On April 21st, “The Promise” will be opening in New York and then scheduled for nationwide release in 1,500 theaters. It has much in common both politically and artistically with “Bitter Harvest” that I reviewed for CounterPunch on February 24th. That film dealt with Stalin’s brutal imposition of forced collectivization that had the unintended consequence of leaving millions of Ukrainians starving to death. “The Promise” is about how the Young Turks expelled the Armenian population from the desiccated husk of the Ottoman Empire as it began to take shape as modern Turkey during WWI.
As I said in my review of “Bitter Harvest”, neither of these historical events could be compared to the Judeocide since Hitler’s death camps were meant to exterminate a race on an industrialized, assembly-line basis. Although there were mass killings in both Ukraine and eastern Anatolia, most of the deaths were the result of putting a population under such duress that sickness and death were inevitable. I have always thought of the Armenian expulsion as Turkey’s version of Andrew Jackson’s “Trail of Tears”. Did Jackson intend for one-out-of-three Cherokees to perish on their long trek to Oklahoma? If the removal of Indians and Armenians were critical to the formation of a modern state based on “enlightenment values” (the Young Turks strongly identified with the French Revolution), wasn’t there a productivist logic to ethnic cleansing? I reject this kind of argument but at least want to establish that there are both American and Turkish historians who would take great umbrage at the idea of a genocide taking place in their nation.
Artistically, “The Promise” has the same sort of liabilities that made “Bitter Harvest” a convenient target for film reviewers who have been put off by their archaic nature. In an age of frigid irony and postmodernist pastiche, films that wear their hearts on their sleeve do not gain much traction, especially when they are dealing with mass murder. Against a backdrop of horrific human disasters, the two films feature old-fashioned love stories calculated to sell tickets. Like a bitter pill coated with sweetener, the producers of “The Promise” concluded that the film-goer needed a love triangle involving three very attractive and bankable stars to compensate for the long stretches of human misery that “The Promise” is obliged to convey.
Oscar Isaac is cast as Mikael Pogosian, an Armenian who receives a dowry from his future father-in-law that will permit him to study medicine in Constantinople on the eve of WWI. There he becomes the frequent guest of his uncle, an Armenian businessman who lives in a beautiful mansion overlooking the Bosporus. On one visit, he meets Ana (Anette Le Bon), an aspiring artist who has returned to the Ottoman Empire after living in Paris for several years. Smitten at her on first sight, he is disappointed to learn that she lives in a hotel with a foreign correspondent named Chris Myers (Christian Bale) whose assignment is to file reports on what appears to be an oncoming war. Oscar Isaac and all other actors playing Armenians are directed to use an ersatz accent of the sort you’d expect from a dated costume drama. It was not a wise decision by director Terry George but I doubt that this was the reason most critics deemed the film “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes. Most complained about it being “boring”, including Variety’s Peter DeBruge who much prefers films like “John Wick Chapter Two” and “Deepwater Horizon”. Such is cultural life in a decaying empire.
Largely because of the generous financing of the film that ostensibly benefited from having billionaire Kirk Kerkorian as an associate producer, the production values are top of the line. Kerkorian, who died at the age of 98 in 2015, gave generously to Armenian charities over his lifetime, including the funds that were necessary to rebuild the country after a disastrous earthquake in 1988.
Just as the Russians were unspeakably evil in “Bitter Harvest”, the Turks come off as sadistic thugs in “The Promise”. When Pogosian is dragooned into slave labor laying down railroad tracks, he must endure Turkish soldiers who beat Armenian laborers as if they were dumb animals. When one man’s leg is crushed while laying track, a soldier nonchalantly takes out his pistol and kills him on the spot. It must be said, however, that this is the sort of thing that did happen routinely to Armenians. “The Promise” is not the typical Saturday night escapist fare but it is essential for understanding the barbarism that midwifed the modern Turkish state.
What makes the film worth watching is the final half-hour or so as Mikael, Ana and Chris try to save the lives of orphans who they hope to put aboard a French ship and spirit to safety. The reporter takes considerable risks in both this highly fraught mission as well as writing about the genocide—an act tantamount to espionage. James Cromwell is cast in a minor but key role as Henry Morgenthau Sr. who was one of the few people in a position of power to take up the cause of the Armenians. Cromwell, as usual, is very good and so are the other actors. I usually find Christian Bale annoying but he comes off as believable in this role.
The film was directed and co-written by Terry George, who is not your typical film industry personality. Wikipedia states:
George was born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland. In 1971, aged 18, he was arrested for suspicion of paramilitary republican activity. He later became involved with the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP), political wing of the INLA. In 1975, he was driving with armed members of the group when British soldiers stopped them, although George claims he was not carrying a weapon. All were arrested and he was sentenced to six years imprisonment in Long Kesh Prison (“The Maze”). Other prisoners at the same time included Gerry Adams and Patsy O’Hara, the third to die in the 1981 hunger strikes. He was released in 1978 for good behaviour. He briefly attended Queens University Belfast.
In my view, this gave him the kind of life experience needed to make such a film. Just before the closing credits, you get a follow-up on what happened to the characters. Mikael Pogosian makes it to the USA where he finally got to enjoy a secure life as a physician among the Armenian community. Myers is killed covering the Spanish Civil War, an obvious gesture to the character’s willingness to fight the Good Fight.
As is the case with the Holodomor, it is difficult to separate politics and historiography. Armenian and Ukrainian nationalists understand the stakes of the debate. For Armenians, the loss of property and lives has never been properly redressed while for Ukrainians the Holodomor is an event that symbolizes their victimhood in an ongoing struggle against Russian domination.
Because there is no intrinsic use value in Armenian victimhood as there had been for a pawn like Ukraine in the Cold War, the weight of official opinion tended to favor Turkey. If Rachel Maddow gets her knickers in a twist over Russian meddling, nobody seemed to pay much attention to Turkey, especially some years ago when our friends the Kemalists were in charge.
Baki Ilkin, a Turk working for Microsoft, told Ronald Grigor Suny to remove all references to “genocide” in an article submitted to Encarta. This tells me that we are much better off with Wikipedia. I should mention that Suny, an Armenian, is not only one of the most authoritative historians on the Armenian genocide but a Marxist who has written for New Left Review. I can’t recommend his work highly enough.
There was a proposal by the House of Representatives’ International Relations Committee in October 2000 to declare the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire a genocide. That led to Turkish money flowing to Washington lobbyists who worked to get the proposal ditched. Influential supporters of the Turkish position, among them was Congressmen Stephen Solarz, the miserable Democrat who backed Pol Pot. He was one of those who was seduced by lobbyist arguments (maybe money had something to do with it.) Reaction to the resolution in Turkey was furious.
Israel was another friend of Turkey, to some extent based on a need to privilege the Judeocide in the fashion that Norman Finkelstein called the Holocaust Industry. Abraham Foxman said at the time: “I don’t think a bill in Congress will help reconcile this issue. The resolution takes a position. It comes to a judgment. The Turks and Armenians need to revisit their past. The Jewish community shouldn’t be the arbiter of that history. And I don’t think the U.S. Congress should be the arbiter either.”
One of the benefits of writing about “Bitter Harvest” is that it gave me the impetus to study the Holodomor in depth. “The Promise” has left me with the same motivation. As soon as I find the time, I will have a look at Ronald Grigor Suny’s 2015 “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”: A History of the Armenian Genocide and his collection of articles titled A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire that came out of a series of workshops involving historians from Turkey and Armenia. As it happens, this book is available to me in a electronic edition from the Columbia Library and I was intrigued to see an article titled “What was Revolutionary about Armenian Revolutionary Parties in the Ottoman Empire?” by Gerald J. Libaridian.
The title of Libaridian’s article intrigued me because I was reminded of reading E.H. Carr who persuaded me that Lenin and the Bolsheviks sacrificed the national aspirations of Armenians to conclude diplomatic treaties with Turkey in realpolitik fashion. This was probably one of the earliest signs that the infant Soviet Republic was ready to sacrifice revolutionary principles in the vain interest of building socialism in one country—long before Stalin took over.
Libaridian’s article was revelatory. As someone who spent a considerable amount of time investigating the revolutionary movement in Ukraine that seized power before the Bolsheviks, I was intrigued to see that Armenians were also building very advanced parties without any connection to the socialist movement internationally. It was the power of Marx’s ideas that spurred new movements, not bureaucratic intervention. Libaridian writes about the Hnchaks, an Armenian revolutionary party:
The Hnchaks, however, were the first to introduce the idea of a “modern” nation-state. Except for the analysis of socialist and Marxist writers, including Marx himself, on the “Eastern Question,” the transformation of Marxist ideology inspired by the Communist Manifesto into a political program for the Ottoman territories was, to say the least, a genuine innovation. It was a new approach, even if it was really an oversimplification (if not distortion) of what Marx and others had articulated as the positive laws of historical development. The Hnchaks easily undertook the task of transformation by sequencing but not integrating the national and social projects. If, as Marx claimed, a socialist society could only evolve from a bourgeois society, then it was first necessary to create a bourgeois society; and since a bourgeois society could not be created within an Ottoman administration, it was necessary to create an Armenia where that would be possible.
In an ideal world, a radical Young Turks movement would have worked closely with the Armenian left to build a new nation based on true Enlightenment values. Each citizen, no matter their ethnicity, would have equal rights under the Constitution and the social rights that make a decent life possible, such as the right to a job, an education and health. It is part of the long series of historical tragedies that both the Armenians and the Ukrainians were denied such rights under regimes with a distorted vision of both nationhood and Communism.