The Promise, a film inspired by factual events, has created a great deal of controversy since it was released regarding the ‘cinematic challenge of representing history’ so that people connect and engage with the story.
The story of a love triangle set against a true tale of human history and a national tragedy, The Promise addresses a subject the majority of people in that world and this would not ever want to face; one that represents the very darkest aspect of human nature; genocide – the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political or cultural group of people; the Armenians.
A witness to all the terrible and troubling events happening in Turkey in 2015, American ambassador, Henry Morganthau Senior (played by James Cromwell in The Promise) recorded in his memoirs: “When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact.”
The New York Times reported about what was happening at the time, publishing articles with headlines like “Appeal to Turkey to Stop Massacres.”
It all happened in the first two decades of the twentieth century. It was 1915 when, during World War I the French navy valiantly sailed to the rescue of a group of Armenian people in Turkey, who were trapped on the slopes of Musa Dagh, a mountain in the Hatay province where they were being fired upon by Turkish troops.
The failing government of the Ottoman Empire in decline had been systematically eliminating Armenian people, men, women and children and they were trying to escape. The word had gone out to the international community to assist and in this part of the story, it was the French who acted and physically came to their aid.
Hoping their popularity and abilities would empower and embolden the ‘cultural machine’ to achieve what the ‘political machine’ has been unable to do in past years before he died, Kirk Kerkorian an American billionaire of Armenian descent independently financed The Promise film, providing $100m of his own money towards the production. He wanted to have the current Turkish government to recognise this tragedy did happen and to say sorry.
He chose Terry George to be director of The Promise, whose main purpose was to bring attention to the story, not make money. Celebrity actors Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac, who knew little of the story when they were first offered their roles, were keen to be part of the enterprise when presented with the facts. Others joined them.
Kerkorian had chosen George because his film “Hotel Rwanda” (2004) proved to many he possessed the ability to manage complex conflicts with both nuance and sensitivity. Somehow along the way in this, which is a huge subject, he seemed to become overwhelmed.
It’s a hard task for anyone to present such a terrible tragedy in a way that people will understand. Setting it around a love story is one way of making the point. In times of such suffering, unless there are a few stories of hope out there, it’s hard for anyone to overcome the horrors and loss they experience collectively and individually, and keep moving forward.
The film highlights how culturally and personally people endeavour to survive and persist through such iconoclastic events; those attacking their cherished beliefs and long held traditions.
Award winning Guatemalan-American actor of mixed cultural descent, Oscar Isaac plays Mikael Boghosian an Armenian apothecary. His story is set against spectacular scenery of the Turkish countryside and in the exotic and slightly dangerous city of Constantinople (Istanbul) where the glittering glamour hides the horrors happening off the radar.
At the beginning of the movie the undercurrent of events about to erupt are not known to Mikael, who spends part of the dowry given to him by her father when he becomes betrothed to Maral (Angela Sarafyan) from his mountain village. He wants to become a medical student, eventually giving them both and their parents as they age, a better life. To achieve his aim he must leave for the city for 2-3 years and she must wait for him.
The Promise he gives Maral is that he will return and marry her. He does not love her and she knows it. However it was the custom at the time, and as a dutiful son he respects and accepts his parent’s choice, hoping that in time they will learn to love each other.
Bidding his fiancee and his family farewell, Mikael leaves for the capital where he plans to gain experience and his degree. His father gives him a letter of introduction to his brother Mikael’s Uncle, who is a successful Armenian merchant working and living with his family in the capital in a house sited wondrously overlooking the magical Bosphorus.
This is where Mikael does fall in love with the enchanting Armenian French educated dance instructor Ana Khessarian, played by Charlotte Le Bon. She has been hired by his Uncle to teach his two daughters the art of movement.
The beautiful and sophisticated Ana, Mikael soon discovers, is already very involved with American journalist Chris Myers (Christian Bale). So Mikael, despite his growing feelings for her and her for him, keeps his distance by concentrating on his studies, which are going well.
At medical school Mikael meets the son of a Turkish official Emre Ogan (Marwan Kenzari) who has a reputation for being a playboy, and they become good friends. One night while they are both enjoying a night out together in the city when they meet up with Ana who is with Myers, whom Ogan also knows, enabling her to introduce him to Mikael.
Award winning English actor Christian Bale offers a glimpse of a man who believes he is in many ways, untouchable. Myers appears arrogant to those in power, while caring and empathetic to the Armenian population at large, who are under siege. He wants to tell their story to the world at large, but it is a dangerous undertaking, which means putting his life on the line too.
When the terrible events taking place escalate dramatically and with violent mobs roaming the streets of the city pillaging and looting, the four friends are all torn apart with Emre Ogan forced to join the Turkish military by his father.
Mikael is captured and sent to hard labour in the hills. Ana gets caught up in the turmoil as she and Chris help Mikael’s uncle’s wife and two orphaned children escape across the hills after her husband is taken away and killed.
Mikael miraculously survives a deliberate attempt to sabotage the railway the Turks are building in the mountains by one of the workers Garin (Tom Hollander).
He is blown down the hill and lands among thick bushes, where he remains until nightfall and makes his escape; it’s what lies ahead that will make the hard labour he has endured to date seem like the easy part.
The Promise is full of powerful and distressing images, telling only a small part of the story about those caught up in what were appalling real life events. Words fail.
The story comes to a climax during the rescue from the beach below the hilltop of Musa Dagh, in which Chris, Mikael and Ana are all involved. Mikael and Ana also make each other a promise that their revenge will be to survive this act of genocide. They are by this time all overwhelmed by this tragedy.
Growing up in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when the German Nazi’s systematically endeavoured to exterminate the Jewish race genocide affected my formative years. Reading The Diary of Anne Frank published in print after she and her family were killed, and making her tragic story into a movie in 1959, ensured that the rest of the world knew what had happened and helped to drive the point home; it must not happen again.
Humankind is not really very good at learning from their mistakes and we can only do that by the sharing of knowledge, as a practical means of aiding an understanding between nations, cultures and religions. For those who escaped the horror in Turkey it was often impossible to talk about it the trauma was so great, however talking about it would help them find a way to go way forward, especially if an individual was going to be able to have some sort of life in the years ahead.
At the end of the movie we have a glimpse of Mikael living in Massachusetts and giving a toast at his niece Yeva’s wedding.
Knowledge needs imagination to turn creative ideas into action and without action we are all lost. All those involved with the making of The Promise hoped to encourage communication and intercultural conversations.
If we learn to share our stories, then perhaps we can all understand how to better deal with each other and the things that hurt. If we do we can also help to build bridges between cultures in the name of progress.
Surely a promise we should all make.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017