Mehmet vs Vlad, top10 on Netflix in Romania: What holds up and what is historically questionable in this series by a Turkish director

Season II of the Rise of Empires series: The Ottomans presents Fatih Sultan Mehmet and Vlad Țepeș (aka Vlad the Impaler; translator’s notes), a six-episode docudrama by Turkish director Emre Șahin. The film presents aspects of their lives, from their childhood at the Ottoman court to their later development as adults. On the one side we have Mehmet II, who fulfills the Prophet Mohammed’s prophecy of the conquest of Constantinople, and on the other Vlad Tepes, the Wallachian ruler, raised and educated at Sultan’s court.

Mehmet, the barely 19-year-old young man who conquered Constantinople, trained to face political and strategic challenges, seems bewildered that Vlad, his „brother” with whom he grew up, turns out to be ungrateful to the Ottomans, who had taken care of him.

The series begins with a sequence from 1461: Mehmet is stunned by a dream that causes him to fear for his destiny. In the dream, the Romanian ruler kills him in battle. As in Season 1, it is Mara Brancovici who encourages him and advises him on the steps to take.

The film is based on historical facts but is filled with improvised dialogue. From the Turkish point of view, the film focuses on imperial humanity and the role of the Court in developing Vlad the Impaler’s skills and in preparing him to be useful to the Ottoman Empire as a subject ruler in Wallachia.

The naivety of the Turks is typical of the Empire period. They prefer to see the positive at the expense of the facts. On the other hand, the film is closely linked to Erdoğan’s neo-Ottomanist ideology. Through this kind of film, the Erdogan regime has succeeded in instilling in the Turks the pride of the past as well as the desire to return to the heights the Ottoman Empire had reached.

It seems that Vlad II’s decision in 1442 to leave his children as prisoners to Murad II would be a trivial fact. But we should not forget that the fashion for the Ottomans to kill their sons, the brothers of the future Sultan, originated in Constantinople.

The film portrays Vlad Țepes’ brother Radu as a balanced, intelligent, well-mannered, and submissive character. In stark contrast, his brother Vlad appears bloodthirsty and inhumane in his methods of torture. Mehmet II’s thought that „life would be easier if you were in Vlad’s place” presents Radu as a successful experiment in what the Ottomans would have expected of Vlad.

In order to understand the decisions taken in those days as well as possible, we need to take into account the mentality of the times.  Vlad the Impaler no longer pays tribute after his accession to the throne. Such rebellions were common in the Empire. The question arises here: how did Mehmet II tolerate Vlad’s disobedience? The brilliant leader Mehmet II had come up with an innovative technique even for his own army to conquer Constantinople. How could he so readily accept his rebellious nature and still put him on the throne, even though Vlad is portrayed in the film as Mehmet’s ‘brother’?

The Sultan’s clarification concerning Vlad the Impaler and his intentions comes after the Wallachian ruler stops Hamza Bey who has come as an envoy, an intimate of Mehmet II. He ends up impaled.

In the film, Mehmet asks for a meeting in Giurgiu with Vlad Țepeș, which the latter refuses.

Another idea that seems questionable is that after Vlad the Impaler massacres Mehemt’s soldiers, he makes a 500-mile incursion into Ottoman-controlled Bulgaria, where he kills women, children, and men and burns villages.

A first observation would be that Bulgaria in its entirety is not 800 km however we measure it. Then, if Bulgaria was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, how did a Vlach ruler manage to attack and kill everything in his path?

Vlad Țepes is presented as a person who is confident in everything he does! It is hard to believe that he had no doubts about confronting the Ottoman Empire. It was the rising Empire, it was the force to be feared as far as other Empires were concerned. That’s why the phrase in the series „if you want to conquer Europe, you have to defeat me! We both know it will be the end of you” doesn’t ring true. In the film, we then see a scene with a Vlad the Impaler collecting noses and ears, quite in detail: 23 844! Hard to believe…

The second episode begins with Mehmet II’s departure for Wallachia on 26 April 1462 after Vlad the Impaler, disguised in Ottoman uniforms, had previously conquered the fortress of Giurgiu in January.  While Mehmet is concerned for the fate of the Empire, Vlad is a prince who massacres people, even at random.

On 4 June 1462, the invasion of Wallachia begins, crossing the Danube (which in the film is anything but the Danube) and fighting in a 3:1 ratio of combatants. How is it that, since he had spies at the court in Istanbul, Vlad didn’t know about the Sultan’s new generation of cannons? In the film, Vlad the Impaler is taken by surprise.

If Vlad the Impaler was as feared as he is portrayed in the film, Mehmet II could have sent his army without his active participation in the fighting. Doesn’t Mehmet’s presence at the head of the Turkish army show that he didn’t really attach much importance to it?

Another idea that seems modern but is carried over into the Middle Ages is that Vlad the Impaler is credited with coordinating a biological attack during the battle: Vlad the Impaler opened the prisons where the plague-ridden, lepers were and threw them into battle. Can we imagine that at that time there were prisons in Wallachia, where those who broke „laws” were tried and arrested? Lepers were tolerated in prisons?

Some of the lines in the film also raise questions. For example, Vlad addresses Mehmet: I will do what is best for Wallachia. If we become enemies, I will do everything I can to destroy you!  Now, under these circumstances, one might ask: Why put him on the throne of Wallachia?

Other seemingly contradictory scenes in the film show Mehmet and Vlad on the one hand playing together like brothers, but at the same time we see a scene in which Mehmet sits on the throne and waits for Vlad to kiss his hand in submission. What’s more, he helps to install him on the throne of Wallachia in 1456, after he refused to fight on his side in the battle to conquer Constantinople. What magnanimity!

The loyalty of Vlad Țepeș’s wife is remarkable; she prefers to throw herself into the river Argeș rather than be in the company of his brother Radu.

Returning to the final battle between Mehmet II and Vlad Țepeș, he attacks with 10 000 highly trained soldiers. One of the Romanian historians who appears in the documentary part of the film, Andrei Pogăciaș, missed the chance not to criticize his fellow historians, be they old and nationalistic as he labeled them, who argue that the idea that Romanian voivodes brought peasants to fight is nonsense.

The voivods certainly had the so-called „small army”, and in special cases, the large army, made up of all those able to fight, including the peasants, was also used. Or can we imagine the peasants at work in the fields while the Ottoman army passed by?

The Romanian voivodes were causing problems for the Sultan when he had his armies on the battlefields far from Constantinople, to avoid an imminent conflict.

Regarding the comparison between Vlad Tepes and Mehmed Pasha Socolovich or Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, it should be remembered that one became a clever military commander, as the Ottomans wanted, and the other a rebel who plotted against them.

The strategy shown in the film for the final attack is attributed to Vlad Tepes, who has the idea of changing uniforms. It is implied that the uniforms were within the reach of the Wallachians, and in the battle, it is shown the terror of the Ottoman soldiers who see themselves attacked by ‘their own’. Was it only the Turks who were stunned in battle? How did the Romanians recognize each other amongst the Turks?

The film demonstrates how difficult the conquest of Targoviste was, perhaps more difficult than the conquest of Constantinople. The forest of corpses (about 8 square kilometers), 24,000 people were impaled.

After seating Radu on the throne of Targoviste, Mehmet II returns to Constantinople anxious because he had not caught Vlad. In 1477 Vlad’s head ends up on a spike in the wall of the Topkapi Palace, much to the Sultan’s relief.

A key role in the life of Sultan Mehmet II is played by Mara Brancovich who is portrayed as a pillar of stability in his decisions.

An error is the use of the name Istanbul. Constantinople, not Istanbul. It would be called Istanbul only from the time of Mustafa Kemal.

The Ottoman Empire is the continuation of the Byzantine Empire along Islamic lines. The Sultan was also Caliph. Sultans used religion to confirm their political strategies. Basically, the decline and demise of the Empire was this tendency to conquer Europe. Instead of consolidating what they had conquered, they lost their measure, and the further they advanced, the more vulnerable they became.

At first glance, Fatih Sultan Mehmet conquered two empires, 14 countries, and 200 cities. When he took over, the Ottoman Empire was 690,000 square kilometres. The empire at his death was 2,214,000 km2, thre times the size of today’s Turkey.

Some of Mehmet II’s victories: Constantinople in 1453, Amsra in 1459, Sinop 1460, Trabzon in 1461, Konya, Karaman 1466 and the Eastern Anadolu area 1473. In the Balkans, Belgrade in 1459, Peloponnese in 1460, Wallachia 1462, Bosnia 1463, Moldova in 1476, and Albania in 1478.

Also during his time, the Ottoman Empire incorporated the Aegean islands and the Crimean peninsula.

For the Turks, Fatih Sultan Mehmet is a symbol. A conqueror. The man who fulfilled the Prophet’s words, who brought the Turks to the Straits. The man who showed them that it can be done. The Sultan who gave them hope. For today’s Turks, the film shows how hard any conquest was, but also how important.

For us, Vlad the Impaler is the Vlach ruler who tried. Like most of the Middle Ages, the Romanian rulers, even if they wanted to, were unable to hold off a tricontinental Empire. Wallachia, Moldavia, and Transylvania were different entities, and their populations could not stand up to an empire whose army was trained and experienced.

Vlad the Impaler who grew up at the Ottoman court, who knew what the Ottoman Empire was, how did he think he could defeat it? Did Vlad the Impaler stand a chance?

Traducere (Ovidiu Harfas)