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Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Türkiye, June 14, 2023 (Photo by IHA Photo)
By Koray Erdogan
Jul 5, 2024 5:03 PM

Istanbul, with its historical texture, cultural richness, and unique geography, has attracted the interest of many foreign filmmakers. From Hollywood to European cinema, numerous films have been shot on the streets of Istanbul, its historical landmarks, and the breathtaking views of the Bosphorus.

However, some perceptions created through these films are controversial. Particularly, efforts to liken Istanbul and Türkiye more to the Middle East create an image that misrepresents both Istanbul and the Middle East negatively, portraying the latter inaccurately and with a poor portrayal.

One notable aspect in these films is the portrayal of Istanbul more akin to a Middle Eastern city. The use of yellow and sepia tones in cinematography tends to liken Istanbul and Türkiye more to desert countries. These visual choices overshadow the country’s modern and multifaceted nature, presenting viewers with a misleading perception.

How does Türkiye’s depiction in these films affect the audience?

Such depictions not only misrepresent Istanbul but also contribute to portraying all Middle Eastern countries as underdeveloped and primitive. This reinforces prejudices against the region and creates a false image in viewers’ minds. In reality, Istanbul is a much more complex and advanced city with its modern structures, advanced technology use, and cultural diversity.

We have compiled films shot in Istanbul for you. Here are 24 foreign films featuring scenes shot in Istanbul from 1936 to present day.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
“The Secret of Stamboul” movie poster (Photo by Posterlounge)

“The Secret of Stamboul” (1936) – IMDb 6.0

Released in 1936, “The Secret of Stamboul” is an adaptation of David Wheatley’s novel “The Eunuch of Stamboul.”

The film follows a British agent who arrives in Istanbul to prevent a revolution. Directed by Andrew Morton, the movie stars Valerie Hobson, James Mason, and Frank Vosper.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
Theatrical poster for the American release of the 1943 film “Journey into Fear” (Poster by William Rose)

“Journey Into Fear” (1943) – IMDb 6.5

Released in 1943, “Journey Into Fear” is an adaptation of Eric Ambler’s novel of the same name. Directed by Orson Welles, the film stars Joseph Cotten, Dolores del Río, Ruth Warrick, and Orson Welles, who also appears in the role of Colonel Hakki.

The story follows an American engineer in Türkiye who becomes a target of Nazi spies.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
Scene from the movie “Background to Danger” (Photo by IMDb)

“Background to Danger” (1943) – IMDb 6.4

Released in 1943, “Background to Danger” is an adaptation of Eric Ambler’s 1937 novel “Uncommon Danger.” The film revolves around a German spy ring planning to spread a false rumor that Russia, at war with Germany, intends to invade neutral Türkiye to form an alliance with the Nazis.

Directed by Raoul Walsh, the movie stars George Raft, Brenda Marshall, Sidney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
Victor Francen, Georges Metaxa and Zachary Scott in “The Mask of Dimitrios” (Photo by IMDb)

“The Mask of Dimitrios” (1944) – IMDb 7.2

Adapted from Eric Ambler’s 1939 novel of the same name, the film “The Mask of Dimitrios” was released in 1944 and directed by Jean Negulesco. The film stars Sydney Greenstreet, Zachary Scott, Faye Emerson, Peter Lorre, and Victor Francen.

The story follows Cornelius Leyden, a Dutch writer, who becomes intrigued by the story of Dimitrios Makropoulos after his body washes ashore in Istanbul. Leyden decides to trace Dimitrios’s career across Europe to learn more about him.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
Michael Rennie in “Five Fingers” (Photo by IMDb)

“Five Fingers” (1952) – IMDb 7.6

Released in 1952, the film “Five Fingers” is adapted from the book “Operation Cicero” by embassy clerk Moyzisch, which recounts the Cicero affair from the German perspective. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the film stars James Mason, one of the most famous actors of the era.

The movie features extensive outdoor scenes shot in the streets of Ankara and Istanbul, providing numerous glimpses of Türkiye in 1952. Viewers can see locations such as the Galata Bridge, the Grand Bazaar, Haydarpasa, the backstreets of Ankara and Istanbul, Ankara Station, and various embassy buildings and streets. The story revolves around a German spy, code-named Cicero, who leaks secret documents while working at the British Embassy in Ankara.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
“Istanbul” movie poster (Photo by IMDb)

“Istanbul “(1957) – IMDb 6.1

The film revolves around a diamond smuggler who returns to Istanbul after five years. While there, he rekindles an old romance and begins to search for the diamonds he was involved with in previous smuggling operations. Directed by Joseph Pevney, the movie stars Errol Flynn, Cornell Borchers, John Bentley, Nat King Cole, Torin Thatcher, and Roland Varno. It was released in 1957.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
“Tintin and Mystery the Golden Fleece” (Photo from “Tintin and Mystery the Golden Fleece” movie)

“Tintin and Mystery the Golden Fleece” (1961) – IMDb 6.1

The 1961 French adventure film, originally titled Tintin et le mystere de la Toison d’Or, was released in English-speaking countries under the title Tintin and the Golden Fleece.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
“Tintin and Mystery the Golden Fleece” (Photo from “Tintin and Mystery the Golden Fleece” movie)

The film was directed by Jean-Jacques Vierne from a screenplay co-written by Andre Barret and Remo Forlani, based on Herge’s cartoon hero Tintin. Starring Jean-Pierre Talbot and Georges Wilson, the film is partly set in Türkiye, particularly in Istanbul.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
Sean Connery and Daniela Bianchi in Istanbul (Photo from “From Russia With Love” movie)

“From Russia With Love” (1963) – IMBb 7.3

Directed by Terence Young, starring Sean Connery, Pedro Armendariz, Lotte Lenya, and Robert Shaw, this film follows James Bond as he is sent to Istanbul to steal a cryptographic device from the Russian consulate. However, the mission is actually a trap set by Bond’s arch-enemy, S.P.E.C.T.R.E., seeking revenge for the death of their agent, Dr. No. The film, released in 1963, features scenes shot in Istanbul and includes Turkish characters, as well as the famous Orient Express train as a setting.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
“America, America” (Photo from “America, America” movie)

“America, America” (1963) – IMDb 7.7

Released in 1963, this film stars Frank Wolff, Lou Antonio, and John Marley. Directed by the renowned filmmaker Elia Kazan, the movie is based on his uncle’s story and depicts the challenges faced by minorities living in Anatolia in the early 1900s.

In the film, Kazan’s father gives all the family wealth to him and sends him to Istanbul. The young man hopes to make money there and eventually bring his family over, but his ultimate dream is America. The story chronicles the journey from Anatolia to America.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
Francoise Brion and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze in “L’immortale”, Istanbul, Türkiye (Photo from “L’immortale” movie)

“L’immortale” (1963) – IMDb 7.2

Released in 1963, this film directed by Alain Robbe-Grillet stars Francoise Brion, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Guido Celano, and Sezer Sezin. Set against the dark nights of Istanbul streets, it intertwines the paths of a mysterious man and woman, leading to a climax when the man falls in love with the woman.

Meanwhile, another man involved in shady dealings kidnaps helpless women in the depths of prostitution. As their paths cross, an intriguing tableau emerges.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
Maximilian Schell, Peter Ustinov, and Gilles Segal in “Topkapi”, Istanbul, Türkiye (Photo from “Topkapi” movie)

“Topkapi” (1964) – IMDb 6.9

Released in 1964, the film is adapted from Eric Ambler’s novel “The Light of Day.” It follows a small-time con artist with passport issues who gets involved with a first-class jewel thief gang planning to rob the Topkapı Palace Museum in Istanbul.

Turkish intelligence, suspecting arms smuggling, intervenes, and the pressured con artist finds himself embroiled in unimaginable stakes. Directed by Jules Dassin, the film stars Melina Mercouri, Peter Ustinov, Maximilian Schell, and Ege Ernart.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
Sean Connery and Vanessa Redgrave in “Murder on the Orient Express”, Istanbul, Türkiye (Photo from “Murder on the Orient Express” movie)

“Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – IMDb 7.2

Directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, and Sean Connery, this film is adapted from Agatha Christie’s novel of the same name. Released in 1974, it revolves around a murder aboard the famous Orient Express running from Istanbul to Paris in the 1930s.

An American millionaire is found dead on the train, and among the passengers is the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. With the train stuck in snow, Poirot has a few hours to solve the murder before local authorities intervene.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
John Seru in “The World Is Not Enough”, Istanbul, Türkiye (Photo from “The World Is Not Enough” movie)

“The World Is Not Enough” (1999) – IMDb 6.4

Released in 1999, the film is directed by Michael Apted. Robert King, a wealthy oil tycoon, is assassinated in an international terrorist attack. James Bond, tasked with protecting Robert’s beautiful daughter Elektra from potential threats, travels to the Caspian Sea and Istanbul to stop the terrorist.

Alongside his archenemy Christmas Jones, Bond embarks on a deadly struggle aboard a nuclear submarine lurking in the depths of the Istanbul Strait. Starring Pierce Brosnan, Robert Carlyle, Sophie Marceau, and Denise Richards.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
Jackie Chan in “The Accidental Spy”, Istanbul, Türkiye (Photo from “The Accidental Spy” movie)

“The Accidental Spy” (2001) – IMDb 5.8

Buck leads a simple life working as a salesman in a sports shop. Secretly a thrill-seeker, Buck imagines himself in various adventures during his spare time. One day, he follows two suspicious individuals and discovers their attempt to rob a jeweler. He intervenes to stop the crime and afterward meets Liu, a private detective.

Liu expands Buck’s horizons about his own identity. Directed by Teddy Chan and starring Jackie Chan, the Hong Kong martial arts action film was shot in Istanbul in 2000.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
Georges Corraface in “A Touch of Spice”, Istanbul, Türkiye (Photo from “A Touch of Spice” movie)

“A Touch of Spice” (2003) – IMDb 7.5

Directed by Tassos Boulmetis, this 2003 Greek-Turkish co-production stars Georges Corraface, Ieroklis Michaelidis, Bașak Koklukaya, and Tamer Karadagli. Raised as a superb chef after migrating with his family to Greece during childhood, Fanis uses his culinary skills to enrich the lives of those around him for many years.

After 35 years, he returns from Athens to his birthplace Istanbul to reunite with his grandfather and first love, realizing he neglected the spice of his own life all these years.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
Timothy Olyphant and Olga Kurylenko in “Hitman”, Istanbul, Türkiye (Photo from “Hitman” movie)

“Hitman” (2007) – IMDb 6.2

Released in 2007, this film is based on the popular video game “Hitman.” Its protagonist, Agent 47, is a trained professional assassin whose strongest weapons are his aggressive nature and unwavering determination.

Trapped in Eastern Europe, Agent 47 seeks to uncover those behind his forced exile, pursued by Interpol and the Russian military. Directed by Xavier Gens, the film stars Timothy Olyphant, Dougray Scott, Robert Knepper, and Olga Kurylenko.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
Clive Owen in “International”, Istanbul, Türkiye (Photo from “International” movie)

“International” (2009) – IMDb 6.5

Directed by Tom Tykwer and released in 2009, the film follows Louis Salinger, an obsessive Interpol agent, and Eleanor Whitman, a Manhattan District Attorney, as they aim to bring justice to one of the world’s most powerful banks.

Their investigation uncovers illegal activities including money laundering and arms trading, leading them from Berlin to Milan, New York, and finally Istanbul. Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Brían F. O’Byrne star, with Haluk Bilginer portraying Ahmet Sunay.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
Scene from the movie “The Rebound” (Photo from “The Rebound” movie)

“The Rebound” (2009) – IMDb 6.3

Released in 2009, “The Rebound” is a romantic comedy set in New York City, depicting the unstoppable attraction between a 24-year-old man and his 40-year-old neighbor. Sandy, a beautiful woman and mother of two, discovers her seemingly perfect world shattered when she learns her husband has been unfaithful. Confronting this painful truth, she moves to New York with her two children to start anew.

There, at the lowest point in her life, she meets Aram Finkelstein, a recent university graduate who was recently abandoned by his French wife whom he married solely to obtain a green card. This optimistic and romantic young man struggles to maintain his faith in life. Directed by Bart Freundlich, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Justin Bartha.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
Svetlana Khodchenkova in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”, Istanbul, Türkiye (Photo from “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” movie)

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (2011) – IMDb 7.0

Directed by Tomas Alfredson and released in 2011, the film is based on John le Carré’s novel of the same name. George Smiley, a retired British spy who was once right-hand man to Control, is discreetly rehired by the government.

Suspicions arise within the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) that there is a mole working for the Soviet Union. Smiley embarks on a journey of betrayal, spanning from Budapest to Istanbul, to restore his reputation by protecting the cast-aside hunters. The film features Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
Daniel Craig in in “Skyfall”, Istanbul, Türkiye (Photo from “Skyfall” movie)

“Skyfall” (2012) – IMDb 7.8

During the filming of the last movie in the James Bond series, “Skyfall,” directed by Sam Mendes, starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, and Javier Bardem, MI6 suffers a serious attack that shakes the foundations of the institution. Agent James Bond, who passes the loyalty test to M, despite heavy personal costs, must find and eliminate the threat at any cost.

The threat is posed by Silva, a daring and mysterious figure that seriously jeopardizes MI6. This breathtaking adventure of the world’s longest-running action film series, secret agent 007 James Bond, unfolds this time around Türkiye, China, and the UK axis.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
Daniel Craig in in “Skyfall”, Istanbul, Türkiye (Photo from “Skyfall” movie)

During the filming of “Skyfall” in Istanbul’s Eminonu and Beyazit, significant objections arose from local merchants due to the closure of large parts of Eminonu to traffic.

The most controversial aspect of the film’s production was the placement of three motorcycles on the roof of the Grand Bazaar and their rides across its historic roof. Initially, trees were cut down and roads were closed to facilitate filming in these areas.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
Liam Neeson in “Taken II”, Istanbul, Türkiye (Photo from “Taken II” movie)

“Taken II” (2012) – IMDb 6.2

Released in 2012, “Taken II” continues the story from its predecessor. This time, the father of the main antagonist from the first film, who was killed by Bryan Mills, a retired CIA agent, kidnaps Mills’ wife while she is vacationing in Istanbul.

Realizing his family is being pursued, Bryan Mills goes on a mission to hunt down those who want to harm his family, with the help of his daughter. Directed by Olivier Megaton, starring Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, and Famke Janssen.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
Ben Affleck in “Argo,” at Hagia Sophia Mosque, Istanbul, Türkiye (Photo from “Argo” movie)

“Argo” (2012) – IMDb 7.7

Released in 2012, “Argo” tells the story of the Iranian Hostage Crisis in Tehran, where six American embassy personnel were captured and held for months. The CIA attempts to rescue the hostages by creating a fake Hollywood production company. Ben Affleck both directed and starred in the film.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, and Dylan Jett in Istanbul, Türkiye (Photo from “The Water Diviner” movie)

“The Water Diviner” (2014) – IMDb 7.0

Directed by Russell Crowe and released in 2014, “The Water Diviner” follows Connor, an Australian farmer who sends his three sons to the Gallipoli Campaign. After the war, Connor travels to Türkiye in search of his sons, starting in Istanbul and extending across various parts of the country.

His biggest supporters on this journey are Turkish officers Hasan and Cemal. The film stars Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Jai Courtney, Isabel Lucas, Cem Yilmaz, and Yilmaz Erdogan.

Foreign films in Istanbul: Historical richness vs. misleading visuals
Tom Hanks, Jon Donahue, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Irrfan Khan and Mehmet Ergen in “Inferno,” at Hagia Sophia Mosque, Istanbul, Türkiye (Photo from “Inferno” movie)

“Inferno” (2016) – IMDb 6.2

Based on Dan Brown’s novel of the same name, “Inferno” stars Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon, a renowned symbology expert. Directed by Ron Howard and released in 2016, the film follows Langdon as he wakes up in a hospital in Florence with no memory of the events of the past few days.

Teaming up with Sienna Brooks, a doctor at the hospital, he embarks on a challenging journey across Europe to retrieve his memories and stop a crazed man from releasing a virus that could wipe out a significant portion of the world’s population.

Films shot in Istanbul present a significant opportunity for promoting the city and the country. However, it’s crucial for filmmakers to portray the city and the country accurately and fairly. Istanbul deserves to be showcased not only for its historical and cultural richness but also for its modern and dynamic nature.

Last Updated:  Jul 6, 2024 1:04 PM
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