‘What Really Happened’

Hollywood's New Armenian Genocide Denial Epic

A tale of two WWI love-triangle war films out within a month of each other—the first serving as Turkish propaganda, the second telling the true story of a state-sanctioned mass murder.

Eastern Sunrise Films

Ben Kingsley and Josh Hartnett and Hera Hilmar surely would not have signed on to star in The Ottoman Lieutenant if they even imagined they would be parties to genocide denial.

And screenwriter Jeff Stockwell—who is by every indication a very decent person—says that everybody he spoke to in connection with the making of The Ottoman Lieutenant was aware of the Turkish government’s longtime denial of responsibility for the deliberate murder of 1.6 million innocent Armenians.

“The desire to be sure we were not supporting that denial weighed on me and everyone else I talked to who was hired on to the project—so much so that the climax of the film is built around the leads interrupting a death march,” Stockwell said in an email to The Daily Beast.

The movie—which came out in March and is reported by the website Box Office Mojo to have taken in less than $250,000 in American theaters despite its big-name cast—indeed has a scene where Turkish soldiers are herding Armenian civilians on a death march, complete with summary executions.

But the soldiers are a ragtag bunch whose leader has been killed and who seem to be acting out of the savagery of war, not on orders from their army’s most senior commanders.

And the horror is interrupted by the gallant Turkish lieutenant who is the movie’s hero, having earlier prevailed in a love triangle where he was in contention with an American missionary doctor for the heart of a young American nurse. Romance turns to tragedy as the lieutenant is mortally wounded while saving innocent Armenians.

“I knew about the incredible tensions arising out of the Turkish government’s refusal to acknowledge the genocide,” Stockwell told The Daily Beast, adding in parentheses the name Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist who was criminally charged and ultimately convicted of “insulting Turkishness” for a 2005 remark about how 1 million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds had been massacred in Turkey, though he did not use the word “genocide.”

Stockwell went on, “So the producers and I had several discussions about the film story not contributing to that, even as it was going to be partially built around a sympathetic Turkish soldier character. The take was: it’s 1914—it’s a horrific humanitarian crisis unfolding all around—and our naive leads are there, drawn to each other, even as they’re trying to make sense of what’s happening, their relation to it and response to it.”

The director of The Ottoman Lieutenant, Joseph Ruben (“The Forgotten”) did not respond to a Daily Beast request for comment. Nor did the producers. The lead American producer, Stephen Joel Brown (“Seven”), did speak to The Washington Post, insisting that The Ottoman Lieutenant has no particular political view and is “a classic love story, set at a time and place that we really haven’t seen in cinema.”

Brown also spoke to the Turkish outlet, Hurriyet Daily News.

“As objective and respectful to common sufferings of both Turks and Armenians, we wanted to show the audience what happened during World War I in Eastern Anatolia, a subject that has not been handled before,” he was quoted saying.

Imagine if a producer said he wanted to show “common sufferings” of both Germans and Jews during World War II.

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At least a year before Stockwell was brought in to write The Ottoman Lieutenant, another script was in the works that not only handled the same subject but told a much fuller and truer story of what happened during World War I in Eastern Anatolia.

That result was The Promise, starring Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac, and Charlotte Le Bon, to be released this month. This movie sticks to what is widely accepted as historical truth virtually everywhere but in Turkey. It rightfully holds Turkish officials responsible for explicitly ordering the slaughter correctly termed the Armenian Genocide.

The Promise is from co-writer/director Terry George. He also wrote and directed Hotel Rwanda, which was about genocide in that African country. George’s latest movie—written with Robin Swicord—is no less historically accurate and damning to the actual perpetrators.

Stockwell told The Daily Beast, “I had no knowledge of The Promise until long after I was off the project, when it was reviewed at the Toronto Film Festival last fall.” He allows that there “was definitely momentum in place on this project,” adding, “I came on in the spring of 2014, with a clear sense that the producers hoped the movie’s release would be part of the 100th anniversary of Turkey’s involvement in WWI.”

If marking the centenary was the producer’s hope for The Ottoman Lieutenant, they would have needed to get a finished script, cast the movie, shoot it, edit it, and release it by that August. The anniversary passed three months before Stockwell’s work was done.

The Promise and beating it to release was never mentioned to me,” Stockwell said, adding in parentheses, “I have read the recent comments that this project was generated to somehow to beat The Promise to the screen—but I don’t know why, if that was the case, they wouldn’t have told me. Producers generally use info about ‘competing’ projects as a goad to working faster.”

Stockwell reported that he finished his work on the project in December of 2014, “and, after that, was out of the loop.” He says that the Turkish producers he dealt with “did have plenty of input on the bones of the story—the core nature of the three leads and the give-and-take between them. And the producers wanted the story to take place at the mission in Van, in the months leading up to the Van uprising.”

He added, “It was a Turkish production, with a sympathetic Turkish character as one of the leads, so I knew that was a potential problem in the larger political context. And I knew the story would involve moments of Turkish perspective (for instance, their deep fear about the Russians coming in, the claims of Armenians working as bandits, the sense that Turkish villagers perished too.) But I hoped that the Turkish soldier’s character arc—his ability to see that what was happening was unsettling and terrible, his acting against it and, in the end, giving up his life for acting against it—would make it clear that what was taking place with the Armenians was sickening and wrong. (I hoped!)”

The problem is that the “Turkish perspective” is essentially genocide denial. The Van uprising was not a rebellion as Turkish authorities described it then and continue to describe it now. It was a desperate act of defense against extermination akin to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis.

And, like the Holocaust, the killing of the Armenians was not just “taking place.” It was not simply “a horrific humanitarian crisis unfolding all around.” It was a premeditated crime against humanity perpetrated on the explicit orders of the Turkish government.

Stockwell seems to have had only good intentions and the same may be true of Brown, but the involvement of ES Film suggests that The Ottoman Lieutenant may not have been just another example of Hollywood being Hollywood. Stockwell says that the only Turkish producers he dealt with were with Yproductions and that he was unaware ES Film—also known as Eastern Sunrise Films (“From the east we rise upon the world, where the sun rises the first.”)—co-produced The Ottoman Lieutenant.

“No, I had no knowledge of ES Film until I saw its logo on the finished film a few weeks ago,” Stockwell said.

ES Film is based in Istanbul and its co-founders include Yusuf Esenkal, who is said to be a business partner in other ventures with Bilal Erdoğan, son of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The younger Erdoğan has been accused by Russia of trading in oil with ISIS and is being investigated by Italy of laundering massive sums of money there, all of which he has denied.

ES Film’s other projects include a Turkish TV series called Payitaht Abdülhamid. And, just by reading the subtitles on the first episode, you would almost think it was produced by an upscale ISIS, minus the beheadings.

“From Gibraltar Island to Java, one nation, no borders,” the supreme leader intones to his devoted followers. “A nation that has faith in God; one nation; nation of Islam.”

He goes on, “A nation that doesn’t bow their head, a nation that lives under the flag of the Caliphate.”

He continues, “A clear white sky where call to prayers never end. Fertile lands that are nourished by the rivers. A military equipped with the latest technology… Army of mercy during peaceful time, and army of death during war.”

He concludes, “This is my dream. This is my supreme state.”

He warns, “If any of you lied or betray this path, leave this room now. May I swear on all the verses of God until I breathe my last, until I am buried in the grave this mission is our duty.”

He declares, “The war has begun.”

Only the words are not in Arabic, but in Turkish. And the men are not in jihadist attire, but in that of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century. And the caliph is not Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi, but Abdulhamid II, the last sultan of Turkey.

Abdulhamid II—often referred to as simply Hamid—was also the perpetrator of the first wave of mass killings that were the lead-up to the Armenian genocide. The slaughter sparked international outrage and he was branded “The Red Sultan.”

“The Great Assassin,” former British Prime Minister William Gladstone also called him.

But the sultan of the show Payitaht Abdülhamid is not monstrous. He is magnificent, a symbol of greatness to those who yearn for a return to the time of empire.

“Witnessing the struggle of the country with Sultan Abdülhamid Khan, the series promising to be presented as a gift to the children of a powerful nation who is carried on day today and to our future history, ‘Struggle!’” reads a Google translation of a review of the series in AKSAM News.

The actual facts of the Armenian genocide and Abdul Hamid’s role in it are put forth in the book Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story. Henry Morgenthau—grandfather of legendary Manhattan prosecutor Robert Morgenthau and noted historian Barbara Tuchman—served as the American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. His memoir describes Abdul Hamid as “the man who was chiefly responsible for the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians.”

“Abdul Hamid apparently thought that there was only one way of ridding Turkey of the Armenian problem—and that was to rid her of the Armenians,” Morgenthau writes. “The physical destruction of 2,000,000 men, women, and children by massacres, organized and directed by the state, seemed to be the one sure way of forestalling the further disruption of the Turkish Empire.”

Morgenthau goes on, “For nearly thirty years Turkey gave the world an illustration of government by massacre. We in Europe and America heard of these events when they reached especially monstrous proportions, as they did in 1895-96, when nearly 200,000 Armenians were most atrociously done to death. But through all these years the existence of the Armenians was one continuous nightmare. Their property was stolen, their men were murdered, their women were ravished, their young girls were kidnapped and forced to live in Turkish harems.”

Morgenthau further reports, “Yet Abdul Hamid was not able to accomplish his full purpose. Had he had his will, he would have massacred the whole nation in one hideous orgy.

“He attempted to exterminate the Armenians in 1895 and 1896, but found certain insuperable obstructions to his scheme. Chief of these were England, France, and Russia... It became apparent that unless the Sultan desisted, England, France, and Russia would intervene and the Sultan well knew, that, in case this intervention took place, such remnants of Turkey as had survived earlier partitions would disappear. Thus, Abdul Hamid had to abandon his satanic enterprise of destroying a whole race by murder, yet Armenia continued to suffer the slow agony of pitiless persecution.”

Hamid was deposed during the Young Turk Revolution of 1908. The Young Turks moved to institute a multi-party democracy and spoke of tolerance and justice. These noble notions did not extend to the Armenians.

“The Young Turk regime, despite its promises of universal brotherhood, brought no respite to the Armenians,” Morgenthau writes. “Much as [the Young Turks] admired the Mohammedan conquerors of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they stupidly believed that these great warriors had made one fatal mistake, for they had had it in their power completely to obliterate the Christian populations and had neglected to do so. This policy in their opinion was a fatal error of statesmanship and explained all the woes from which Turkey has suffered in modern times.”

The Young Turks decided it was unnecessary to murder all the Armenians.

“The most beautiful and healthy Armenian girls could be taken, converted forcibly to Mohammedanism, and made the wives or concubines of devout followers of the Prophet. Their children would then automatically become Moslems and so strengthen the empire,” Morgenthau writes. “Armenian boys of tender years could be taken into Turkish families and be brought up in ignorance of the fact that they were anything but Moslems. These were about the only elements, however, that could make any valuable contributions to the new Turkey which was now being planned. Since all precautions must be taken against the development of a new generation of Armenians, it would be necessary to kill outright all men who were in their prime and thus capable of propagating the accursed species. Old men and women formed no great danger to the future of Turkey, for they had already fulfilled their natural function of leaving descendants; still they were nuisances and therefore should be disposed of.”

Thanks to an alliance with Germany, the Young Turks felt free to commit genocide without outside interference.

“Unlike Abdul Hamid, the Young Turks found themselves in a position where they could carry out this holy enterprise,” Morgenthau writes. “Great Britain, France, and Russia had stood in the way of their predecessor. But now these obstacles had been removed.”

And, mass murder was often accompanied by state-sanctioned tortures such as crucifixion and evisceration with red-hot pincers.

“One day I was discussing these proceedings with a responsible Turkish official, who was describing the tortures inflicted,” Morgenthau writes. “He made no secret of the fact that the Government had instigated them, and, like all Turks of the official classes, he enthusiastically approved this treatment of the detested race. This official told me that all these details were matters of nightly discussion at the headquarters of the Union and Progress Committee. Each new method of inflicting pain was hailed as a splendid discovery, and the regular attendants were constantly ransacking their brains in the effort to devise some new torment. He told me that they even delved into the records of the Spanish Inquisition and other historic institutions of torture and adopted all the suggestions found there.”

One of the champion torturers was Djevdet Bey, the governor of Van province in the East Anatolia region.

“Djevdet was generally known as ‘The Horseshoer,’” Morgenthau writes. “This connoisseur in torture had invented what was perhaps the masterpiece of all—that of nailing horse shoes to the feet of his Armenian victims.”

Djevdet issued a written order:

“The Armenians must be exterminated. If any Muslim protect a Christian, first, his house shall be burned; then the Christian killed before his eyes, and then his [the Moslem’s] family and himself.”

At one point, some of surviving Armenians of Van took a stand against a vastly superior contingent of the Turkish army.

“The whole Armenian fighting force consisted of only 1,500 men; they had only 300 rifles and a most inadequate supply of ammunition, while Djevdet had an army of 5,000 men, completely equipped and supplied. Yet the Armenians fought with the utmost heroism and skill; they had little chance of holding off their enemies indefinitely, but they knew that a Russian army was fighting its way to Van and their utmost hope was that they would be able to defy the besiegers until these Russians arrived.”

Morgenthau makes particular mention of, “The self-sacrificing energy of the Armenian children, the self-sacrificing zeal of the American missionaries, especially Doctor Ussher and his wife and Miss Grace H. Knapp, and the thousand other circumstances that made this terrible month one of the most glorious pages in modern Armenian history. The wonderful thing about it is that the Armenians triumphed. After nearly five weeks of sleepless fighting, the Russian army suddenly appeared and the Turks fled into the surrounding country, where they found appeasement for their anger by further massacres of unprotected Armenian villagers. Doctor Ussher, the American medical missionary whose hospital at Van was destroyed by bombardment, is the authority for the statement that, after driving off the Turks, the Russians began to collect and to cremate the bodies of Armenians who had been murdered in the province, with the result that 55,000 bodies were burned.”

A producer might well be inspired by the tale of Doctor Clarence Ussher and his wife and Miss Grace H. Knapp and their hospital in Van. Stockwell says that the Turkish producers he dealt with “wanted the story to take place at the mission in Van.” The one in The Ottoman Lieutenant is staffed by two doctors, a world-weary one played by Kingsley and a young idealist played by Hartnett. The younger doctor is sympathetic enough to the Armenians that he lets them store weapons there.

Even so, the first Armenians the audience encounters in the movie are bandits who steal a load of medical supplies that the leading lady is bringing from Philadelphia. And, save for the death march toward the end, most of the other Armenians are portrayed as insurgents who initiate the violence.

In The Ottoman Lieutenant, the Russians are not saviors, but brutish bad guys. The ultimate villain in this movie is war itself and the suggestion is that it is responsible for atrocities of the time. There is no indication that the killing was the result of government-instituted genocide. Nor is there a suggestion that the Turkish government used a supposed uprising as a pretext for mass murder.

The Promise stays true to history, including an encounter between Morgenthau and Mehmet Talaat, known as Talaat Pasha, one of the triumvirate then ruling Turkey. Morgenthau writes in his memoir, “One day Talaat made what was perhaps the most astonishing request I had ever heard. The New York Life Insurance Company and the Equitable Life of New York had for years done considerable business among the Armenians. The extent to which this people insured their lives was merely another indication of their thrifty habits. ‘I wish,’ Talaat now said, ‘that you would get the American life insurance companies to send us a complete list of their Armenian policy holders. They are practically all dead now and have left no heirs to collect the money. It of course all escheats to the State. The Government is the beneficiary now. Will you do so?’”

Morgenthau further reports of Talaat, “His antagonism to the Armenians seemed to increase as their sufferings increased. One day, discussing a particular Armenian, I told Talaat that he was mistaken in regarding this man as an enemy of the Turks; that in reality he was their friend. ‘No Armenian,’ replied Talaat, ‘can be our friend after what we have done to them.’”

The Promise also features a love triangle—this one involving an Armenian medical student, an Armenian woman who has been living in Paris, and an American reporter. And there are remarkable similarities of setting and plot and imagery. Both movies are set in the same region of Turkey. Both feature a chase scene with a group of fleeing innocents, crammed into the back of a truck in The Ottoman Lieutenant, in the back of a wagon in The Promise. Both have an underwater host of a major character slipping down into a watery grave in the final minutes.

But all that only makes the divergence in historical narrative more apparent. A genocide denier would likely point out that The Promise was produced by Survival Pictures, founded by billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, who was the son of Armenian immigrants. The Survival logo features a four-petaled forget-me-not that symbolizes the directions the surviving Armenians scattered. Kerkorian died in 2015, before The Promise was completed.

The truth is still the truth and if you believe Morgenthau and other eminently reliable sources, it is decidedly on the side of The Promise, no matter who bankrolled it. A Holocaust movie would not likely be challenged simply because its primary backer was Jewish.

Accuracy did not prevent The Promise from being the subject of an apparent social media smear campaign following three screenings at the Toronto Film Festival. Thousands more people than could have possibly seen it posted negative one star reviews. The number of online postings from those screenings of The Promise rivaled those following the full release of mega-hit Finding Dory.

The timing of last month’s release of The Ottoman Lieutenant ahead of this month’s release of The Promise is not likely just a coincidence and it was nearly three years late in marking the 100th anniversary of Turkey’s entrance into World War I.

Eastern Sunrise Films initially said it would answer questions posed via email, but failed to respond to queries, which touched on such matters as the historical accuracy of the film, timing of the release, connections with Bilal Erdoğan as well as the Hamid TV series. Bilal Erdoğan did not respond to questions regarding his connections with ES Film and his alleged dealings with ISIS.

The one person connected with The Ottoman Lieutenant who responded was Stockwell, and he did so as someone who is clearly distressed to find himself accused of being party to what amounts to genocide denial, as many in the Armenian community and elsewhere have charged.

“I thought I helped create an anti-war love story that might make some small contribution to healing Christian-Muslim tensions during its half-life as a bodice-ripper on the long tail of the planet’s small screens… one, by the way, that portrays the beginnings of the Armenian Genocide in a way that no Turkish nationalist would abide!” Stockwell told The Daily Beast.

A nationalist might, in fact, abide a portrayal in which Armenians are insurgents and bandits in the establishing scenes and the Turkish soldiers who do murder innocents seem more unsupervised and war-crazed in the way of the Americans at My Lai massacre during the Vietnam war than following orders in the way of the German SS during the Holocaust.

Stockwell continued, “If the producers I worked with had an anti-Armenian agenda… it was certainly muted: I did not feel it. And, again—though whether it’s strong enough is clearly part of the debate—this film’s climactic, toughest sequence takes place during the murdering of innocent Armenians by Turkish soldiers. I still need some guidance in understanding why the purported secretive group of movie producer Genocide Deniers would want to make a film that does that.” A genocide presented as anything but a genocide is a genocide denied.

Stockwell allowed, “I do understand that, per its production history, The Ottoman Lieutenant is more Turkish’ than other films whose stories engage with the atrocities surrounding WWI in Turkey, and that it could have been more unflinching in its depictions of what happened and more directly condemning of the Turks for their responsibilities—though, again, that awful history (and the tone that it would require) was not the focus of the drafts I worked on. (I wrote a young woman’s “finding purpose” story, and an overheated love tangle whose participants struggle with what’s expected of them and with their faith!)”

Stockwell went on, “In the end, I’d say the ‘political’ critique of the film with the most teeth for me is that there’s something callow about thinking one can tell a melodramatic romance set against the project’s chosen contentious backdrop, something a bit deaf about asking the audience to focus more on whether the connection between a couple of privileged, young hotties can survive than on the horrible, historically-based struggle for survival that’s happening around them.”

The Promise, too, has hotties in an overheated love tangle and a character “finding purpose,” but the drama turns on genocide that is presented as genocide.

Stockwell reported, “I am now contemplating my potential callowness. But I know, while writing my drafts—and playing with a kind of epic, old-school (almost a Western) romance—I was inspired by the prospect of telling a story that might get folks caught up in a Christian/Muslim bond, that it could be a good thing to experience these two characters moving past their background religions, and connecting despite their peers’ resistance to that. I know, while writing it, I wanted the characters to face what a miserable, soul-killing situation war is. ( I even thought it could have some resonance for the ongoing shitstorm across the Middle East.) And I think the film, despite its being partially built on a key Turkish character and his point of view, is far more critical of the Turkish-led violence against Armenians—the unfurling genocide—than other commentators have implied. But since none of that is fueling the questions here, it may have turned out that, in addition to callow, I’m naive.”

Maybe. He certainly seems to be a good enough guy.

He just happened to write what turned out to be a very bad movie.

The Ottoman Lieutenant starts out with a stateside scene in which the nurse heroine is shocked when a whites-only hospital stops her from treating a black man with a grievous injury. She is left standing with the man’s blood on her hands in the the most literal sense. But the movie fails to show that similar hatred toward Armenians was the official policy of the Turkish authorities and seemingly the prime motive for the resulting genocide. And the film all but ignores the blood of 1.5 million men, women, and children the Turkish government had on its hands.

On Feb. 24—a fortnight before the release of The Ottoman Lieutenant—ES Film began airing the TV series on Hamid in which the bloody sultan is portrayed as the embodiment of Ottoman greatness and nobility, a ruler with a vision of an Islamic state to match that of ISIS. Some have charged that the series assumes anti-Semitic aspects when it depicts Zionist Theodor Herzel seeking to trick Hamid into establishing a Jewish state extending from the Nile River to the Euphrates River. The series also shows other Jews seeking to murder Hamid.

The Hamid series and The Ottoman Lieutenant come as Turkey is preparing for an April 16 referendum that would dispense with the position of prime minister and make President Erdoğan the sole holder of executive power, with the right to remain in office for 12 more years. His continuing crackdown in the wake of last year’s failed coup portends what might await.

Both supporters and detractors have taken to calling him a sultan.

Anybody who wants a true sense of what happened during the last sultan need only go see The Promise, which opens right around the time of the referendum and thus speaks truth to power.

Meanwhile, a title comes to mind for the real-life, real-time script President Erdoğan is following.

Get ready for The Sultan.