The Promise, Survival Pictures, directed by Terry George, PG-13, 2 hr. 12 min.
In southern Turkey in 1914, Mikael Boghosian wants to attend medical school but doesn’t have the money, so he gets engaged to Maral, a young woman in his village, and uses her dowry to pay tuition. In Constantinople, he meets the dashing Ana Khesarian, who is consorting with American reporter Chris Meyers.
This love quadrangle plays out in fine style, with homage to Dr. Zhivago and Casablanca. The larger back story is probably unknown to many viewers, so The Promise takes pains to spell it out up front.
At the outset of World War I, the Ottoman Empire was coming apart and that was bad news for the non-Muslim minorities, particularly the Christian Armenians. The Ottoman Turks set out to exterminate the Armenians, the first attempt at genocide of the past century and the most well documented. So the filmmakers, who claim an “educational” purpose, had plenty of source material.
As in any Islamic state, the Christian Armenians are third-class citizens, derided as “dogs” and such. One prominent Turk says the Armenians are a “microbe,” and that was indeed the pronouncement of Turkish physician Mahmed Reshid. An Islamic state can’t tolerate an invasive infection, and when war breaks out Turkish mobs attack Armenians and loot their shops and homes. The film does not explain why the oppressors met with such little resistance.
The Turks took great pains to disarm the Armenians, and that left them essentially helpless against their highly mechanized oppressors. The Turks did indeed load Armenian captives into railroad freight cars, as the film shows. As Peter Balakian noted in The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, a good companion volume for the film, the Turks packed 90 Armenian men, women and children into a car with a capacity of 36. That was hardly the only way they perished.
In villages and on death marches, as one witness wrote, the Turks “killed without exception all Armenians.” The Promise shows Armenians hanged in one of their towns but does not show the Turks hanging them. The Turks nailed horseshoes to Armenians’ feet and crucified them while taunting the victims about their savior. The Turks forced men to watch the rape of their wives before executing them. The Promise shows none of this.
The Turks butchered innocent Armenians and ripped the unborn from their mothers’ wombs. Late in the film, Mikael Boghosian says they did that to his wife Maral, but viewers don’t see the Turks cutting up the women.
U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau appears briefly but the film does not include what he wrote: “I do not believe the darkest ages ever presented scenes more horrible” than those then going on “all over Turkey.”
In similar style, U.S. consul Leslie Davis wrote, “We could all hear them [Muslims] piously calling upon Allah to bless them in their efforts to kill the hated Christians.” Around Lake Goeljik, Davis wrote, “thousands and thousands of Armenians, mostly innocent and helpless women and children, were butchered on its shores and barbarously mutilated.”
All told The Promise fails to portray the detail and vast scale of the slaughter. As Mikael Boghosian says in one scene, “I couldn’t pull the trigger.” On the other hand, the film does show that the Turks punished those Muslims who dared to help the persecuted Armenians. Medical student Emre Ogan is executed for his efforts to help Mikael Boghosian and his family.
For most viewers, The Promise will be more than enough to confirm the grim reality, and to its great credit the film never gives the impression that there are two sides to this story. Neither were there two sides to what happened in Germany under the Nazi regime, and the Cambodian genocide of the Khmer Rouge.
Viewers might get the impression that Chris Meyers of the Associated Press was telling the story all alone. The film’s real heroes are the missionaries who in the face of great danger took care of the orphans, nursed the wounded, and helped Armenians escape. That is why Armenians can say with Mikael Boghosian, at the end of the film, “we’re still here.”
In 1939, on the eve of World War II, Adolph Hitler said “who today, after all, speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Today, in 2017, many will be speaking of the Armenians thanks to The Promise, a long overdue and courageous film with lessons for filmmakers and viewers alike.
If an Islamic country objects to your film project, push back and make it anyway. Resist the political correctness of entertainment industry and tell the truth about a neglected story. Viewers will thank you for it, with good reason.
The current Islamic State perpetrates the same atrocities as the Ottoman Turks, against the same victims, and with the same deadly goals. Most viewers will want to resist any submission to Islamic rule or Islamic law, and it will be okay with them if President Trump continues to “bomb the shit out of ISIS,” as he said he would.
Meanwhile, those trolls who trashed The Promise without seeing it might try a new tactic. Get a bag of jellybeans, a six-pack of Pepsi, and a can of spray paint. Find a wall under a bridge and do your writing down there where you belong.