Certain battlegrounds swirl around the memory of particular historical periods and events. The most contentious here in the United States is the manufactured controversy over the causes and legacies of the American Civil War. Another, in much the same vein of implausibility, is Turkey’s denial of the genocide of the Armenian people pursued by the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. The 2017 film The Promise, starring Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale, thus grabbed my attention well before its release for its intent to cast a glaring spotlight on the atrocities committed by Turkish forces as well as showcase some of the leisurely splendor of Constantinople (Instanbul) in those final hoary days before the world was lit aflame. Much to my chagrin, however, I was only recently able to give this film my attention.
The Promise opens in 1914, as an Armenian apothecary named Michael (Oscar Isaac) gets betrothed and uses the resulting dowry to pay his way into
the Imperial Medical College in the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. Michael’s studies lead to a relationship with Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a fellow Armenian and paramour of American journalist Chris Myers (Christian Bale). As war is declared and passions flare, Michael finds himself captured and deported to a brutal labor camp before escaping and embarking on an odyssey to return to his home. Meanwhile Ana and Chris pursue an escape route for Armenian orphans that leads them fortuitously back to Michael. Tragedy after heartbreaking tragedy befalls them, however, as the genocidal efforts of Turkish partisans and official forces dog them at every turn, and even in their ultimate salvation at the hands of a French naval expedition does sorrow find Michael and the ones he loves.
I was astounded by The Promise’s overall historical accuracy in both its details and its overall narrative. The genocide is, for the most part, not simply the Holocaust or other twentieth century genocides read backwards; it is instead portrayed faithfully as a mix between forced relocation, casual cruelty, savage irregular partisan atrocity, and escalating official persecution. The story as well is based heavily on real events and people, a fact that only becomes apparent during the movie’s conclusion (and adds unexpected emotional weight). There are even a few easter eggs for the discerning historian; most notably, the German naval cruisers that sealed the Ottomans’ ultimate allegiance are featured in a pivotal early scene in Constantinople.
Aside from the inaccuracies inherent in bringing narrative from history to screen, I could only level one major historical criticism of the film. Though the practice of the Armenian Genocide was portrayed with haunting veracity, its origins were left obscure and nigh-spontaneous. The audience is led to believe that, like Chris ominously predicts when the Ottomans ally with Germany, the Ottomans are persecuting this religious minority simply because they are Christian. While this was certainly the underlying prejudice behind the genocide, The Promise leaves out the wider context of Ottoman military disasters, the scapegoating of drafted Armenian soldiers, and the resulting unfounded fear that the entire Armenian populace within the empire was treasonous. Endeavoring to relate the senseless tragedy of genocide, then, The Promise thus unmoors its subject matter in a way that does not necessarily lead to better understanding or future prevention.
Despite this one flaw, The Promise remains a heartbreaking tour-de-force of historical filmmaking. From disbelief to shock to grief, the emotions inspired by this earnest film are not for those seeking casual viewing of any sort. For those looking for sprawling period pieces or tragic drama, however, The Promise is necessary viewing.