‘The Ottoman Lieutenant’: Another Denialist ‘Water Diviner’

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From the Armenian Weekly 2017 Magazine Dedicated to the 102nd Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide

By Vicken Babkenian and Dr. Panayiotis Diamadis

On the eve of the First World War, approximately 170 American missionaries—many of them women—were scattered among the Armenian communities in the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire.[1] By early 1915, the imperial government had imposed strict censorship on correspondence from the eastern provinces. As the deportations and massacres of Armenians began in April 1915, American missionaries were warned by Ottoman authorities against reporting on local conditions.

The theatrical poster of ‘The Ottoman Lieutenant’

In order to bypass the censorship, missionaries began to refer to their reading of literature, and especially the story of “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie” which, many of them wrote, “seems to be so applicable to the circumstances under which we live here”.[2]

Evangeline is an epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, first published in 1847. The poem follows an Acadian girl named Evangeline and her search for her lost love Gabriel, set during the time of the expulsion of the Acadians from Acadia by the British during the Great Upheaval.

It was through dispatches of American diplomats, missionaries, journalists, and businessmen stationed throughout the Ottoman Empire that the United States’ Ambassador to Constantinople, Henry Morgenthau, learned of the deportations and mass killings of the empire’s native Christian Armenian, Hellenic, and Assyrian populations.

Based on these dispatches, Morgenthau informed the State Department on July 10, 1915 that reports from “widely scattered districts” indicated a systematic attempt to uproot peaceful Armenian populations and through arbitrary arrests, terrible tortures, wholesale expulsions, and deportations from one end of the empire to the other accompanied by frequent instances of rape, pillage, and murder, turning into massacre, to bring destruction and destitution on them.[3]

It was not until Americans in the Ottoman Empire began returning home and were able to report freely what actually took place that more detailed facts about the genocide became known. Their testimony can be found scattered in American governmental, institutional, and private archives as well as in many published books. Taken together, these accounts provide detailed evidence that the Ottoman-Turkish government had embarked on a policy of deliberate extermination of its native Christian population. They also provide many instances of American heroism and rescue of the deportees.

This is the geopolitical and geographic setting of “The Ottoman Lieutenant,” a film that attempts to tell a story of an American nurse who falls in love with an Ottoman-Turkish officer. The story it tells stands in stark contrast to documented American testimonies. The film attempts to tell a story that seems to be aligned with an extreme Turkish nationalist narrative, which denies the genocides, portraying Armenians as rebellious, as victims of war, not victims of a wide-scale systematic campaign.

One reviewer, MaryAnn Johanson, rightly condemns “The Ottoman Lieutenant”:

This is a movie that is trying to change the past by erasing it, tweet by enshrining ‘alternative facts’ into cinematic history, and by distracting you from its denial with a nice white lady falling in love with a handsome and honorable soldier. This is a denial of genocide close to a par of that which denies WWII’s Holocaust of the Jews, and everyone involved in this production should be ashamed of themselves for abetting it.[4]

In reality, American women such as Mary Graffam at Sivas, Grace Knapp at Bitlis, Ida Stapleton at Erzerum, Ruth Parmalee at Harput, Elvesta Leslie at Urfa, Clara Richmond at Talas, Harriet Fischer at Adana, Elizabeth Ussher at Van, Emma Cushman at Konia, and others expressed their contempt for the Turkish authorities for their actions against the Armenian population. These women risked their lives to save deported Armenians and to document what they witnessed and heard during their time in Anatolia and neighboring regions.

“The Ottoman Lieutenant” follows in the footsteps of Russell Crowe’s 2014 “The Water Diviner,” an example of erasing the past with the sleight of a cinematic hand. Crowe’s film tells the story of Australian farmer Joshua Connor who travels to Turkey to find his three missing sons, all presumed to have died during the 1915 Gallipoli Campaign. The film presents an anachronistic interpretation of Australian sentiment towards Turkey in the immediate post-war period.

In the film, Connor is assisted by Turkish nationalists to enter the interior of Anatolia, where he eventually finds one of his sons alive and happy in an unoccupied Greek Orthodox church. There is no mention of what happened to the indigenous Hellenes, not even the villagers of Levissi, where the climactic scene was filmed.[5] In the midst of this episode, Joshua Connor helps the Turkish nationalists defend themselves from evil Greek bandits. History records that in a series of deportations ending in massacre between 1914 and 1918, Levissi’s more than 6,500 Greeks were exterminated.[6] Levissi and nearby Makri were the inspiration for the town of Eskibahçe in Louis De Berniere’s novel Birds Without Wings, a prime illustration of how the genocides may be dealt with in a work of fiction. Yet the genocides do not rate a mention in either “The Water Diviner” nor “The Ottoman Lieutenant.”

The film claims to be “inspired by actual events.”[7] The historical record shows that many of the events in the film are misrepresentations and falsehoods. Australian prisoners-of-war had been mistreated in the Ottoman-Turkish Empire during the war, including being sent on death marches. Many were held in former Armenian homes and churches. The Armenian quarter and the Sourp Asdvadzadzin (Holy Mother of God) Armenian Church in Afionkarahissar became the largest Allied POW wartime internment camp. The city’s Armenians had been deported in August 1915 and Australian prisoners witnessed their expulsion.[8]

There is no record of an Australian farmer traveling to the interior of post-war Turkey looking for his sons, aided by Turkish nationalists. There are records, however, of Australians in Anatolia documenting Turkish atrocities against the native Armenians and Hellenes, and providing relief to them as well as investigating Turkish war crimes.

During the First World War and its aftermath, the American and Australian public were well informed of the Armenian, Hellenic, and Assyrian Genocides through continuous harrowing reports published in the major newspapers and journals. Public outrage led to the establishment of a highly-organized international humanitarian relief movement in both countries to rescue survivors. This is the story that Professor Peter Stanley and Vicken Babkenian tell in Armenia, Australia and the Great War (shortlisted for two major Australian literary awards in 2016).

A series of unfortunate events in the post-war period, including resurgent extreme Turkish nationalism under Mustafa Kemal, and the rise of Bolshevism, resulted in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres never being enforced. Sèvres had stipulated punishment for the Turkish offenders and a national home for the Armenians. Closer economic and political ties began to be forged between the United States, Australia, and Turkey, and the Armenian, Assyrian, and Hellenic tragedies faded from public memory, overtaken by the Great Depression and the rise of Nazism.

As demonstrated by the 1978 television mini-series “Holocaust,” film has assumed a central place in shaping public memory. With the active assistance of the Turkish state, some filmmakers are producing works that whitewash the genocides of the native peoples of Anatolia. This assistance includes funding and permission to film.[9]

The Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism, Omer Çelik, stressed to Russell Crowe that the script of “The Water Diviner,” “…which will be shot in Turkey, was important as it showed the common history between Turkey and Australia”, adding that “the Turkish government…would continue to support such productions.”[10] It is this same ministry that omits reference to Armenian, Assyrian and Hellenic heritage in its official publications; perpetuating the genocide.[11]

“The Ottoman Lieutenant” was challenged by the release of another film—“The Promise”. The latter not only provides a more historically accurate depiction of the genocides of Armenians, Hellenes, and Assyrians, but it reflects more truthfully what Americans witnessed and recorded at the time.



Vicken Babkenian is an independent researcher for the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He is the co-author (with Peter Stanley) of Armenia, Australia and the Great War (2016), which has been shortlisted in two major Australian literary awards.




Panayiotis Diamadis is an associate lecturer in genocide studies at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, and vice-president of the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. His research focuses on the genocides of Anatolia’s indigenous Christian peoples, as well as the Shoah.




[1] Annual report of the The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), Board Congregational House, Boston, 1914, 107.

[2] Annual report of the ABCFM, Board Congregational House, Boston, 1915, 81.

[3] Office of the Historian “The Ambassador in Turkey (Morgenthau) to the Secretary of State,” https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1915Supp/d1400.

[4] See http://www.flickfilosopher.com/2017/03/ottoman-lieutenant-movie-review-erasing-past-sleight-cinematic-hand.html.

[5] “The Water Diviner (2014) Filming Locations,” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3007512/locations?ref_=tt_dt_dt.

[6] “The Kayaköy village in Turkey – abandoned during a population swap with Greece, is now preserved as a museum,” Sept. 4, 2016,  https://www.thevintagenews.com/2016/09/04/turkish-ghost-town-2/; Jim Zellmer Kayaköy, “Turkey Panoramic Scene,” posted on March 5, 2013, http://www.zmetro.com/?p=5019.

[7] Diamadis P,  “The Water Diviner: fantasy, not history,” http://www.academia.edu/10278410/The_Water_Diviner_fantasy_not_history

[8] Diamadis P, “Precious and Honoured Guests of the Ottoman Government” in Colin Tatz (editor) Genocide Perspectives II, 2003.

[9] “The Ottoman Lieutenant (2016) Filming Locations,” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4943322/locations?ref_=ttfc_sa_5.

[10] “Russell Crowe meets Turkish culture minister, seeks assistance for new project,” Hurriyet Daily News, Oct. 12, 2013, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/russell-crowe-meets-with-turkish-culture-minister-seeks-for-assistance-for-actors.aspx?pageID=238&nid=56154&NewsCatID=381.

[11] “Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture and Tourism,” https://www.kultur.gov.tr/?_dil=2.

Source: Armenian Weekly
Link: ‘The Ottoman Lieutenant’: Another Denialist ‘Water Diviner’