The Promise is a movie similar to others that depict one many examples of genocide since the world began. It’s a visually stunning and moving story set in Turkey just before the outbreak of World War I. But it does not explain why there was a Armenian genocide in Turkey in the first place. Why did the Turks so dislike the Armenians that they wanted to exterminate them? To understand that, one must understand the history of Islam and the Ottoman Empire. Without that knowledge, the movie is an attempt to provide meaning or purpose in suffering without a reason for the suffering.
It’s hard to see where the fault lies for leaving this out. It would have been easy for the producers to include links to the history of Turkey or the Ottoman Empire. Alas, it was left out. Even more, the director could have explained that the Turks were Muslim. What we are left with is a futile attempt to explain suffering by the director and a few famous actors - Terry George (director), Christian Bale, Chris Isaac and James Cromwell. All of the actors are famous in their own right. Perhaps it’s not their fault.
The movie itself has an effective story line: a man living in a small village in Armenia receives a dowry in return for a promise to marry a village woman so that he can pursue medical studies in Constantinople. While there, he falls in love with an attractive cosmopolitan Armenian woman, Ana. Though probably a Christian, Ana spent years studying in Paris, where she unlearned some of her Christian character. As a result, she is living, or having sex with a reporter stationed in Constantinople.
She then falls in love with another Michael (Chris Isaac), and has sex with him. The movie thus demonstrates a watered down Christian ethic that is common in Hollywood, one that ignores or trims the essence of Christianity. It would have been shocking for a Christian from an Armenian village to compromise his Christian character when he is promised by dowry to another woman. In fact, the story line is perhaps an insult to Armenians.
It also demonstrates a corrupting of the central message of the movie: that character matters. Again, it’s common for screenwriters and producers in Hollywood of whatever background, to misunderstand Christianity. Is this simply because Hollywood is devoid of Christians. Actors like Christian Bale or Chris Isaac don't have to understand what Christianity means. It's not part of their job. Unfortunately, Christianity and the resulting hope in the face of suffering is a central core of the movie. Christianity, or more specifically, what Jesus did on a cross, is what gave hope to Armenian Christians in the fact of suffering.
Here are some of the comments from interviews included in the DVD by George and some of the actors, with commentary:
George: “I told the story through the perspective of a love triangle, because I wanted to show ordinary people, when challenged, find greatness through their reaction to these catastrophic circumstances. If you are engaged in the dilemma between Chris and Michael and Ana, these are emotions that people can identify with. Then, as the genocide unfolds, we can see the effect on their own lives.”
Movie: Minister, you are using this so-called relocation as cover, for the systematic extermination of the Armenian people, says Henry Morganthou, ambassador from the U.S.
James Cromwell (Henry Morganthou):
“The story exemplifies the callousness, the crassness, the hardness of the Turkish position against the Armenian people.”
That’s an understatement. If a government decides to systematically kill millions of people in a country, it’s a lot worse than being crass, callous, or hard. Commercials are often crass. Deciding to kill a group of people is a lot worse than being crass. Genocide is evil; it’s horrific.
Bale: "If you don't learn from history, you are destined to repeat it."
Isaac: “These things keep happening over and over and over again, every day, in the same part of the world, with people fleeing for their lives, families asking the world to help and the world standing aloof.”
Isaac is obviously referring to killing of people in Syria and Iraq at the hands of ISIS. But ISIS is an attempt to recreate an Islamic caliphate that was the Ottoman empire. Turkey is what's left of the Ottoman Empire.
Much of the suffering that Isaac refers to is the result of inept decisions by former Pres. Barach Obama and former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton. Obama is also famous for his dismissive comments about ISIS.
Here is Ben Rhode’s (Obama’s go to scholar) explanation for Obama's comment:
"The president was responding very specifically to the geographic expansion of ISIL in Iraq and Syria," Rhodes said, using another acronym for the group. "A year ago, we saw them on the march in Iraq and Syria, taking more and more population centers. The fact is that we have been able to stop that geographic advance and take back significant amounts of territory in both northern Iraq and northern Syria. At the same time, that does not diminish the fact that there is a threat posed by ISIL, not just in those countries but in their aspirations to project power overseas."
Again, this is like saying Armenians would be safe from harm at the top of Mount Ararat. They were being killed, annihilated everywhere else. But if they were to reach the top of the mountain, with winter clothing and plenty of supplies to last a few years, they would be safe. It displays the same indifferent attitude described by Cromwell: indifferent to suffering and death.
There is another irony to Obama and ISIS. Obama was a vocal opponent to the Bush regime’s military action or invasion of Iraq. But he encouraged the Arab Spring in the Middle East. A major part of the Arab Spring was the overthrow of Mohammar Ghaddafi Even the pro-Obama Newsweek magazine admits that Obama’s intervention in the Middle East was a fiasco. In fact, an article in the magazinesays his actions were worse than stupid. Another article in the pro-Obama L.A. Times criticizes Obama's action in Syria as well.
Here is a quote from an Obama diplomat:
“A more democratic region will ultimately be more stable for us and our friends. Even if someone wants to be dictatorial, it’s going to be difficult.”
So said American diplomat Denis McDonough (Obama’s deputy national security adviser), after the overthrow of Qaddafi. If one can call ISIS dictatorial, it would be a walk in the park.
In a highly political and liberal Hollywood, any criticism of Obama by an actor, even though well-deserved, would result in being ostracized by Hollywood. Thus the actors (and director) issue weak opinions without historical impact. Issac refers to suffering in the Middle East without laying the blame at Obama's feet. He is right to leave Obama alone. He and Bale would not get another acting job in Hollywood were they to do so.
But back to Armenian movie and more quotes:
Bale: “Terry wanted everyone to are able to watch this without that grotesque violence being what they came away with.”
“I hope that there is a real social impact with this film. You want it to move you, you want to feel something. You want to think something that you haven’t thought before. You want a new experience. In terms of people involved in this film, I would absolutely believe that there is an eternal promise that they’ve made to their ancestors, not to forget.”
George: “It’s vital that people understand how these Armenian refugees managed to survive, that many of them died, that some of them escaped. Despite the attempt to wipe them out, they’ve continued to thrive and build and recreate the Armenian nation.”
Bale: “The Turkish government makes the decision to exterminate the Armenians."
George: “Part of the plan was for Armenian males to be shipped off to various labor camps. Michael finds himself in one of these labor camps.”
Terry wanted to find some of the human stories, Bale says. “They are trying to protect their families and the ones’ they love.”
All in all, it’s a movie that is certainly worth seeing. But without exploring the historical conflict between Christianity and Islam in the region, it’s not much more than another movie about suffering. The Muslims were a proud military force and empire in Ottoman, before World War I.
Here is some more historical context: During WWI, Serbia and Bulgaria plotted against the Ottoman Empire to take back territory from the Ottoman Empire, thus forcing them out of Greece. Turkey retains only an area surrounding Istanbul. As well, Britain and France, carved up the Ottoman Empire into countries that included Syria and Lebanon. 2012 was the hundred year anniversary of the demise of the Ottoman Empire.
The effort by ISIL during and after the Obama administration is an effort to reclaim the military glory and power of the Ottoman Empire.
© 2017 Larry Ingram
(Originally published July 26, 2017)