Bringing the Armenian Genocide to the Silver Screen with ‘The Promise’


Christian Bale in a scene from "The Promise"

Christian Bale in a scene from “The Promise”

By Matthew Dessem

TORONTO (Slate) — The Armenian Genocide — or as President Obama calls it, “what occurred in 1915” — has long been curiously underrepresented on film. Over the 101 years since the Ottoman Empire systematically murdered as many as 1.5 million Armenians, as few as34 films have been made on the subject. By way of comparison, in barely two decades there have been nearly as many films about the Rwandan Genocide — an average of more than one a year since 1994.

One of the best is “Hotel Rwanda,” directed by Terry George, who is now turning his attention to the slaughter of the Armenians with The Promise, from a script written by the director and Robin Swicord.

“The Promise” is a love triangle between Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale, and Charlotte Le Bon set during the genocide. Bale plays an American journalist, Isaac a young medical student, and Le Bon the Armenian object of their affections. Given the framing, it would be easy to imagine the film’s historical setting falling into the background — no one watched “The English Patient” to learn about Operation Salam — but then there wasn’t exactly a shortage of World War II movies. But it seems like the genocide will be more than window dressing: from James Cromwell’s appearance as Henry Morgenthau, Sr. to the wide shot of a death march into the Syrian desert, there’s a lot here that doesn’t exactly scream “sweeping historical romance.” Which is a good thing, given the paucity of films that deal with the subject at all.

There are many reasons filmmakers have mostly left the 20th century’s first genocide alone — it was already forgotten enough by 1939 that Hitler famously saw it as a reassuring precedent for his own historical legacy — but the active and vocal community of genocide deniers has surely played a role. This stretches back to the very first film about the massacres, Oscar Apfel’s “Ravished Armenia” (AKA Auction of Souls) from 1919. In February of 1920, with the bodies still piling up, one protestor complained that Apfel’s film was “calculated to create the impression that the Turks are distinguished above all other nations for their cruelties.” Holocaust deniers weren’t exactly thrilled about Schindler’s List, but their euphemisms and lies haven’t been indulged by a bipartisan series of American presidents. Spielberg supposedly decided to make “Schindler’s List” as a response to Holocaust denial. Depressingly enough, if George wants “The Promise to fulfill a similar mission, he’ll have to arrange a screening at the White House.

(Matthew Dessem is Brow Beat’s nights and weekends editor and the author of a biography of screenwriter and director Clyde Bruckman.)