by wjw on November 23, 2010

When I was a child, Omar Sharif was my image of Genghis Khan.  I had seen the big-screen Hollywood biopic, perhaps the last to be made in the tradition of Ben-Hur and El Cid, with Omar as Temudjin, Stephen Boyd as the villainous Jamuga, and Robert Morley, of all people, as the Chinese Emperor.  The love interest, Temudjin’s wife Borte, was played by the astoundingly blonde Francoise Dorleac (Catherine Deneuve’s older sister).  Other notable Caucasians in the cast included Eli Wallach, James Mason, and Telly Savalas.

I do not believe there were any actual Asians in this film about an Asian conqueror conquering other Asians. I daresay this film would be pretty campy if viewed today.

I finally got around to watching 2007’s Mongol, the latest Genghis Khan epic, in which I do not recall seeing any Caucasians. Where has tradition gone?

Instead, we have part-Japanese, part Navajo Tadanobu Asano as Temudjin, the Mongolian actress Khulan Chuluun as Borte, and the scene-stealing Chinese Sun Hong-Lei as Temudjin’s blood brother, rival, and deadly enemy Jamugha.  The rest of the cast are either Han Chinese or from a variety of Central Asian ethnicities, and all are directed by the Russian Sergei Bodrov, who also wrote the screenplay.

Asano and the Mongol cast members speak Mongolian, and the Chinese speak Mandarin, but they’re all so damn good you don’t really notice that they’re speaking very different languages.  Actually shot in Inner Mongolia and Kazahkstan, the film is full of long, stately, gorgeous shots of the plains, buttes, and river valleys of Central Asia.  The endless shots of the composed, beautiful, lush scenery slows down the movie quite a bit, but I can’t say I much minded.

The film reminded me what a melodrama the young Khan’s life actually was.  Temudjin survived the assassination of his father, captivity at the hands of his enemies, the escape that followed, and the abduction and rape of his wife Borte, who he rescued but found to be pregnant.  (He raised the child as his own.)

He then united the Mongolian people, mostly by killing those who didn’t agree that he should run things, and then began his legendary campaign of conquest and bloodshed.  But all that will be in the second film of what is promised to be a trilogy.

That’s where this first film runs into trouble.  The first half is enthralling; but since the next part of the story is reserved for the next movie, Bodrov settles for giving us the first half all over again.  Again Temudjin is kidnaped, and in the course of rescuing him Borte is forced to sell herself to a Han merchant, and again ends up pregnant, and again Temudjin accepts this second child as his.

In the long-postponed finale, we get the final confrontation between Temudjin and Jamugha over who’s going to run the Mongol state, and there’s a big battle scene in which most of the film’s CGI budget is expanded.   It’s quite an effective battle scene, though spoiled a bit by a quite literal deus ex machina that causes Temudjin’s enemies to flee at a critical moment.  Jamugha is captured, but allowed to go free.  (The real-life Temudjin broke Jamugha’s back and left him to die.  Which wasn’t [entirely] cruelty, but the traditional method of executing a noble.)

The acting is uniformly excellent, the direction gorgeous and just the least bit ponderous.  Khulan Chuluun is distractingly beautiful, if somewhat wind-chapped.

I’ll look forward to the next film, and I hope it has a bigger budget and can afford real armies.

Foxessa November 23, 2010 at 6:22 pm

As the historic Khan had such a dramatic biography there was no reason whatsoever to substitute far less interesting fiction for that life story. Both Kate Elliott and I were deeply displeased with those responsible for that in Mongol.

Love, c,

Dave Bishop November 23, 2010 at 8:12 pm

Wasn’t there a Hollywood film with John Wayne as Genghis Khan? Did I dream that? And if I did, what the hell does that say about the state of my subconscious?

Zora November 24, 2010 at 3:37 am

Yes, there was a film with John Wayne. I saw it at a drive-in theater when I was a young ‘un.

But I have stronger memories of reading Harold Lamb’s _March of the Barbarians_. Fascination with Central Asia persists to this day.

wjw November 24, 2010 at 6:22 am

The John Wayne film was THE CONQUEROR, produced by Howard Hughes. It was the film he obsessively viewed over and over during his declining days.

It features such fine dialog as: “While my blood burns hot, your daughter is not safe in her tent,” and “The Conqueror? Mighty armies cannot stop him. But one touch of my lips… Yes, he captured me – but he cannot tame me.”

And of course there is the immortal: “There are moments for wisdom, Jamuga, then I listen to you–and there are moments for action — then I listen to my blood. I feel this Tartar woman is for me, and my blood says, ‘TAKE HER!'”

Hughes originally wanted Marlon Brando for the part. Which, to say the least, would have been interesting.

The great tragedy of the film— other than the fact it was made at all— was that it was filmed in St. George, Utah, which was downwind from atom bomb testing conducted by the Defense Department. Of the 220 people on the set, 91 got cancer, and 46 died, including John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, and the director Dick Powell. Co-star Pedro Armendariz committed suicide after receiving his diagnosis.

After location shooting was complete, Hughes scraped up tons of sand from the St. George location and shipped it to Hollywood, where it was used on the set, and then donated to the Los Angeles parks department to be used in childrens’ sandboxes.

There are many movies in which people die,but very few movies that can claim to have actually killed people— SCORES of people— and this is one.

Ken Thomas November 24, 2010 at 5:33 pm

I just finished reading (well, listening to – I bought the audiobook) a book called Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford. I suspect it may be a little pro-Mongol… well, what I actually suspect is the author was trying a little too hard to counter generations of anti-Mongol propoganda written largely by all of the literate people the Mongols were either slaughtering or threatening to slaughter… but you get the idea.

Bias aside, it’s a damned good book, and fascinating stuff. If you’re interested in the subject, I’d recommend it.

Dave Bishop November 25, 2010 at 9:32 am

Walter, that’s absolutely horrifying! I had no idea that there was such a dreadful ‘back-story’ to that, otherwise very silly, film.

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