last arrives at that hospital, but do you think for a second that’s going to stop our yodeling American?
Sometimes those parts get strung together by the editors with little heed for transitions. In one seven-minute stretch, The Ottoman Lieutenant vaults from (deep breath) Lillie and Ismail’s first kiss, then to jubilant horseback riding, then to Ismail and the hunky doctor fist fighting over Lillie’s honor, then to the hunky doctor warning Lillie in private not to love a Muslim man, then to Lillie detailing in voiceover the movements of Russian soldiers and the scope of the Ottoman Empire’s targeting of Armenians, then to guerrilla combat with Ismail’s squad pinned down by a sniper. It plays like some TV show’s extended “previously on” opening.
With so much to cover, the actors don’t get any room to make people out of the names and costumes they’ve each been saddled with. Lillie and Ismail love each other because they have movie-star smiles, because the light perfectly honeys the frame that they share, because what else are the filmmakers going to show us — the systematic murder of more than a million Armenians in the valleys around her?
That tragedy looms over the story, but the story only incidentally handles it, in voiceover and archival real-life battle footage, in the occasional glimpse of those refugees, in the revelation that the bandits who stole the medical supplies are in fact Armenian rebels. If you know the outline of the history, that twist won’t surprise you, as the head bandit delivers this beauty as he spares Ismail’s life: “Am I going to kill you? Or shall my Christian conscience restrain me?”
The battle scenes have some wit — one includes the lone beat in the film that surprised me — and Ismail and Lillie’s climactic derring-do, involving the fate of some Armenians that soldiers have rounded up, can’t help but be rousing. But the final shot exposes the poverty of perspective: As the camera cranes upward, above the hospital’s courtyard, we see Lillie dash from gurney to gurney, checking the Armenian bodies stretched out upon them and then directing them with newfound confidence into the hospital. The moment’s not about the lives she might be saving — it’s about who at the end of this grandest of adventures she has managed to become.