Every year, on April 24, a solemn procession of men, women, and children commences in Yerevan, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Armenia. A sea of sad Armenian faces makes its way up to the hill of Tsitsernakaberd to the Armenian Genocide Memorial. It is here that every year the victims of one of the 20th century’s greatest crimes are quietly honored.
An ancient Christian country located just south of Russia and east of Turkey, Armenia has seen much suffering in its long history. However, of all the tragedies experienced by this small yet resilient nation, none compares to the enormity of the Armenian genocide of 1915. The genocide was committed by the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Possessed by a fanatical nationalism, the ruling Young Turk government accused its Christian Armenian subjects of sympathizing with the hated Russian enemy. What followed was the planned, systematic, and ruthless mass murder of as many as 1.5 million Armenian civilians.
“Of all the sufferers of the war,” wrote American diplomat Lewis Einstein in The Nation in 1920, “none have endured more than the Armenians, victims less of its horrors than of the Turkish Government’s diabolical policy of murder.” To this day, Turkey continues to deny the historical reality of the genocide, despite overwhelming scholarly evidence. After over 100 years, the denial of this horrific crime has left the Armenian people in state of incomplete mourning.
Terry George’s forthcoming film The Promise captures the magnitude of this history in a way that no prior film on the genocide has done before. With its sweeping cinematography, powerful acting, and all-encompassing story, it is a truly epic work that effectively and humanely conveys the story of the tragedy.
Bringing the tragedy to the screen
Given Turkey’s continued stance of denial, making a film about the genocide has never been an easy task. Efforts to produce such a film in Hollywood were consistently blocked by the Turkish government. The most infamous instance of this was in the 1930s, when Ankara pressured MGM into abandoning plans for producing an adaptation of the novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, by Austrian-Jewish writer Franz Werfel. The novel was based on real events in which a small community of Armenians living in the mountains of Turkey’s present-day Hatay Province (on the Syrian border) defended themselves against deportation by Ottoman authorities.
Due to Werfel’s Jewish background, the novel was banned in Hitler’s Third Reich and subject to mass book burnings. The book eventually came to the attention of MGM’s Irving Thalberg, who bought the rights and decided to have it produced as a film. Pre-production began in 1934. Clark Gable was to be the star. However, due to pressure from the Turkish government (including anti-Semitic threats by Ankara against MGM as a “Jewish studio”), Louis B. Mayer canceled the project.