BY BEDROS AFEYAN
“The Promise” is a poignant saga of unimaginable emotional and historical majesty. It is the retelling of the finest instincts of man facing a grave chapter of man’s inhumanity to man. The Turks and Kurds kill and massacre. German war machine aids and abets. Great Britain, France and Russia are armed and ready for war. Armenians flea, fall, falter and finally rise from the ashes of their history’s darkest chapter, the Armenian Genocide, perpetrated by Young Turks from April 1915 till the end of the war “to end all wars.” Americans preach and practice Christian charity and ideals, long lost in the old Europe, not yet aware of its antiquated barbarism that would last till the ravages of yet one more world war, and then fade into obscurity leaving a Soviet shadow and an American giant in its infamous wake.
But we are still in 1914. The first world war is about to start and Armenians and other Christian minorities in the Ottoman empire have not been condemned to extermination orders yet. They soon will be. Tiny Christian sects and the large Armenian industrious presence in the vast expanse of Western Armenia, and well into Byzantian territory, including Constantinopolis, known as Bolis, to Armenians. Or, “the City,” just as New Yorkers refer to NY NY as the city. Bolis is the capital. It has not been renamed Istanbul yet. It is a vibrant metropolis. A mecca of trade and court intrigue. The Sultan and his evil empire hold court here with more harems than mosques, more scimitars than books or theaters. Churches blowing holy smoke towards the sky with prayers soon to be lost in the inferno the young Turks will unleash in the Eastern provinces with the intent to rid Armenia of Armenians. Our faith would be severely tested faced with a Jihad and hordes of criminals with orders to kill indiscriminately unleashed on Armenian civilian populations in cities and small villages without mercy and with total brutality and in cold, remorseless blood thirsty orgies.
The lies of the Turkish ruling classes and their venom are well represented and exposed in The Promise. The beauty of Bolis, the straits of Bosphorus, the Dardanelles, the Imperial loot and posh palaces, the merchants and racist envy of prosperous Armenians intermingled in their souks and bazaars, are all in The Promise. The brewing war, the cruel stench of military marches and burning flags and effigies, looting and destruction fuming in the hearts of the citizenry are all in The Promise, as a cautionary tale.
Terry George is a master of the historical saga, whether it be Irish or Armenian. He has deeply felt and distilled the horrid stories into a love story that is as metaphorical and tragic as it is heroic and realistic, all at the same time. Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon are truly magnificent. Their performances are memorable and indelible. They come to wear the heavy burden of true history denied. Turks who are returning to their barbarism and absolutist nationalist extremism by leaps and bounds even as the 21st century unfolds, still cannot come to grips with their magnum sins and shameful past. The power of cinema is to expose the dungeons of hell that is their history. Turkey for Turks! Means kill. Kill. Destroy. Lie, cheat, double deal, sidle up to Russia, the US, Israel, the Arab Sunnis, the Oil Arabs. Selling arms to the Syrian dictator, exterminating Kurds in Syria and Iraq under the guise of fighting ISIS. Every duplicity and dastardly act that is in their interest to perform, they so very willingly do, in the name of Syasset, or diplomacy…
How could Armenians have dealt with this a hundred years ago today? Without armies, without national leaders (hundreds of them killed on April 24, 2015), without European support, or bargaining chips, they were led to slaughter.
The Promise captures the harrowing scenes and archetypal images of the Armenian Genocide with extreme dexterity, perceptiveness and a delicate touch. The horrors of trains full of human cattle being led to the desert are there. Marching aimlessly in the desert to be killed or lost to the elements are there. Work battalions meant to build the Berlin-Baghdad railway line and die in the process is there. The orphaned children. The missionaries and their helping hand. Ambassador Morgenthau of the US and his outrage at this Turkic barbarism, all there. The militarist elements of the Turkish upper classes sacrificing their own children who want to live peacefully, who are executed for the cause of helping their Armenian friends, are all there.
And then, to propel the story forward, there is the love triangle between an American journalist maverick, Chris Myers, played by Christian Bale; a medical student from a small village, Michael Boghossian, smitten hard by an unparalleled beauty, Ana Kassarian. Ana has spent years in Paris attending the Sorbonne. Her father was a famous violinist. Her mother died when she was young. But she identifies as an Armenian and wants to go back to her ancestral village and help, if she can. She is living with the American journalist since her father killed himself and her grief pushed her towards this charming and daring man in Paris, who seeks to expose injustice in the world with the new art of photojournalism for the NY Times. And so we have a hot story brewing of war and atrocities, love and allegiances that will lead to survival and death in one breath.
They mesh, unmesh and tangle up beyond recognition facing death and destruction as an entire nation goes plummeting before their eyes at the hands of Turkish systematic cruelty and inhumanity. The rapes, murders, massacres, hangings, shootings, slaughter are all shown and made real with these three lovely young witnesses. The music by Gabriel Yared is haunting and unmistakably effective.
The screenplay by Terry George and Robin Swicord is spare, sparse and highly poetic. It is meant to be felt and absorbed by the slimmest of odds matching the odds of the survivors and the travails of an entire nation. The Promise was the Promise Kirk Krikorian made to the Armenian people that a Hollywood film of great dignity and a heafty budget sparring nothing ($90M) would be dedicated to the telling of this first genocide of the twentieth century. It now has. And I for one applaud this effort.
Survival Pictures and Phoenix Pictures produced this Dr. Zhivago scale saga while Open Road films is distributing it. Eric Esrailian, Mike Medavoy and William Horberg take producer credits while Kirk Kirkorian is posthumously listed as its executive producer.
The emotional eruptions etched on the faces of Isaac, Bale and Le Bon will never be forgotten. They have managed to humanize this story of barbarity and love in its most primal and ennobling states. The purification of the sanctity of father Gomidas’ songs, mixed with the need to save lives of a surgeon, propelled by the curiosity and truth seeking of an international journalist, the naiveté and might of America circa 1914-1915, the dungeon that was the Ottoman rotting empire from within, Europe ready to kill each chivalrous instinct and replace its past with chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas wiping out its claims to fine cultural glory forever. Only to repeat the dance once more a little more than a generation later with WWII and now with the far east ablaze as brazen as all the west.
The Promise is a must-see movie. It is most of all human and emotionally charged to the hilt like the Titanic or Dr. Zhivago. The themes of love, loss, improbable survival and endurance of the human spirit are magnificent. The carnage is real and excessively measured. This is not the horrid truth but hints at what the truth might have been. The actors in the principal roles make this movie proud. They are masterful and committed to make sense of the nonsense we serve as people when we ignore our primary role in this world which is to take care of each other and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
Armenia exists in the hearts of Armenians living in th worldwide diaspora due to this exodus and genocide that visited us over a hundred years ago. Each of us rises to the zeniths we can scale, alone or in groups of laughing, dancing, feasting Armenians, never too far from the soulful music that is ours, poetry that rings true as Mount Ararat and its white capped memory banks. One day to return and plow those fields our ancestors were forced to abandon for a blink of an eye or the hiccup if history that we must amend.