'The Promise' vs. 'The Ottoman Lieutenant': Two Movies Battle Over the Armenian Genocide

'The Promise' 'Ottoman Lieutenant' - Split - H 2017
Courtesy of Open Road Films/Screengrab

The filmmakers behind new historical epic 'The Promise,' starring Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale, charge that Turkish interests tried to counter their film by creating a competing movie.

The two films — released just over a month apart — look remarkably similar. Both promise sweeping love stories, both boast Hollywood talent, and both are set against the massacre of Armenians in Turkey during and after World War I, a gruesome period of history that led to the creation of one of the dictionary’s most horrific terms, genocide, coined by Raphael Lemkin in the wake of World War II.

But the similarities between The Ottoman Lieutenant, which opened March 20, and The Promise, which arrives in theaters Friday, may be more than just coincidence. In fact, the filmmakers behind The Promise charge that The Ottoman Lieutenant may be part of Turkish efforts to deny that the Armenian Genocide took place.

The Promise, starring Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale and directed by Hotel Rwanda’s Terry George, is the more high-profile of the two features, having received a major marketing push in recent weeks. The project, which Open Road is distributing, was a longtime dream of the late billionaire and MGM owner Kirk Kerkorian, who personally financed the movie’s massive $100 million budget.

The Ottoman Lieutenant stars Josh Hartnett alongside rising actress Hera Hilmar, features a cameo from Ben Kingsley and was directed by Joseph Rubin, best known for such films as 1987’s The Stepfather and 1991’s Sleeping With the Enemy. Released on March 10 by New York-based Paladin, the film played 216 theaters where it collected less than $150,000 in its first weekend.

The trailers for both films appear to follow the same strategy: Both kick off in dreamy fashion in the sprawling continent-straddling and minaret-studded metropolis of Constantinople (now Istanbul), both offering plenty of iconic Turkish imagery, both taking a violent turn with the outbreak of war and both offering a sizable degree of melodrama along the way.

But, as the reviews have made clear, there is one major difference between the two films.

Whereas The Promise lays the blame for the Armenian Genocide, the systematic extermination of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians, squarely at the feet of the Ottoman government — a fact almost unanimously acknowledged by historians — The Ottoman Lieutenant offers a more revisionist viewpoint. While the film acknowledges that massacres took place, it blames rogue groups of war-ravaged soldiers, presenting the mass killings as unfortunate consequences of the hostilities and not something ordered from up top (in fact, the film's dashing protagonist, a Turkish soldier, ultimately puts his life on the line to save a group of Armenian villagers).

That revisionist interpretation is also the official position of the Turkish government, which has, for the past 100 years, vehemently denied that any such genocide took place. And so the creators of The Promise believe that The Ottoman Lieutenant was produced not only in an attempt to blunt some of the impact of their film, but they also suspect and are alleging that there may be links between the film and the hard-line government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who on April 16 won a controversial referendum granting him expanded powers. The key figures in the making of The Ottoman Lieutenant did not respond to THR’s requests for comment.

George, speaking with THR, cited the "remarkable" similarity in the style of the two films, right down to their publicity materials. Promise producer Eric Esralien echoed that observation, noting The Ottoman Lieutenant’s title treatment “looked exactly the same as ours.” He called the rival film “another alternative fact-type smokescreen” that tries to “confuse people.” Added George, “It’s not hard to see the motivation. Clearly, they had to have gotten wind of us making this film.”

Mike Medavoy, another of The Promise's producers, took it a step further at the film's New York premiere earlier this week, alleging that Bilal Erdogan, the 35-year-old son of the Turkish president, had a hand in financing The Ottoman Lieutenant. “What’s interesting to me is that they felt they needed to make this counter-political argument,” said Medavoy.

To explain The Ottoman Lieutenant’s possible connection to the Turkish government, Carla Garapedian, an associate producer on The Promise who works for the nonprofit Armenian Film Foundation, first points to a discovery by an organization called Project Save, a Massachusetts-based archive of old Armenian photos. Contacted by The Ottoman Lieutenant’s producers asking to license some images, the curator made some inquiries. "He found that the production was Turkish-financed," says Garapedian. Project Save ultimately declined to license any photos to The Ottoman Lieutenant.

Bilal Erdogan is believed to have business ties outside the film industry with Yusuf Esenkal, the founder of Eastern Sunrise Film and also a producer of The Ottoman Lieutenant. Esenkal also is a producer of Filinta, a Turkish soap opera (described by one source as “like a crude Ottoman Downton Abbey”) that aired between 2014 and 2016 and believed to be one of the most expensive series on local TV. President Erdogan and his wife are known to have visited the Filinta set, congratulating the entire production team.

Esenkal’s work often seems to downplay some of the most notorious periods of bloodshed in Turkish history. The producer's small-screen follow-up to Filinta, also produced by Eastern Sunrise Film (or ES Film as it is sometimes called) is another extravagant period series, Payitaht Abdulhamid, a biopic of Abdulhamid II, the last sultan of Turkey, which began airing in February. Historians outside of Turkey sometimes refer to Abdulhamid as the “Red Sultan,” a nickname he earned due to the well-documented massacres of hundreds of thousands of Armenians that took place during his rule in the late 19th century, a precursor to the eventual genocide that started in 1915. But in the TV show Abdulhamid is depicted as a noble leader forced to do what he must to protect the Ottoman Empire.

It’s not clear what role Esenkal may have played in shaping The Ottoman Lieutenant. He didn’t respond to THR’s queries, nor did others in the creative team, including the U.S.-based producer Stephen Brown (U.S. Marshals, The Devil’s Advocate). Reps for director Rubin explained that he had a “nondisparagement clause” in his contract and wasn’t doing any press for the film.

The only person who did respond to THR was Ron Bareham, the film’s line producer, who said he wasn’t convinced The Ottoman Lieutenant was produced because of The Promise. “There was talk about [The Promise] when we were filming, but this film was started years before,” he says. “ As far as I know, the gestation period was six to eight years.” U.K.-based Bareham, who was brought on at the last moment to replace a previous line producer who left the weekend before production was to have started, admitted that he was mostly unaware of the history — and financing — behind The Ottoman Lieutenant.

George does acknowledge that “[The Ottoman Lieutenant] started shooting, from what I’ve read, before us.”

But there was definitely jockeying for release dates between the two films.

Initially, when it looked as if The Promise would be getting a December 2016 release, it was announced that The Ottoman Lieutenant would be given an Oscar-qualifying run that same month. When it was then officially announced that The Promise would be released April 21, The Ottoman Lieutenant’s U.S. launch was pushed to March 10. The jostling has led to claims from several online commentators that producers have simply been trying to “confuse” U.S. cinemagoers. The Ottoman Lieutenant’s domestic distributor, Paladin Pictures, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

If The Ottoman Lieutenant was, in fact, a Turkish government-funded piece of cinematic propaganda designed to counter The Promise, it didn’t have much impact at the box office, where it grossed less than $250,000 in its U.S. run.

The Promise is opening in more than 2,000 locations in an attempt reach more hearts and minds, but it, too, appears to be heading into a box-office wall, with tracking predicting an opening weekend of around $4 million. (The producers of The Promise say that profits from the film will go to charity). 

But while the existence of two dueling movies might suggest a debate still exists over whether the Armenian Genocide took place, Bale, attending The Promise’s New York premiere, put it simply. “There’s no debate. I really hope this helps, not to fuel more hostilities and accusations, but it does seem to me with the research and knowledge. there really is no question about this happening and it being a genocide.”

Ashley Lee contributed to this report