You could call Ralph Winter one of the fathers of the modern cinematic superhero. Before Spider-Man made a mint in 2002 and Iron Man put an Arc reactor into the genre in 2008, the Hollywood producer shepherded X-Men to theaters in 2000—proving that serious superhero movies could be both good and lucrative. He’s also one of Hollywood’s most prominent Christians.
His latest project, The Promise, in theaters tomorrow, April 21, straddles both the secular and spiritual worlds. It’s predicated on the Armenian Genocide, when the faltering Ottoman Empire exterminated as many as 1.5 million Armenians during World War I. (To this day, the Ottoman successor state, Turkey, denies the genocide ever took place.) Given that these Armenians were overwhelmingly Christian, religion is intrinsically linked to the tragedy. The Promise expertly and organically weaves that sense of faith throughout the story: It doesn’t preach, but nor does it try to deny or sidestep the deep faith felt by many of the characters.
“[Director] Terry George has an enormous respect for people who do subscribe and who do hold onto their faith, but question it,” Winter says. “He didn’t shy away from [the film’s inherent faith element], and he didn’t shy away from the political.”
But while The Promise incorporates some spirituality not often seen in secular films, it certainly doesn’t have much in common with the standard “Christian” movie. This is a big-budget historical epic, recalling sweeping dramas like Doctor Zhivago or Lawrence of Arabia in ambition, if not completely in execution.
“In some ways, they don’t make these movies anymore,” Winter says. Much of the filming was done in Spain, he says, using some of the same landscapes as seen in many an epic and spaghetti Western. And given the spectacular visuals, Winter believes The Promise is a film that really should be seen on the big screen.
“I want to be in a movie theater [for something like this],” he says. “You can’t get all the nuance on your iPhone.”
But as picturesque as the setting for The Promise might’ve been, the tragic story hit home for Winter, particularly in light of current events.
“When we were filming the massacre, the images we were creating on film that say were the same [sort of] images we saw out of Syria [during the recent gas attacks there],” Winter says. “It was shocking and painful.”
But that, he says, is a byproduct of choosing a good story. The best will have a timeless quality to them. Even one that took place during World War I, as this one does, feels relevant today.
“You have to pick stories that are going to last,” he says. “They’re going to feel relevant five, 10, 20 years from now.”