Dunkirk vs. The Promise
In our first installment of the “Art of Contrast”, two films take on a monumental historical event - in very different ways.
August 10, 2017 | by Bob Taciturn
DUNKIRK (2017) by Christopher Nolan
THE PROMISE (2017) by Terry George
Both cover themes of courage and survival. Both operate on the action of mortal escape. Both had budgets of $100 million in the hands of Oscar-winning directors. Beyond that, it’s hard to think of two big historical dramas that differ as much as Dunkirk and The Promise.
Left: Terry George. Right: Christopher Nolan.
The differences begin with the fact that Terry George’s epic portrays an event (the Armenian Genocide) that few but its descendants know, and that Hollywood hadn’t attempted to tell in a hundred years, whereas Nolan’s film takes us inside a single episode (the evacuation of Dunkirk) of a story that everyone knows, if only generally. So the result is that The Promise strives to employ every classic movie-story device that Dunkirk strives to do without.
You will not hear the word “Nazi” in Dunkirk and you will not remember any character’s name. There is no love story, no sweet memories, no songs or jokes around the fire, no women - until the face of one appears for a moment like a wrinkled miracle near the end. If you don’t know the military circumstances of the evacuation, you will learn little. Half the time you will have no idea what the hell is going on. You won’t need to. If anything, your confusion will bring you closer to those young boys in whose experience Nolan has attempted to immerse you.
The Promise (2017)
No such artistic absences were available to The Promise, which has a blatant set of riches to offer, as it shows, with undeniable impact, the breadth and color of the civilization that was lost in 1915 and forgotten since. Watch the two films together with a simple question in mind: How does the knowledge you bring to the movie define your experience of it?
I bet you'll want to see The Promise a second and third time before it ever crosses your mind to rewatch Dunkirk. But one thing is certain: The world will be a better place when a film like Dunkirk can be made about an event like the Armenian Genocide.
Bob Taciturn is a former vaudevillian and intelligence agent who ghost wrote many of the Castro era’s most acclaimed operettas.