You have reached your limit of free articles this month.

Enjoy unlimited access to

Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks.


  • ePAPER

You have read of premium articles.

Get unlimited access to all of our breaking news, in-depth coverage and bonus content- exclusively for subscribers. Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks


Welcome to

This subscriber-only site gives you exclusive access to breaking news, in-depth coverage, exclusive interactives and bonus content.

You can read free articles of your choice a month that are only available on

‘The Promise’ is too trivial a take on Armenian genocide

Horrible human tragedies — unthinkable calamities involving millions of people — dwarf everything else. If you have a movie about the Holocaust, or Stalin’s starvation of the kulaks, or, as in the case of “The Promise,” the Armenian genocide, the historical event takes precedence. It’s hard to care about fictional characters while remembering the real-life horrors experienced by actual people.

For this reason, most of the great films depicting the Holocaust have been based on true stories: “Europa, Europa,” “Schindler’s List,” “The Hiding Place,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “The Pianist.” There are exceptions (“Son Of Saul”), but the slant toward truth-based stories has been real and necessary. To take the most unimaginable human suffering and combine it with the standard conventions of movie fiction somehow feels discordant, at best, and at worst, grotesque.

“The Promise” is hardly grotesque, and it has good things in it, but by the end, it just feels like a failed manipulation. The reality that it’s trying to present and make us feel — the Ottoman government’s murder of 1.5 million Armenians in the 1910s — remains what it was before, a ghastly fact. The movie doesn’t activate that event through drama, even as our awareness of history keeps us at some distance from the struggles of the fictional characters.

Chalk it up as a respectable attempt. The movie is written and directed by Terry George, who knows his way around political upheaval and sectarian violence. He wrote and directed “Hotel Rwanda” and wrote several screenplays about Northern Ireland’s troubles, including “In the Name of the Father.” For “The Promise” he sets up a fairly interesting situation that might have made for a decent movie set in peacetime.

Oscar Isaac plays an ambitious young pharmacist, working in a tiny Armenian town. He wants to become a doctor, so he becomes engaged to a perfectly nice woman whom he does not love, so he can use the dowry to go to medical school in Istanbul. So guess what happens in Istanbul? Come on, you’ve seen enough movies, you know: He meets a young teacher (Charlotte Le Bon), and he likes her and she likes him. In fact, she is beginning to like him better than her American boyfriend, a swashbuckling, courageous and somewhat alcoholic journalistic (Christian Bale).

So we have two love triangles. The medical student really wants to blow up the engagement and be with his new love, but no, he made a promise. And then, just as we have completely forgotten all about politics, the Turks enter World War I. With that, the Armenians are immediately under siege. All the young men are drafted and sent to work as slave labor. Towns are pillaged, people are systematically executed. It is carnage, death and real historical calamity … And with that in mind, how much do you really care which one of these two women ends up in bed with Oscar Isaac?

Yes, there are some well-made scenes: The medical student escapes from slave labor, dives on top of a train, only to realize that he’s riding on a boxcar filled with Armenians being sent to their doom. As lightning flashes and thunder crashes, he struggles to break the lock on a boxcar, and just as he does, he falls off the train. Fortunately, this happens just as the train is going over a bridge, so he falls into a body of water … And so on. Just like in a movie.

Basically, there was a calculation here that didn’t pan out. The idea was that history would add importance to the fictional story, and the fictional story would add drama to the history. Instead, the opposite happened: The historical context renders the fictional story trivial, while the fictional story keeps the audience removed from the history. We end up with an unimportant movie about important events.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Movies & TV

Recipe of the Week: How to make ratatouille, just like in the movie
Recipe of the Week: How to make ratatouille, just like in the movie

Loyal Statesman reader (and recipe clipper) Carlene Brady sent me an email a few weeks ago with her recipe for ratatouille, the rustic French dish made popular by the Disney movie of the same name that came out 10 years ago this summer. Like many fans of the movie, Brady wanted to make a version of the dish at home, but all the recipes she found didn&rsquo...
Two more chances to see “Madame Butterfly” from Austin Opera
Two more chances to see “Madame Butterfly” from Austin Opera

Theater and dance “Madame Butterfly.” Austin Opera is closing out its 30th season with one of the most beloved operas of all times. Puccini’s heartbreaking “Madame Butterfly” brings to life the tale of an American naval officer, Pinkerton, who recklessly marries Cio-Cio-San — Butterfly — even though he knows...
TV version of Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ promises a wild ride
TV version of Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ promises a wild ride

“American Gods,” the TV series based on Neil Gaiman’s 2001 best-selling novel of the same name, begins airing on Starz on April 30. The first episode of the highly anticipated series, starring Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday and Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon, premiered at South by Southwest in March, and it is shockingly good. As for...
Ann Richards, Bob Bullock and Willie Nelson collide at the Raw Deal
Ann Richards, Bob Bullock and Willie Nelson collide at the Raw Deal

In 1976, Eddie Wilson left his grand experiment, the Armadillo World Headquarters. Four years later, the seminal 1970s Austin music-food-and-drink venue that he had founded at Barton Springs Road and South First Street closed for good. As Wilson tells it in his marvelous new memoir, “Armadillo World Headquarters,” he next discovered an...
Welcome arrival of May with Derby in the City, David Sedaris, more
Welcome arrival of May with Derby in the City, David Sedaris, more

1. Derby in the City Music Festival 1:30 to 9 p.m. May 6. $45-$100. Austin American-Statesman, 305 S. Congress Ave. This Derby Day event fuses Kentucky culture with Austin’s. You’ll see many large derby hats and dapper seersucker patterns as you catch live music from Sweet Spirit, Black Pistol Fire, Citizen Cope and...
More Stories