Someday I hope someone can independently finance a great movie, a long-form documentary or even a docudrama that spends the time (and the money) to accurately delineate and flesh out the complexity of the political and social context of the events that led to the Turkish genocide of the Armenians in 1915. That movie would be unconcerned with matters of the marketplace, not having to keep one-and-a-half eyes on a fictional love triangle presumably commissioned to ensure that the audience’s attention will be engaged by something intended to make the slaughter of 1.5 million people feel personal. That movie wouldn’t feel the need to use up a considerable percentage of a $100 million budget on production values designed to sell its credentials as a David Lean-style epic. That movie might be willing to take the chance to seriously educate viewers, like me, whose knowledge of that genocide is rudimentary, instead of appeasing us with an awareness of the general situation wrapped inside the packaging of yet another big-budget romantic melodrama.
That movie is not The Promise. Don’t get me wrong— I am glad that somehow The Promise got made at all, simply for the small amount of consciousness-raising that its presence on a few screens, in America and worldwide, might possibly promote. But given that the movie was predicted to be a huge financial flop going into the past weekend and has apparently now come through on that promise, I think it’s fair to inquire as to the wisdom of the strategy of building a movie around the drawing power of actors in a dull romantic triangle (Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale are high-profile stars, but not necessarily audience catnip, and the lovely Charlotte Le Bon is a relative unknown), or lush cinematography and posh production values instead of the real history. “We certainly hoped for a better box office result,” said Open Road’s president of marketing Jonathan Helfgot today in Variety, adding that the film’s mission was not purely box office-related. “It was about bringing the world’s attention to this issue,” he said. The article from which that quote was derived also mentions that The Promise was bankrolled by the late businessman Kirk Kerkorian (he who gutted MGM studios and turned the lion logo toward Las Vegas) as a way of “bring(ing) visibility to the systematic extermination to 1.5 million Armenians at the order of the Ottoman Empire in 1915 — a politically fraught subject that Turkey continues to deny happened.” The article goes on to say that all proceeds generated by the movie will be donated to charities presumably devoted to that same awareness-raising goal.
Again, I’m happy that the movie is out there getting any conversation started. But assuming that Kerkorian is the one who insisted at the conception level that his money be spent on a big dramatic behemoth designed to put butts in seats, then this weekend’s box-office results may have demonstrated that The Promise may ultimately prove to be little more than Kerkorian’s last bad business decision. Depending upon how it’s distributed, the picture’s $4.1 million take from 2,251 theaters wouldn’t be considered chump change to any organization who might benefit from it. But it’s not hard to imagine how much greater the benefit might have been, culturally as well as financially, if even a third of that $100 million Kerkorian provided to finance this tepid love story set against the backdrop of a ghastly campaign of extermination were put toward producing a drama about complicated Armenian characters caught up in the nightmare, or a documentary devoted to illuminating the real lives of Armenians and others who were actually involved. For example, Admiral Louis Dartige du Fournet, long considered a hero by the Armenian people for organizing the rescue of 4,000 people from Musa Dagh with the fleet of French battleships under his command, rates only a brief one-scene A Bridge Too Far-style cameo, embodied by Jean Reno, in The Promise. And even the battle of Musa Dagh itself gets short shrift here— a resistance that extended almost three months in real life feels in this movie like a couple of nights camping, a scuffle and a boat ride.
The benefit that the makers of this film hope will result from its production and release could have been reaped by people who would appreciate a film which could serve as a rich starting point for further study. And who knows, maybe even more money for charities could have been generated, as opposed to self-fulfilling prophecies of weak box-office returns and chatter resulting from catching glimpses of Kim Kardashian and Cher on the red carpet at a movie premiere. As it is, I suspect The Promise will play best to its built-in Armenian audience, whose knowledge of how the events really unfolded is undoubtedly already richer than what is on display in this would-be epic. We whose consciousness regarding what happened to the Armenians in Turkey in 1915 desperately needs raising will have to wait for a much better film than The Promise to speak with any sort of profundity to us.