Exactly 102 years ago today, Ottoman authorities arrested and executed several hundred Armenian intellectuals and community leaders from Constantinople. April 24, 1915 became the start date for what the relatively few people who even know about it now call the Armenian Genocide. When the massacres and deportations finally ended in the early 1920s, about 1.5 million of Turkey’s 2 million Armenians were dead. That’s 3/4 of the entire population.
I wasn’t planning on writing about The Promise. After first seeing the trailers, I hadn’t even planned on seeing it until it was out on DVD. Then I found out that there were tens of thousands of negative reviews for the film online when it hadn’t even been released yet. That caught my attention, because often the stories people work hardest to silence are the ones it’s most important to tell.
Having seen the film now I’d say that’s definitely the case here. And not only is it an important story, it’s a well done film despite what critics are saying. It’s beyond me why so many critical reviews are up in arms about the love story, accusing it of overshadowing the genocide. (Okay, they probably could have spent less time on romance, but it’s still not intrusive enough to “ruin” the film). The Promise is not a documentary and it’s rated PG-13. Of course they’re going to follow a few key characters, try to get the audience interested in their fates and desires, and then show the historical events through those characters’ eyes.
It’s been widely assumed that a Turkish smear campaign was to blame for the low initial ratings and abundance of poor reviews on IMDB. But now American critics (who presumably aren’t influenced by Turkey’s vehement denial that the Armenian Genocide actually happened) are rating it poorly. Aside from criticisms of the romantic triangle, scrolling through reviews from top critics on Rotten Tomatoes reveals a host of complaints. Some feel the film tries to tackle too many weighty topics at once. Others feel it “lacks the energy and originality needed to sustain itself” (Katie Walsh). Another writes, “It’s also saddled with the tone of a biblical epic, invisibly watermarked with the label important” (David Calhoun).
Perhaps that last reviewer is hinting at why I suspect at least some of the reviewers don’t like the movie. It’s unapologetically pro-Christian. And so it’s accused of being preachy or too obsessed with it’s own importance. As a Christian who rarely watches Christian films because the preachy tone annoys me, too, that’s the last thing I would accuse The Promise of. It was more like Hacksaw Ridge in the sense that it’s about people who are Christian rather than being a “Christian film” (which, indirectly, gives the films a more powerful Christian message).
One critical reviewer added another comment. Though they admitted the Ottoman’ Empire’s treatment of its Armenian citizens was “horrific” they added, “For all its real-world majesty, the Ottoman Empire — now Turkey — comes off as being a great big, backwards sandbox in ‘The Promise’.” But the country wasn’t portrayed as “backwards.” They were portrayed as religious bigots (save for two Muslims, one of whom was among the film’s most compelling and heroic characters). However much we don’t like to talk about Muslims killing Christians in today’s politically correct society (though it’s still happening today), the fact remains that the Armenians were Christian and the Turkish people who slaughtered them were Muslim. And it really is okay to call out the people involved in horrific crimes such as the Armenian Genocide for what they did in the name of their religion.
I highly recommend you go see The Promise. And I’d urge you to see in theaters, not only because it’s a good film telling a story that needs to be shared, but also because the ticket sales send a message to the people who tried to kill this movie. On top of that, all proceeds from the theatrical run are going to human rights and humanitarian groups. Let’s show everyone that we care about truth in history, that we’re willing to engage with controversial stories, and we won’t be quiet about atrocities.