If you want to know the origin of the term “genocide,” watch the film The Promise. Literally. The movie is billed as a romantic drama, but it’s really a well-produced, narratively complex story of the Ottoman Empire’s systematic and targeted extermination of 1.5 million Christian Armenians through starvation, forced labor, rioting, and massacres in what is now Turkey.
In fact, the word “genocide” was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, who drew directly from the Turkish government’s expulsion of 2 million Armenians between 1915 and 1924 to define the practical parameters of the term. The Promise, while fiction, does a hauntingly good job of staying faithful to the story of the what is often now referred to as the Armenian Holocaust.
The Promise opens on the eve of World War I. The Ottoman Empire is desperately trying to hold on to power. The Muslim government has allied with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire against England, France, Italy, and the Russians. Anti-Armenian feelings have been festering for decades as Mikael (Oscar Isaac, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, X-Men: Apocalypse), a young Armenian apothecary (traditional pharmacist), decides to become a doctor. But he’s too poor to afford the fees at the imperial medical school. So, he agrees to marry Maral (Angela Sarafyan, A Beautiful Life, Lost and Found in Armenia) and uses her dowry to pay for medical school. He sincerely promises Maral he will return, marry her, and spend the rest of his life in service to his ethnically and religiously diverse village.
In Constantinople, Mikael lives with his uncle who runs a thriving bizarre, mirroring the mercantile and professional wealth generated by many urban Armenians despite legal and economic discrimination under Muslim rule. Mikael meets his uncle’s family nanny, Ana (Charlotte Le Bon, The Hundred-Foot Journey, The Walk, Anthropoid), an Armenian raised in Paris. Ana watches over his aunt and uncle’s two children, her charm and exuberance entrancing Mikael. He falls far her even though she is involved with an American journalist working for the Associated Press (Christian Bale, American Psycho, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises).
Soon thereafter, the Turkish government adopts policies that consciously and violently purge Armenians from the empire. One policy that ensnares Mikael is the conscription of male Armenians into work camps where they are starved and murdered upon completion of their tasks. Mikael’s uncle is among the hundreds of prominent business people and intellectuals who are rounded up and presumably murdered or sent to work camps. Elsewhere, Turkish rioters ransack stores and pillage homes. Turkish troops massacre hundreds of Armenians, burn their villages and towns, and force the refugees on long marches across rugged terrain and the desert to Aleppo.
The film treads lightly on the religious foundations of the expulsion, even though historically this is a crucial component of the story. As an independent nation, Armenia was the first nation to convert completely to Christianity, seeding centuries-long suspicions among Muslims about Armenian loyalties. In the movie, Mikael befriends a well-connected Muslim student in medical school, Emre Ogan (Marwan Kenzari, Collide, Ben-Hur), who actively works to protect him from the government pogrom at great risk to himself and his status within his family. This creative choice to emphasize the secular nature of the government’s purge is likely because the filmmakers wanted to emphasize the theme of religious tolerance, a perspective made clear to audiences in the opening narration.
Reviewers have criticized The Promise because the romantic triangle between Mikael, Ana, and journalist Chris Myers seems clumsy and distracting. To some extent this may be a reaction to what may be construed as “bait and switch” on the part of the filmmakers. The movie’s trailers pitch the romantic tension, not the atrocities that drive the plot (see the official movie poster). The film, however, never loses its identity as principally a story about the opening months of the genocide.
Creatively, the romantic triangle provides a narratively complex way of telling a complicated story to an audience removed from the history and incidents. Individually, the characters are authentic. Isaac and Le Bon seem to have a genuine connection and chemistry on screen. Their affection for each other is well played. Mikael’s story illustrates the emotional and intellectual dilemmas facing Armenians at the time, as he is pulled toward a more cosmopolitan direction in Constantinople but is unwilling to give up the commitments he has made to his family and village. Ana is the expatriate hoping to return to the home of her heritage, a bridge between the modern, sophisticated, and prosperous life that comes with economic success, one one side, and the lure of traditional values on the other. She is the foil for Mikael’s torn loyalties and understanding of self. Chris Myers is the journalist driven to shine a light on the injustices of prejudice and state-sponsored terror. The love triangle gets messy, and the shifts in emotional commitments reflect the exigencies of the moment.
The problem is with Christian Bale, or more accurately, his character. Chris Myers, the AP reporter, is a rough-and-tough front-line reporter. His character is exactly the type that would be reporting on the atrocities to the world, just as the New York Times did every day during the genocide. Audiences, however, are left guessing why the sensitive, passionate Ana has any romantic interest in the gruff, hard-drinking, often obnoxious Myers.
The real danger is that a viewing public so far removed from these atrocities might find the scope of its brutality unbelievable. But the Turkish government did attempt to systematically annihilate the Armenian people, along with other Christian minorities such as Assyrians and Greeks, succeeding in killing three-quarters of the nearly 2 million Armenians living in the Turkey, more than a half-million Greeks, and another 300,000 Assyrians. Entire villages were burned to the ground and their residents were massacred. Hundreds of thousands died on forced marches. The Ottoman government did round up the intellectuals and execute them.
However incredulous audiences may be regarding the historical facts, they will find that The Promise is a well-acted and visually engaging epic. (Its diverse landscapes and sweeping vistas are rendered brilliantly with the aid of digital technology.) The film’s pace convincingly builds toward a climactic and tragic evacuation on the beaches below Musa Dagh mountain, the real-life location of a successful resistance against the Turkish army as it closed in on the fleeing refugees. (The hero in the film, as in history, is the French Navy.)
The Promise is a strong film with enough historical accuracy to make it a natural and worthy complement to any secondary school curriculum on the Jewish Holocaust (along with the novels The Gendarme by Mark Mustian and The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel). The story of the Armenian Genocide deserves a wide hearing, and The Promise does a fine job of telling it. The film serves as a compelling reminder that state-sponsored mass murder and ethnic cleansing didn’t begin with the Germans in the 1930s and wasn’t a simple extrapolation from the political aftermath of World War I. Indeed, the Ottoman Empire foreshadowed its brutality and efficiency twenty years earlier, taking atrocity to a new level in the twentieth century.