There have been excellent movies that dealt with genocide. For the Holocaust, there’s Schindler’s List, Shoah, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and Au Revoir Les Enfants, among many others. The Rwandan genocide had the powerful Hotel Rwanda, and for the Cambodian “Year Zero” cleansing there was The Killing Fields. Curiously, one genocide has never been the subject of a movie: The Armenian Genocide perpetrated by the Turks during and after World War I. A million and a half Armenians were wiped out by the Turkish authorities, a full three/quarters of the population. Worse, the genocide became a template for the Holocaust. Part of the reason Hitler thought he could get away with his elimination of the Jews was how Turkey killed off the Armenians with little interference from other countries. To this day, the Turkish government officially denies that there was ever any genocide in spite of overwhelming evidence. Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term “genocide” in 1943 was thinking of Armenia when he did it. Later he explained, “…it happened so many times… It happened to the Armenians, then after the Armenians Hitler took action.”
The recently-released movie The Promise was an attempt to right that oversight. The producer behind the film was legendary businessman and ethnic Armenian Kirk Kerkorian. The movie-real estate-casino mogul hired the director of Hotel Rwanda, Terry George, to work magic a second time to tell the story of how the Armenians were purged from the Ottoman Empire after having been a part of it for five hundred years. (Historic Armenia was in the eastern part of Turkey and crossed over the border into Russia’s southernmost region.) I’d love to report The Promise fulfilled the hopes of Kerkorian, who died in 2015 well before the movie was filmed. Sadly, I can’t.
The $90-million dollar production had the resources, and the locations, set decorations, and costuming are first-class. George recruited an excellent slate of performers, including Oscar Isaacs, Charlotte Le Bon (The Hundred-Foot Journey), Christian Bale, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Angela Sarafyan (“Westworld”), Jean Reno, and James Cromwell.
The problem is the events get lost under a pedestrian romantic triangle. The film offers only the vaguest explanation of why the extermination broke out. It gives no context to the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of modern Turkey, including the youthful Army officers who staged a coup d’état in 1908 to remove the Ottoman sultan and set up a constitutional monarchy instead. (They’ve forever given the name of “Young Turks” to youthful insurrectionists in business.) There’s also little illumination given to the actual massacre, which featured death marches, concentration camps, mass burnings, and poisonings.
Instead, we have Isaacs as the small-town druggist Mikael who manages to make it to medical school in Constantinople by using the dowry he received for becoming betrothed to Maral (Sarafyan). There he lives with his uncle, a wealthy merchant, and comes into contact with Ana (Le Bon), the daughter of a world-renowned musician who is teaching dance to the merchant’s children. Ana, though, is in a relationship with American newspaperman Chris Myers (Bale). It’s both romantic and professional, as Ana is a skilled artist and illustrates the stories Chris writes. Turkey enters the war in 1914 on the side of the Germans, and on April 24, 1915, the deportation of 250-plus Armenian intellectuals signals the beginning of the genocide. (George and his co-writer, Robin Swicord, completely ignore that this coincided with the attempt by the Allied naval forces to break through the Dardenelles, which led to the failed land campaign on the Gallipoli Peninsula.)
The characters are simplistic and unconvincing, in particular Bale who ping pongs between the ugly American and the crusading news reporter. Bale’s character could have been a conduit for explaining the why of the events, but that chance is squandered. The movie also gives short shift to American Ambassador Henry Morganthau Sr. (Cromwell) who did much to alert the world to the genocide and organize relief for the survivors. He’s given one short scene, where his function is mostly to save Bale’s character.
The Promise is a disappointment. Hopefully someone will undertake a novel or a movie that does do justice to this horrible episode of history. The Promise missed its chance.