Accessing the Armenian Genocide: Christian Bale on Tapping Into Historical Suffering For The Promise

The Promise, an old-fashioned romantic epic in the vein of David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago or Warren Beatty’s Reds, might not be the obvious film you’d think to find Christian Bale leading.

The movie is a romantic triangle set in 1914 Constantinople in which Bale and Oscar Isaac, playing an American war reporter named Chris and a medical student named Mikael respectively, fall in love with the same woman (Charlotte Le Bon).

Yet The Promise, directed by the social minded Terry George (Hotel Rwanda), who co-wrote with Oscar-nominated screenwriter Robin Swicord, is much more than a romance. It has as its subject the Armenian genocide of 1.5 million people around the end of the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish government has been so successful in suppressing this shameful and horrific part of their history that it has rarely, if ever, been depicted on screen.

Even now there seems to be a disinformation campaign to sabotage the film. At the press conference in Manhattan last week, George spoke about how the film’s IMDb page was flooded early on with one-star ratings, though the film had only screened a couple times in Toronto.

George and producers Eric Esrailian and Mike Medavoy noted at the press conference that the intention of the movie is to educate and to put the story of the genocide in the public consciousness. All proceeds from the film will go to charity. It was financed by the late Armenian entrepreneur Kirk Kerkorian, who intended the film to be a teaching tool, and was shot in Spain and Malta.

English star Bale has been making films for the past three decades. His break-out role was in 1987 in Steven Spielberg’s Empire in the Sun. His portrayal of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (2000) is iconic, and his role as boxer and trainer Dicky Eklund in The Fighter (2010) brought him an Oscar. Bale is most famous for playing Batman in the three Christopher Nolan films. More recently the 43-year-old actor shined in Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups and Adam McKay’s The Big Short (both 2015).

The Promise is about a serious subject, and the tone at the press conference was appropriately sombre. But when his mic went dead, Bale, in a faux posh English accent, playfully exclaimed, “I’m a classically trained actor. I can use my diaphragm.”
The actor, who resides in L.A., speaks with a decidedly non-posh English accent. His face was ruddy, like he’d been in the sun recently, and he looked healthy and fit. He famously does not like doing interviews, but he was charming and polite, yet skillfully maneuvered the conversation away from him and onto the serious nature of The Promise.

Christian Bale and Charlotte Le Bon in The Promise. Photograph by Jose Haro

Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): You mentioned at the press conference that you’d never heard of the Armenian genocide when you signed on the film. Is that true?

Christian Bale (CB): Unbelievably, I didn’t know about it. Listen, I’m not an educated man at all, but many people I’ve spoken with had never heard of the Armenian genocide. It’s astonishing, but a very sad fact. You know, victors get to write history, the success of disinformation… but the fact that there were really no consequences to the genocide. Nobody was every really held accountable. This has allowed for a hundred years of silencing and creating an impression, even once you are aware of the genocide, that there are two sides to the story. And there’s a debate whether it really happened or not. Much like the sort of spurious debate, in quotation remarks, about whether climate change is real or not that is happening in the states. But it’s such an important part of modern history, so tragic, so barbaric, but also so telling. Because of the lack of consequences, this may have [allowed for] some of the genocides that we have witnessed in the last century since the Armenian genocide.

MM: Did you talk or meet with any Armenians?

PS: I didn’t get to meet with any survivors, but I met with many Armenian scholars, went to museums, libraries, read many books, saw documentaries. I saw some of the survivors talking, heard their stories of survival and of witnessing the brutal murder of many friends and family and then tried to understand what it must be like to have witnessed that, to have gone through the worse nightmare possible and then to have people denying that that happened and to actually have people accuse you of lying about it. That must be insufferable. That must be so painful. And then to see that there have been efforts to make a film of this scale about the genocide numerous times and to see again, and again, and again, that the efforts were stopped due to Turkish interests, because of the strategic importance of Turkey. Despite that, there are more world leaders now starting to recognize it and call it what it is, to call it genocide.

But we still haven’t, for instance, had a sitting U.S. president call it genocide. Obama did before he was president but not during. What a history to have lived with for so long! And of course a film cannot answer that in any way, but it can help, certainly. And also Survival Pictures, which was started by Kirk Kerkorian, their entire mission is, “It’s not just a film, it’s a social campaign.”

MM: What’s the importance of this movie in the Trump era?

CB: It’s that word “compassion,” isn’t it? The lack of it that we’re seeing… We see [the lack], obviously, in Britain with Breixit. We see it here with Trump. The encouragement by politicians of xenophobia, to the point where it’s just straight-out racism. And this lack of compassion for other human beings. It really does feel very often like we’ve become so divided, not just nationally but globally… And look at where we are right now. Many of the deportations, as they were euphemistically called—death marches, really—ended up in Aleppo. There are many, many bones under the sand outside of Aleppo and now we see the tragedy occurring in Aleppo and the refugee crisis. There’s certainly hope by the filmmakers of The Promise, very altruistic intentions, in whatever way we can, to raise awareness and to raise compassion for people in need.

MM: What you hope audiences take from the film?

CB: Obviously there was the heavy presence of Germany in Turkey at that time. There were previous experiments down in Africa with concentration camps, etc. Then this. Then you’ve got Hitler saying, “Does anyone even remember the Armenian genocide,” you know? [Hitler said, “Who, after all, speaks to-day of the annihilation of the Armenians?” in his Obersalzberg Speech on August 22, 1939.] You can’t help but wonder well if there had been consequences possibly could that have made a difference to the history of other genocides since.

Le Bon, Oscar Isaac and Bale in The Promise. Photograph by Jose Haro

MM: Talk about Terry George and how he was able to bring out a human story, an intimate love story. considering the scope of the film, the hundreds of extras and so much going on.

CB: I had a lot of conversations with him about this. I did ask him why he’s choosing not to show much of the stomach-turning violence that was enacted upon the Armenian population. [It was for] some of the reasons I was alluding to: He really wanted this to be used as an educational tool, so he very much wanted this to be PG-13 and therefore, he wanted to try to create a sense of what was happening off screen. It’s very ambitious to try that. But also to find in the more personal story something that people could relate to, in the hope that then they could actually make the jump and begin to feel for the bigger picture behind the story.

And Terry is—as I’m sure most filmmakers are—Terry would verbalize to us often that he’s a great David Lean fan, Doctor Zhivago, and Warren Beatty’s Reds: These are the films that he adores and was hoping to be able to get an opportunity to make something in that kind of genre.

MM: You’ve worked with several directors, like David O. Russell, over and again. How did your collaboration with Terry George compare to working with other directors?

CB: Terry is an incredibly passionate man. He is somebody who I like very much. I think probably there was a meeting of minds with himself and Survival Pictures. If you look at his films, whether he’s been director or writer, there tend to be bigger pictures and there tends to be a feeling that here is a man who wants to achieve something beyond just the film. And in no way am I saying that should always be the case—of course not.

Filmmaking is wonderful and fascinating because we’re looking at human beings and storytelling, but Terry is very much a man with a cause and with a purpose. That goes right back to his first project, when he first started writing, which was [the autobiographical play] The Tunnel, about him and other inmates digging themselves out of the Maze [Long Kesh Prison], the prison in Northern Ireland. I was very aware of all of that growing up in England; I would see graffiti, which I didn’t understand—I was too young and I didn’t really know what it meant—it would say, “Smash H Block” and stuff like that. I didn’t know that was part of the Maze. But then to hear about Terry digging this tunnel with spoons and knowing, OK, they’re out past first the first wall, they’re out past the second wall; right, time to go up, and realizing that they’d done a complete 180—they’d gone out past the second wall and they’d come right back in underneath it and dug their way back into the prison. That was when he first became a writer. He wrote about that experience. And so that was the seed that started him doing him what he does, what he’s best known for.

Terry George (L) on the set of The Promise

MM: How did you get on with him personally and professionally?

CB: I like Terry immensely, yeah. I enjoy his company. I like his ideas. He’s got a strong personality so you don’t have to worry about upsetting him. MM

The Promise opened in theaters April 21, 2017, courtesy of Open Road Films. All images courtesy of Open Road Films.

1 Comment

  1. Alexa Heaton

    May 25, 2017 at 9:27 am

    The love triangle does overshadow the main theme of genocide at times, but I do know more about the genocide than I did and the film, which has some good performances, is extremely watchable. Christian Bale’s performance, as well as his dedication to the film, was awe-inspiring.

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