Prior to cracking open the screenplay for The Promise several years ago, Christian Bale by his own admission knew very little about the Armenian Genocide. A devastating and brutally executed slaughter that began almost an exact century to the day that Terry George and Robin Swicord’s script arrived in his hands, the tragedy nevertheless remains a mystery to many in the West. A story as distant as antiquity, even though it barely predates the creation of the term it helped inspire: “genocide.” It also could not be more current, as it was happening again on a lonely mountain in Northern Iraq—practically as Bale was putting down the pages.
“I was not aware of the details, which is a stunning fact. We’re only talking about a hundred years ago and we’re talking about a million and a half people,” Bale says with calm incredulity during an overcast afternoon in New York. He then makes a striking comparison to what was, in 2014, the beginnings of a new genocide, this time of the Yazidi people by the terrorist organization ISIL. “And then equally watching the news with the Yazidis, and the correlation with the script was uncanny. The Yazidis were under siege on a mountaintop being slaughtered.”
The parallels of crises that involve Christians desperately clinging to survival were not lost on Bale as he signed onto the project. Especially since the third act of The Promise also deals with a last stand of sorts in 1915 when a group of Armenian Christian refugees try to outlast the military force of the Ottoman Empire, which during the First World War was simultaneously carrying out the secret and systematic murder of its minority population in Turkey.
“The pain that these families have had to live with for a hundred years of many people ignoring them, and others actually claiming that they’re lying about such painful experiences as seeing their own families brutally murdered,” Bale trails off for a moment. Still, his point is made.
One such family member is Eric Esrailian, a producer who’s been shepherding The Promise into existence since 2010, and a man directly descended from genocide survivors. For the better part of a decade, Esrailian, as well as the late Armenian-American Kirk Kerkorian who independently financed the picture, have been looking to make a sweeping epic in the classic style of old Hollywood… even though Hollywood for the most part wanted nothing to do with the material.
“Yes, there have been several attempts to make a film about the Armenian Genocide, particularly as a Hollywood production,” Esrailian says in a separate interview. “The Turkish government has been working feverishly for 102 years and spending an endless amount of money to try to suppress the truth. And other potential geopolitical partners have had to basically kowtow to the pressure. So the State Department got involved on more than one occasion in the United States, basically pressuring studios.”
Famously, this includes multiple letters being sent to MGM by the U.S. government in the 1930s when it tried to adapt the historical fiction novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh to the screen with Clark Gable attached to star.
But a modern variation in the 21st century with stars like Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac did eventually come to fruition, only now they and all other participants hope a theatrical release is merely the beginning of a greater dialogue about remembering the Armenian Genocide, and why it’s been dangerous to forget.
Says Bale, “It’s got to be a larger conversation because it has to be relevant today. Now of course the Armenian population, their feelings and the desire for recognition, is absolutely relevant, but the fact that this violence is able to be perpetrated, often the violators get away with impunity, that is completely relevant.” It is also a reason that like everyone else involved in the project, the actor seems pleased to note that all of the proceeds earned by the production company Survival Pictures—created for The Promise—will be going to charity.
“Obviously, they want recognition for what happened with the Armenian Genocide, but they want compassion for all people in distress and recognition of all genocides. And they’re donating all the proceeds towards charities that aim to hold people accountable for genocide, to recognize and name perpetrators of human rights abuses and refugees.” Among these charities are human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Shoah Foundation with which The Promise partnered, as well as the creation of The Promise for Human Rights at UCLA’s School of Law.
But for all of its real world implications, The Promise is itself still an unapologetic melodrama built in a classical mold around the problems of three little people trying to amount to something in this crazy world. Indeed, it’s an old school love triangle in which Armenian characters like Oscar Isaac’s Mikael Boghosian and Charlotte Le Bon’s Ana Khesarian are being targeted due to their Armenian heritage—and Christian Bale’s Chris Myers also risks life and limb in Turkey for simply being a bellicose American journalist from the Associated Press who doesn’t like what he sees. Nor does the Ottoman government like what he attempts to write and photograph.
It’s a decidedly old fashioned style of moviemaking, which Bale is no stranger to. Obviously taking cues from David Lean, and more precisely Doctor Zhivago, director Terry George is looking for a fading affectation. And as Bale’s second film Empire of the Sun was also in the Lean vein, right down to Lean almost directing the picture before leaving the project to Steven Spielberg due to his advancing age, it’s a storytelling style that the actor cherishes.
“It is going away,” Bale laments. “It’s too expensive. Terry was incredibly fortunate to be able to get the financing through Kirk Kerkorian.” He also adds, “That’s one thing [about] the film, that Terry George, the director, made a choice. He wants the film to be seen by young people. He always wanted it to be PG-13, therefore he does not show quite how barbaric the actual killings were in the facts. And I would often ask him why aren’t we doing that. He was very strong-minded about this desire to use it as an educational tool and blend that with Survival Pictures, who are financing the film, and who saw the film as only one aspect of a much bigger social campaign.”
As for the character Bale plays, Chris Myles is a headstrong American journalist who after a few drinks doesn’t mind mocking visiting German dignitaries to their faces, nor does he put away his camera when told to while in the presence of rotting bodies. There is a definite early 20th century edge to the persona that allows one to imagine him sharing a drink with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald in Paris a few years down the line. It’s a comparison that Bale also seems to enjoy, however he views Myles as a tribute to the role of muckrakers in the 20th century, as well as the role of journalists today.
“I looked at the era, and there were journalists known as the muckrakers at the time. Upton Sinclair is probably the most famous of them, but I was intrigued most by Lincoln Steffens. He wrote The Shame of Our Cities [about corruption in American city governments]. It was a mixture of attitude but also to do with look. Terry very much liked me to think of Christopher Hitchens, and in that regard I believe what he meant was that there is an arrogance, a pride, an opinion by many other people that he’s kind of dissolute.”
Bale also views the fierce intelligence of his character as a necessity of which we need now in 2017.
“Information was hard to get out of [Turkey]. They recognized at that time that they clearly didn’t want people to know what was happening. Photographing the atrocities was illegal, and of course all of this is relevant now with all this kind of post-truth era nonsense, alternative facts, fake news, etcetera, of just how important good journalism, reliable journalism is in any functioning democracy.”
It’s a battle that anyone can see being waged on television screens, newspaper apps, and internet websites, as dissemination of misinformation becomes ubiquitous and expected. Even The Promise, though not thwarted by any official channels like MGM was 80 years ago, faced an onslaught of political pressures and a modern “fake news” wrinkle.
“There’s definitely pushback,” Esrailian remarks 102 years after a state power first began denying its mass graves. “Along the way, there’s always been pressure on actors and studios, some studio executives told me without seeing the film that regardless of what happens, they can’t be involved with the project… It’s explicit. One of our actors was called into the embassy in his country and given propaganda. We had this whole attack on IMDb with trolls trying to down-vote the movie before it’s even come out. We have over 120,000 votes now of a film that hasn’t even come out into the theaters.”
The producer even dismisses a recent similar “epic” featuring Ben Kingsley called The Ottoman Lieutenant, which after receiving primarily Turkish funding was released in February. That movie told a WWI love story involving an American nurse and a Turkish officer, but the concurrent genocide occurring in the film’s backdrop went noticeably unmentioned.
“That’s nothing compared to what my ancestors went through and it’s not going to work,” Esrailian smiles.
For Bale it all seems to be a reminder as to why doing this movie was so worthwhile, as well as why he was the first major name to sign onto the project. Looking out a window on a gloomy Manhattan day, he recalls a disquieting quote delivered by Adolf Hitler in 1939: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Bale ponders, “Would these other genocides have happened if there had been consequences for the Armenian Genocide?”
It’s an open question, but at least it’s now being asked in the West. In that sense, The Promise has already delivered on its vow.
The Promise is playing in theaters now.