NOTE: An update version of this video essay has been posted here. -Ed
“Deja View” returns with the first of three new episodes! Join me for a look at the Turkish version of Richard Donner’s Superman:
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Superman. You know the guy. Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. And a national icon who fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice… and the Turkish way?
A Turkish Superman? This looks like a job for Deja View.
When Richard Donner adapted “Superman” for the big screen 1978, he and his crew were on a crusade of verisimilitude. Their mission was to make you believe that a man could fly, and to achieve that goal they employed state-of-the-art special and visual effects.
Now the thing about state-of-the-art effects is that they’re virtually impossible for low budget filmmakers to imitate. But if you’re a prolific and industrious Turkish producer named Kunt Tulgar, you’re hardly going to let a little detail like that stop you.
In fact, you might just make a film called “Süpermen Dönüyor”.
“Süpermen Dönüyor” — or “Superman Returns” — tells the story of Tayfun, an alien from the doomed planet Krypton sent to Earth as a baby. He’s raised by foster parents and eventually becomes a newspaper reporter while moonlighting as the titular hero. Meanwhile, a powerful fragment of Tayfun’s home planet has been discovered, and the unscrupulous scientist Ekrem wants it for himself.
“Süpermen Dönüyor” was made during the heyday of Yesilçam, which is the name of the Istanbul street where most Turkish production companies had their offices. But it also refers to a specific period in their film industry — from the 1950s through the ’80s.
Now, Turkey didn’t really have a film industry until the early 1950s, but when it came, it came with a bang. At its highest point in 1972, Yesilçam cranked out nearly 300 films in one year – a staggering number for a country that size. Turkey was, in fact, the third most productive film industry in the world.
Films were written, shot, edited, and released in less than two months. Their budgets were virtually nil, and filmmakers were operating under every kind of hardship. The cinema boom happened so quickly that no one ever tried to create a real workable infrastructure, and to a great extent they were learning a host of trades from scratch that other countries had already been practicing for over 40 years.
So when Kunt Tulgar set out to adapt Richard Donner’s big-budget “Superman” after attending a screening in Paris, he had more than his work cut out for him.
And of course what we get is an understandably cut-rate Superman film, which becomes evident from the very beginning. The movie dispenses with the elaborate introduction on Krypton. Instead, we’re treated to a star field of Christmas tree ornaments and a brief spoken prologue before immediately joining the fully grown Tayfun on the day he learns his true origins and sets out on his own for the big city.
However, in a Superman film you can only cut so many corners. As Richard Donner knew, people go to a Superman movie to watch the title character fly! And that presented a real problem, because expensive bluescreen effects and elaborate wirework were out of the question in Tulgar’s shoestring industry. But without flying sequences he’d have no movie. And he might have been out of luck, were it not for an unlikely stunt man: Ken, boyfriend of Barbie.
“My daughter had a Ken doll at the time, so I used that. My wife sewed a Superman costume for it. At the office, we made a frame and wrapped tracing paper around it. We hung the doll from the ceiling in front of the paper. Then we projected footage of Istanbul onto the paper on a loop.” –Kunt Tulgar
Musically, “Süpermen Dönüyor” is remarkably similar to Donner’s film. And that’s because Tulgar lifted liberally from John Williams’s score when assembling his own soundtrack.
But although “Süpermen Dönüyor” ultimately doesn’t resemble the Richard Donner film very closely, it actually bears an overwhelming resemblance to the “Adventures of Superman” TV series from the 1950s! There’s the rear-projection flying sequences, the generic suited gangsters, the “old saw mill” hideout… and in general a reduction in scale and glitz that speaks to very similar budgetary and schedule limitations.
Also like the show, it’s much less about the main character’s journey to becoming Superman; and therefore it foregos much of Tayfun’s character development in order to get right to the adventure.
None of these differences detract from the film, however. “Süpermen Dönüyor” is a fun little movie in its own right. It’s remarkably faithful to the Superman mythology and is the kind of story you might expect to see in a classic comic book or television episode. For Superman enthusiasts and fans of the unusual, I highly recommend it.
By the way, there’s only one place you should go if you want to see this film for yourself; and that’s Onarfilms.com. Onar has produced the first and only officially-licensed DVD release of “Süpermen Dönüyor”, and it comes with loads of extras, including a whole other film. Every other Turkish Superman DVD out there is a bootleg, so I encourage you to only buy the real deal.
Only 1200 were manufactured, however, so get it now before they sell out faster than a speeding bullet.
Thanks so much for watching, and I’ll see you next time.