The Armenian Genocide
As “The Promise” opens we see a title card that tells us that1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Turkish during World War I. Of late, there has been a renewed interest in the fate of the Armenian people but until I saw the number killed, I did not realize the extent of it and this title card weighed on me heavily as I watched the film. Directed by Terry George, “The Promise” is set in Turkey and follows medical student, Michael (Oscar Isaac), a brilliant guy who decides to have a life with a local girl (Angela Sarafyan) so that he can secure his position at one of the prestigious schools in Constantinople.
He is not really in love with the girl but he has a dream and he needs her to make it come true. He promises to marry her after he finished his exams that can between two and three years. He leaves Constantinople foe the Imperial Medical School where he stays with his uncle Mestrob (Igal Naor) who has an impressive river-side home where he meets Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), the tutor for his uncle’s children. Ana is in something of a relationship with Chris (Christian Bale) a journalist for the Associated Press. Soon Michael and Ana are having a secret affair while Chris is out of town investigating a story. Chris is onto quite a big story and he sees first hand that Armenians are being rounded up and killed. These tensions soon hit Constantinople and Ana and Michael hide in a local hotel. Michael is soon discovered and thrown into prison and forced into slave labor and Ana returns to Chris to help other family members during the troubles. When Michael escapes, he must do everything he can to survive, and he has to make personal choices for the greater good as the genocide increasingly intensifies.
The film is a romance about a love triangle with a woman caught between the two leading men. It is impossible not to see the horror that is happening around the three characters. There is also the commanding presence of Isaac and Le Bon that add to what the movie has to say. However, the film is somewhat old-fashioned in that it is bloated.
It all begins in 1914, in the little village in southern Anatolia where Michael an Armenian apothecary, becomes betrothed to a young woman so he can use her dowry to study medicine in the capital of Turkey. He is supposed to return to his future bride when his studies are over. However, the big city offers way to much for him to leave. Ana is a Paris-educated Armenian who is serving as a tutor for the young girls of the Armenian family where Michael lives during his studies. At the medical college, Michael becomes fast friends with a young Turkish student who is only studying medicine so his father doesn’t make him enlist in the army.
Shortly after Michael’s arrival, the Ottoman Empire joins the Central Powers, and the city erupts into chaos as Turks begin rounding up any and all Armenians—starting with the intelligent and influential. It is then that Michael is arrested and where he witnesses some of the horrors of genocide firsthand.
The first half of the film or so is actually a quite effective historical drama and we clearly see the lines of tension and familiarity among the various Armenians and Turks in the big city. When the film on the love triangle between Michael, Ana, and Chris, it slows down and seems to lose direction. “The Promise” succeeds in fits and starts (there are moments when it’s really good, really interesting, and really emotional and there are moments when it’s very boring). The performances are quite good, however and Isaac is excellent throughout.
The Armenian genocide is a very important point of history, and while this kind of romantic epic worked well in the past, there are far more interesting ways of telling such a vital true story. The “soapy” aspects of the film deter focus from the real horrors that are ongoing, and while this cast shines when given serious emotional moments, these moments are few and far between. The film struggles to find an ending and the result is a feeling of listlessness during what should be an intense and emotional conclusion.
Armenian Genocide was indeed a genocide, and thus has a special, terrible place in human history all its own. In fact, the word genocide was coined by a Raphael Lemkin precisely in response to the Armenian genocide.. The United States has not yet formally recognized the Armenian genocide and neither has the United Kingdom, nor Israel nor many other countries. The countries that do formally recognize the Armenian genocide have only done so in the last 20 years even though it occurred in 1915 (though, the events directly leading up to the genocide began far earlier, and killings took place until 1923).
The Armenians were a Christian people living primarily in eastern Anatolia and had long been the subject of Ottoman abhorrence because of religious and ethnic tensions. In 1914, and the Ottoman Empire was newly under the control of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), otherwise known as the Young Turks. The CUP was a Western oriented, modernizing movement and it was still decidedly anti-Armenian. When World War I broke out, the CUP leadership saw the global chaos as the perfect cover to carry out their campaign of extermination. While scholars continue to debate exactly when the events of the Armenian Genocide began, it is widely agreed that the genocide proper began around April, 1915.
Unlike the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide was not rigidly structured, mechanized or an industrial effort. Instead, the killings mainly took the form of death marches, in which Armenians were forced from their homes for “relocation” and were then marched through the Empire until they perished from exhaustion, disease, exposure, or starvation. There were also more straightforward mass killings by the Ottoman military as well as bands of mobile executioners. Those Armenians that weren’t killed were used as slave labor (and then murdered), sold into sex slavery, or forcibly converted to Islam.
When the genocide finally ended in 1923, about 1.5 million Armenians had been killed or displaced, the region of Armenia almost entirely purged of its historic people. The genocide destroyed 75% of the entire Ottoman-Armenian population.
This is the background of “The Promise.” The atrocities to come are hinted at in the beginning of the film, but seem to materialize out of nowhere. It is well known that Hitler was an admirer of the Armenian Genocide, but what is less known is that the Germans were highly complicit in its perpetration, having had knowledge of the events and the requisite control over the Ottoman military and government. Ana and Michael fall in love just as the roundups of prominent Armenian intellectuals and businessmen begin and Chris travels around the empire catching glimpses of the atrocities being committed upon the Armenian population and reporting back to America.
As a story, and as a film, “The Promise” is routine, and disjointed with very little context is given for the genocide itself, which is the real subject of the film. Even with its shortcomings, this is the first “big” film about the Armenian Genocide to be released and it is very important. Many people are unable to put a face on Armenia or the Armenian Genocide. Unlike Jews, Armenians are not an especially visible group in popular culture. We are reminded of what of Joseph Stalin’s famous quotes— “the death of one person is a tragedy, the death of one million is a statistic.” This lends credence and importance to this film.