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Hello again MoFo’s! Once again it is time for At the Theater with The Gunslinger 45. Well we have a movie in theaters that is mired in controversy. The Promise is a romance film set during the days of World War I in the Ottoman Empire. And history being what it is, and the Young Turks being in charge, the flick is set in the back drop of the systematic genocide of the Armenian population. So where is the controversy? Well the issue arises in that the Turkish Government (and many Turks) do not recognize that the Armenian Genocide ever happened, and it has been a sore spot for them for decades. So naturally Turkey is kinda pissed. And the battle over this film has been taken to IMDB. There has been a mass influx of 1 star ratings for the film by deniers of the Armenian Genocide. Having read some of these 1 star postings, they are screaming about lies against the Turkish people, the film being biased in favor of the Armenians, “racist” towards the Turks, and the like. One of these negative reviews was from a poster in “Orlando” and could barely type English. I think it is safe to say very few of these posters actually saw the movie. The response by Armenians then was then to up the film’s rating with their 10/10 ratings. As I am typing this review the rating for The Promise is at 5.8 out of 10 on IMDB. And to muddy the waters further, it has an “A-“ on Cinema Score, a 47% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes as scored by critics and a 95% positive as scored by the general audience. But unlike IMDB, the professional critics seem more focused on the love triangle being lackluster and unneeded. So I was curious. Was this a bad movie? I’m not going to lie; I was not enthused by the trailer. It looked like a crappy romance movie trying to rip of Titanic. So my biggest fear was this was going to be another Pearl Harbor. That being said, I am more willing to see a movie I would probably pass on if there is a bit of controversy surrounding it. So with a day off and a fresh paycheck in my bank account, I figured now would be a great time to check out The Promise. Besides, the theater I went to has Vanilla Coke. And to my surprise, I thought it was pretty damn good. Want to know more? Hop on board the Delorean kiddies! We are going back in time to 1914 as we look at The Promise.

I think we all know the plot so I will try to keep it short. In the small Armenian village of Surin the local apothecary Mikael (played by Oscar Isaac) lives a life of potions and simples cures with his mother Marta and his father Vartan (played by Kevork Malikyan aka Kazim from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). Mikael wants to be a proper doctor though. So, in order to pay for medical school, he gets engaged to a woman whose father gives him 400 gold coins for a dowry. Mikael uses the money to travel to Constantinople to meet up with his wealthy uncle. While there he meets the dance teacher to his cousins, Ana. Ana is Armenian as well but speaks with a French accent from her travels abroad (also to hide that the actress Charlotte Le Bon is French Canadian). She is also the girlfriend to Associated Press reporter Chris Myers (Christian Bale). Mikael become smitten with Ana and she starts to fall for him as well. Naturally things are difficult seeing how Mikael is betrothed and Ana is already taken. And then further trouble arises in 1915 when the Young Turks begin to round up Armenians for “relocation.” Mikael must fight to stay alive and flee Turkey as he watches his people be slaughtered by the Turkish forces.

Okay so we know the plot and you know I though the movie was good overall. So how about that burning question; was the film’s romance element really necessary? In all honesty no. And truth be told it is the weakest part of the film. Thankfully however the romance and love triangle was not bad. It wasn’t great. It was just… serviceable. This was by no means on the level of bad romance of say the truly awful Pearl Harbor or as bland as Attack of the Clones. In fact the movie it did remind me of was another movie I really like, Enemy at the Gates. That movie had a romance subplot set alongside the German invasion of Stalingrad in WWII. Only The Promise has less sniping by Vasily Zaytsev. Oscar Isaac was great as a shy and kind of awkward villager and Charlotte Le Bon was equally good as a worldly but sweet girl. Both were great in their roles, but it was when they were put together trying to show deep passion where the movie fell short. There was no real connection between them other then they were both Armenian. Now I could definitely see friendship and even some attraction. They got along fine there. But this is a movie based on that they were so in love that one would rush to the other in the midst of mass murder. The writing of the characters was as good as you were going to get, but ultimately the chemistry failed to sizzle. When compared to the likes of Bogie and Bacall, these two actors were just lukewarm.

That being said despite the flaws I did like this movie. Even with the romance being a bit ho-hum, it did not distract me from the rest of the flick. And even when we focus on these characters there are big chunks of the movie where the two main lovers are apart. And I think that is a big part of what helped minimize the mediocre love triangle; the film’s structure. In Titanic and Pearl Harbor, both were three hour movies where the first two acts focused on the bland romance being forced down our throats. Then in the last act sh*t would finally gets real and we see the boat sink or the Japanese attack. In The Promise they improve on this structure. The first act focuses on the love triangle, then act two starts with sh*t getting real and the Armenians getting round up, and act three is the escape of Turkey at Musa Dagh. And while the love triangle does reappear and conclude in the third act, thankfully it does take a noticeable 2nd place seat to the escape. And this film did it in 2 hours and 12 minutes. So the flick flows much better and is a much easier film to sit through. Plus the cast is really good. The acting is very good, the production design is great, the set locations were beautiful, the final act of the film was very engaging, and the scenes of the genocide were heart wrenching.

So if the rest of the film is so good, why was the whole romance element even needed? Why not just do a movie based on the Armenian Genocide to begin with? I initially thought it was some lazy producer wanting to go with a crappy love story with a historical event’s backdrop. You know; a cheap sort of Hollywood movie studio rip off with a “Titanic in Turkey” pitch. Turns out that is not the case. It is actually more complicated than that. Especially since this isn’t a major studio movie. And for a very important reason.

Hollywood has actually tried to make a movie about the Armenian Genocide for decades and failed. Going back as far as 1934 Hollywood has tried to make a movie about the Armenian escape at Musa Dagh. Franz Werfel published a novel in 1933 called The Forty Days of Musa Dagh which details the escape of the Armenians thanks to the efforts of the French Navy. And the film rights were bought by MGM. MGM began pre-production on the film but eventually the studio caved and halted the film when the Turkish Ambassador Mehmet Munir Ertegun got the US State Department involved and threatened a worldwide campaign against the film. Future productions of a movie about Musa Dagh and the Armenian genocide have gotten similar responses. Even when big names like Sylvester Stallone and Mel Gibson were interested in making movies about it the studios caved. The Turks got together and pressured the studios to not make the movie.

So who made this one? Well I did a bit of digging. The studio that made the movie was Survival Pictures; and it was founded by Kirk Kerkorian: a very wealthy business man with past business dealings in Las Vegas, the auto Industry, and even formally owning MGM Studios (plus the MGM casino). Kirk Kerkorian was a very wealthy man, philanthropist, and an Armenian American. According to the studio’s website, the studio “was born out of Kirk Kerkorian’s unwavering dedication to telling inspiring human stories for audiences around the world.” And Kerkorian wanted to finally tell a movie about the Armenian Genocide. So now I can only really speculate. So the romance element was more of an artistic choice than anything else and they wanted to go for a Dr Zhivago type movie; or they figured the romance angle would make it an easier sell to movie chains. I may not agree with the choice, but I’ll be damned if I can’t say kudos for financing your own movie studio to tell a story you want.

So that was The Promise. Overall I say it was a good movie. Granted I would have preferred a more focused film on Musa Dagh, but when the film focused on the history and genocide it is in top form. And even though the romance was not needed it never took me out of the film. Hell even if you just focus on the characters in the historical context and just ignore the love triangle the flick still holds up on its own. And it is leagues better than the 5.8 on IMDB and 47% on Rotten Tomatoes. Further fueling my distaste for these ratings systems. I say give the film a watch. If you have a few extra bucks to spend and you have nothing else at the cinema to watch, give it a shot. If not it is definitely something to check out on Netflix or Red Box.