HGP Book Club Notes: The Promise (2/3)

The Promise (2016; Dir: Terry George)

The opening titles of The Promise are as follows: On the eve of World War One the once vast Ottoman Turk Empire was on the brink of collapse. The fate of the Empire’s Greek, Assyrian and Armenian minorities lay in the balance.

After the incredibly dramatic and epic sounding prologue above, the first visual is an establishing shot of rolling hills and an idyllic rural village doused in natural rays of light. The setting is of a half Turkish, half Armenian village called Siroun (which, fittingly, means ‘beautiful’ in the Armenian language) and this is where we first meet the protagonist and apothecary, Michael Boghosian (played by Oscar Isaac), in a montage of situations where he is caring for people of the village. Though he is presented as benevolent, his ambition is a source of discontent - he dreams of becoming a doctor. To enable this to become a reality he becomes engaged to a local girl named Maral and uses the dowry (400 gold coins, to be exact) so he can build a future for them both.

Away from the mountains of Southern Turkey, the next setting is of a Turkish port as Michael travels to the ‘Grand Bazaar’. In stark contrast to simple village life, colourful costumes and props convey an exciting sense of bustle among the city dwellers of Constantinople. Suitcases, market stalls, furniture, draped fabrics, signage and scores of extras all combine to create a different sort of beauty and an entirely believable representation of a centre of culture – it is presented as a desirable place to be. As Michael steps onto a veranda overlooking the city harbour, his uncle proclaims: “There is Europe. There is Asia. The world is at your feet.” – yet another reference to the responsibility that lies with Michael to be successful and make his people proud.

Soon after the introduction of Michael and his family, the audience are acquainted with several other key characters: Emre Ogan, Michael’s Turkish friend who he meets during their first lecture at the Imperial Medical School (note: not a woman in sight here); Christian Bale’s character, an American journalist who is introduced as “the legendary Chris Myers”; and Ana Khesarian, a well-travelled, Armenian dance instructor/artist/friend of Michael’s uncle, Mesrob. These first ten minutes of the film are light-hearted, quaint and non-threatening. However, what follows is a gradual eradication of warmth and comfort and, instead, a deep dive into one of the worst atrocities in human history.

Turkey enters the war on 29th October 1914 and the tone of the dialogue reflects this: “Get in line. No exceptions. Everyone line up.” Michael’s future is first jeopardised when he is told that medical student exceptions only apply to Turks – Armenians have to apply in their own towns. For a short moment he is assigned to the military but is let off after his new friend bribes the clerk and name drops his father. This ignites a family tension for and reveals a gross, hateful attitude: “The Armenians are a tumour in our midst, Emre.”

One of the first truly disturbing moments is when Chris Myers ventures out of the city and witnesses (through binoculars) a long line of people walking in single file across a desert. At the end of the line, a woman is shot for stumbling and not walking fast enough. A quick long shot reveals the scale of the displacement as hundreds of people wrap around dry paths under Turkish command. The terror is similar back in central Constantinople, where Turkish mobs armed with flags and fire march through the streets, smashing windows and disturbing a once peaceful and affluent hub. Civilians scream in terror as vandals beat innocent men and set the Boghosian shop on fire. Ana and Michael momentarily flee to a safe house but soon after he naively visits the Prison in the hope of saving his uncle. When he gets there, his uncle is kneeling, ready to be shot, and Michael is captured.

Six months later, in the Taurus Mountains, Oscar Isaac has transformed physically into a dirty, withdrawn and unkempt slave, though there are still glimmers of the old, caring apothecary from Siroun. He and the other captors are building a railroad – by day, they are forced to do gruelling manual labour, while at night they talk of their old lives and being better off dead. One suicidal worker provides Michael with an opportunity for escape after an incident with a box of dynamite. After an arduous journey uphill from the workers’ quarters, a train appears, which he rests on as it transports him. After some time, Michael wakes up to rain and the sound of wailing prisoners of war. What follows is so traumatising that director Terry George uses conventions of horror films to intensify the scene: dull hands reaching out through prison bars, their skin lit up by lightning, thunder crashing and a cacophony of desperate moans and cries. Of course, Michael characteristically tries his best to release the people on board the carriage but fails as he gets to an aqueduct.

When Michael finally reaches home, several narrative arcs unrelated to the political and social issues continue: Michael’s relationship with his wife and family, and the love triangle between Michael, Ana and Chris, for example. Worthier of discussion is the scene in the woods as they (Michael, Ana and Chris) travel to safety with a group of orphans. After hearing gunfire and seeing a line of Turkish men, who appear to have stolen Michael’s horse, he runs in the direction of the village but breaks his sprint suddenly. The camera remains on Michael for a few seconds as he pants and scans what is in front of him in disbelief, lingering on his tormented face before the audience see from his point of view. Beside the river lay dozens of bodies. The camera pans from person to person before focusing on Michael’s sobbing as he realises that his entire world has been destroyed. Men, women, children and even his pregnant wife were killed in an act of merciless, senseless and barbaric mass murder.

After this disturbing revelation, Chris nobly sacrifices himself, using his status as an American reporter to stop the soldiers from going near the children on their cart. As a result, he is taken to the commander of the region who asks what the Associated Press is doing in the country. Chris responds that he is reporting on the….war. The commander’s response? “There is no war here. Merely the evacuation of the civilian population to a safer region.” After some questioning and criticism of his notes, Myers is accused of being a foreign agent and collaborator.

The surviving Armenians travel to where they believe they will be safe. However, Bassek is no longer an option and the orphan boats were destroyed by the Turkish army. At this point, whole villages have been displaced to avoid being pushed into the desert and the survivors from several Armenian communities band together to fight back as well as they can with the limited resources they have left. After an emotive speech from the Reverend and an emotional testimony from a grieving Michael, the remaining people decide to take refuge on Musa Dagh – a mountain that will provide them with some sort of vantage point.

Interestingly, the film directly deals with the denial of the Armenian genocide in a frank conversation between an American ambassador and Turkish minister. Talking about Chris Myers, the minister states: “He is a spy and he has used journalism to smear the Ottoman Empire and its soldiers around the world with his fabrication about the relocation of the Armenians.” The Ambassador calls out Turkey for their abominable acts: “Minister, you are using this so-called relocation as a cover for the systematic extermination of the Armenian people.” It has been reported since the announcement of this film that Turkish trolls tried to lower the rating of the film online – perhaps because the Armenian genocide is not acknowledged in Turkey. However, scenes like the one above also provide Armenians with a clear voice and it categorically puts this part of their history on the map.

The third act of the film is a desperate last attempt to endure and overcome both the natural elements and the incomprehensible hatred of a Turkish regime. The notion that such a peaceful, harmless group of people had to climb and live on a mountain to escape annihilation is somewhat inconceivable, but the director does a brilliant job of balancing the exhausting reality of staying alive despite the toughest odds, as well as building to a climactic and satisfying ending, though there are yet more casualties and sacrifices made along the way.

The remaining Armenian people are courageous in attempting to stand and protect their people with very little ammunition, especially compared to the well-equipped and barbarous Turks. Likewise, the women and children are brave in their own way: the children continue to sing songs at night, their faith in God remains, and Ana reassures Michael, who is caught up in a moment of understandable anger, “Our revenge will be to survive.” As the Armenian people fight to stay alive, cross cutting is used to demonstrate how hard Chris is fighting to enable this survival by calling in the French. When the ship does arrive, the artillery is even more relentless so just getting down the last mountain face – the very last hurdle – is a struggle, despite the arrival of the French sailors and our hero journalist responsible for getting them there, Chris Myers.

In a final voiceover, Michael states that the people who made it onto the ship were taken to a refugee camp in Egypt; Chris arranged for US visas for him, Yeva and the orphans; they lost Chris in 1938, where he was reporting on the Spanish civil war; Michael adopted Yeva, finished his studies, and set up practice in the US; and, when speaking at his adopted daughter’s wedding, gallantly reminds the guests: “We’re still here.” Though the film follows the story of one truly heroic student medic (albeit at times halting the journey of an entire ethnic minority for the sake of an unnecessary romance to appease mainstream audiences) it does portray the long and painful struggle that the Armenian people were forced to endure - a portrayal which was long overdue.

The final frames of The Promise are black and white photos of the actual survivors alongside text, which reads: On September 12, 1915, French Navy rescued more than four thousand besieged Armenians from Musa Dagh mountain; one and a half million men, women and children perished during the Armenian Genocide. To this day, the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge this crime.

The last words, from American-Armenian novelist William Saroyan (1908-1981), read: I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race. This small tribe of unimportant people whose wars have been fought and lost. Whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of the meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.

Final Thoughts

What it does well:

•Depiction of an event which is hugely underrepresented

•Violence is not over the top or too much of a focus – centered more around the humanitarian impact

•Produced without the want to make a profit: good intentions for the studio

•Some characters based on real people

•Controversial reception – from both sides!


•Romance and fictional characters

•The American hero

•Violence is not over the top or too much of a focus – centered more around the humanitarian impact

•Scale of the genocide (1.5m) not conveyed.

For the first post in this blog series, visit this link. For the downloadable resource on the portrayal of the Holocaust and genocide, click here and complete the contact form.

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