Rated PG-13. Running Time: 2 hours 13 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 2; Sex/ Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.
Thanks to director Terry George’s film we now have a second feature film set amidst what some historians have called the 20th Century’s First Holocaust, the mass slaughter of Armenians in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire in 1915 during WW 1. There had been numerous pogroms inflicted by their Muslim rulers on the Armenian Christians during the 19th century, but their death tolls mounting into the thousands paled in comparison to the well over a million men, women and children who were murdered a little over a hundred years ago. George and his co-writer Robin Swicord based their script on Austrian Franz Werfel’s 1933 novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a talented Austrian writer* whom historians have affirmed, got his facts right. (With Hitler’s rise to power in that year, the book was burned and banned, and the author forced to emigrate when the Germans annexed Austria.)
The film opens in the village of Siroun in 1914 where Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac), working in an apothecary, hopes someday to be able to attend medical school. His father arranges a marriage with a wealthy family that includes a large dowry that can pay tuition expenses for medical school in Constantinople. He will be able to live with his uncle during his studies. He assumes that he will fall in love with the woman, Maral (Angela Sarafyan) he has just been introduced to, but because she is not his co-star, we know otherwise.
Sure enough, in Constantinople on his arrival at the uncle’s mansion, he is introduced to Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), just returned from dance school in Paris and currently teaching dance to the two lively young daughters of his uncle. She is currently the love interest of the American AP correspondent Chris Myers (Christian Bale), in the city to report on the growing ethnic tensions in Turkey. Thus, a love triangle develops, with Ana and Mikael drawing every closer as ethnic violence rises in the city and across Turkey. Before fleeing the city, Mikael and Ana barely escape from a street mob of Turks bent on smashing Arminian-owned shops and beating anyone they come across in the streets.
During the course of the story we see round-ups and forced marches of Armenian victims. Chris has hired a car to take him into the countryside where he sees at a distance soldiers shoot a woman who has fallen out of line. When they spot him taking a picture, they chase after him, but fortunately their horses cannot catch up to the speeding car. Mikael is seized and sent to a slave labor camp where the prisoners work laying down tracks for the new railroad. After witnessing many cruelties, he escapes when a fellow prisoner blows himself and his guards up.
Their love story climaxes on the mountain called Musa Dagh where some 5000 Arminian refugees hope to find safety. Having seen the bodies of everyone from his home village piled up just outside the town, Mikael is able to convince the column of refugees and their leaders that their rulers are indeed bent on exterminating all Armenians so that they will have to defend themselves. The mountain offers them a means of setting up a better defense against their pursuers, and a view of the sea from which maybe the French warships patrolling the area might spot their signal fires and come to rescue them.
People of faith will be glad to see that the role of the church is recognized by the filmmakers. There is a fairly long scene of Mikael and his villagers worshiping in their village, all joining in the singing led by the priest. Much later at an orphanage run by Protestant missionaries this beautiful liturgical music comes in on the soundtrack over the French-Canadian song “Alouette” as Ana leads the children’s singing, making for a lovely blend. The head of the orphanage is Pastor Merril (Andrew Tarbet), a missionary dedicated to serving the weakest of the victims. (There was a huge relief project mounted in Europe and the United Sates to bring food, shelter, and safety to Armenians and other groups driven from their homes in Turkey.) Another minister (or priest) is the
Reverend Dikran Antreassian (Daniel Giménez-Cacho), a real-life Armenian who, according to an account I read, was an organizer of the resistance at Mount Moses (Musa Dagh).
Chris had been arrested as a spy and saved from execution by their Turkish friend Emre Ogan (Marwan Kenzaro), who paid for his life for his gallant effort. The journalist now joins the group at the mountain as, with just a few rifles but lots of rocks and sticks, the people dig in and await the arrival of the Turkish troops. After a fierce skirmish, the over-confident Turks are forced to run away, leaving behind many bodies—and rifles and ammunition. The government promptly dispatches from Gallipoli a unit equipped with artillery commanded by a veteran general. However, the ragged band of Armenians prove far tougher than anticipated, this sequence reminding me of the fierce resistance of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto during the next World War. (For a riveting retelling of this heroic saga see my review of Uprising.)
Although sad and depressing in depictions of the ways that men can drive themselves and their subordinates to mass murder, the film is also inspiring in that it also shows people rising to heights of bravery and compassion. The latter includes a Muslim pair who offer aid at one point, and, of course, the Turkish playboy friend of the three lovers who served as the means for Chris’s escape from death, but at the cost of his own life, And the battle atop the mountain, though it involves a measure of tragedy for our three fictional characters, concludes with a note of triumph which I will leave to you to discover.
The major cast members are excellent, and there is a great cameo by James Cromwell as real life U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, who serves as a wonderful example of what a skillful diplomate can achieve. Although some critics are right in judging the love story as “predictable,” this in no wise detracts from the dramatic power of the scenes of persecution and execution spread throughout the film. Other than Canadian-Armenian filmmaker Atom Egoyan’s Ararat, we have no feature film that brings the horror of that action to public attention. (Hopefully, documentarian Joe Berlinger, who spent much time on the set of this film, will be releasing a non-fiction account of this genocide.) During our time of nationalistic xenophobia and tendency to reject refugees, such a film as this is needed. In a 1939 speech, Hitler** said cynically, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Well, Terry George, director of the powerful film about genocide in Africa Hotel Rwanda, has. Embittered by the murder of his family and neighbors, it is understandable that Mikael wants to get even with the killers. At one point, he says to Ana, “I want revenge.” “Our revenge will be to survive,” replies Ana. Survive some did, and this film is a tribute to them. To this day, the government of Turkey continues to deny that a genocide took place on their soil, but Terry George and Atom Egoyan are two filmmakers who have tried to make the world listen and care. It behooves us to support and affirm their witness to human depravity and nobility.
*From Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armenian_Genocide
This review with a set of questions will be in the May 2017 issue of VP.