Forgotten Soldiers – aka The Mountain (Dag)

Turkey (2012) Dir. Alper Caglar

Whether it is in direct result of, or in reaction to the international success of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkish cinema is doing a fine job in spreading its wings beyond the oeuvre of the celebrated auteur in overseas markets. This includes moving away from the arthouse genre Ceylan favours to embrace other genres, as this tense military drama illustrates.

Forgotten Soldiers opens with four members of the Turkish military trapped in small hideout in a snowy mountain range by a terrorist group who outnumber them greatly. Group leader Captain Demir (Firat Dogruloglu) decides the two young conscripts Oguz (Caglar Ertugrul) and Bekir (Ufuk Bayraktar) should head on to the mountain apex where the antenna is that they were sent to fix. 

Demir and Staff Sergeant Karadag (Mesut Akusta) are to provide cover but are both killed by the enemy snipers leaving the two bickering soldiers to rely on their own wits, skills and each other to survive their journey to the notorious Wolf’s Tooth peak and connect with the help from their comrades without being killed.

Once this film reaches it brief conclusion after just 82 minutes, it is abundantly clear why this unsubtly patriotic outing from director Alper Caglar is considered “required viewing” in Turkish military academies. Even if this wasn’t Caglar’s intent for this film, it is used to inspire future soldiers and incite their sense of nationalistic pride in being willing to serve (and die) for their country.

For the rest of us, it is about two young soldiers with clashing personalities and different backgrounds having to put their personal issues aside in the name of survival amongst a picturesque panorama of snowy mountains, the surface of which are occasionally stained by needless blood spillage. Unlike the jingoistic didacticism of films from other countries it is rather easy to overlook this and enjoy the film what it is.

The backgrounds of the two heroic conscripts are shared in timely flashbacks, revealing their starts in life played a big part in shaping their attitudes and it’s not all good. From this we infer that the message is the Turkish army will turn even the most disruptive and unproductive members of society in an efficient killing machine/defender of the faith. Or you could die for your country and be regarded as a hero regardless of being an unruly hothead in your civilian life.

Oguz comes from a military family, his older brother and late father having already done their service but despite this, Oguz is rather willing to do his. He is also well off so he can afford to pay for a shortened stint which his (impossibly gorgeous) girlfriend Pelin (Gözde Mutluer) would prefer him to so, instead of the full two years. Oquz’s withering and derogatory recourse to this depicts him as someone the audience would enjoy seeing get shot after all.

Bekir‘s life wasn’t so privileged, and possibly as a result (but probably not) explains why he is such a hot head but the description of him being “a bit mental” by Demir in a flashback offers another potential reason for this. Quick to temper, with a savage mouth and a total disregard for others including those with authority, Bekir is on extended service as punishment for the charges of insubordination against him.

Predictably his first meeting with Oquz ended in violence and immediate mutual loathing, prompting Demir to force them to work as part of the team sent on the mountain mission. The bickering doesn’t stop once they become the remaining survivors of their group which is refreshing when they could so easily have seen them buddy up then turn on each other. Instead any newfound respect earned is done so the hard way.

And hard is the operative word as the duo have to navigate not only the unwieldy snowy terrain but also the ever-present threat of attack from the ruthless terrorist group. Shot by a skeleton crew of just eight people, this film was a survival task for those behind the camera too, enduring blizzards on the 13,000 foot high slopes and temperatures as low as -15 degrees. 

It paid off as this was one of Turkey’s most profitable films ever, and even if the heavy patriotic bent to it doesn’t travel so well, we can marvel at the gorgeous photography of the wintry landscapes and the effort of the actors in relaying the palpable sense of dread when being hunted at close range and the inner turmoil when faced with their own mortality in a frightening showdown against a skilful sniper.

The only thing that lets them down however is the overbearing use of music, with Caglar going for an intrusive leading score rather than something sensitive and mood building. For instance, whenever the soldiers overcome an obstacle or wipe out the enemy, a triumphant symphonic anthem plays; elsewhere, a scene where Oquz is being quietly stalked by a terrorist inside the empty radio room, the music swells with anticipation like a 1950’s horror movie where silence would have been more effective.

By flicking back and forth between the present day and the past, elements of each of the characters of the four original team members are revealed which isn’t a bad thing but the fact the best sides of Demir and Karadag are shown an hour after they were killed forces the viewer to try to remember what they like to but the pieces together. And not all of the flashbacks are particularly salient leaving us to wonder what the narrative is.

Having said that, I don’t think there is necessarily anything more Caglar could have done with the story, running the risk of overloading with extraneous material just to suit the conventions of the genre if he had. Taking this into account, Forgotten Soldiers (or The Mountain as it is more commonly known) is a well made film that delivers concise and engaging entertainment about sacrifice and fortitude albeit with a very partisan mindset.