Beauty and the barbarian: 'Mongol' looks at the softer side of Genghis Khan.

'Mongol's' Mr. Nice Guy: Genghis Khan

Dennis Harvey June 20, 2008

Our current global reality is marked by a whole lotta violence in the name of righteousness, so perhaps it makes sense that Mongol makes a hero out of a man whose name has for centuries been synonymous with indiscriminate barbaric slaughter. Which is not to say Sergei Bodrov’s movie—which might as well be called Genghis Khan: The Early Years and is purportedly first in a projected trilogy—is necessarily a whitewashing of history.

Nothing is known for sure about the first decades lived by G.K., who was born as Temujin (which means "ironworker") circa 1162; reports from the time and afterward frequently conflict, when not throwing in outright supernatural-mythic elements. Also, some historians part from the general bad-news view of this figure to cite his positive influence on communication and trade between far-flung cultures, tolerance of religions other than his own, undeniable prowess as a military strategist, and break from tradition in sometimes rewarding merit over birthright or status. Still, he DID preside over mass murder and destruction in myriad conquered territories stretching from Eastern China to Poland. We’ll have to wait and see how Bodrov’s later Mongol chapters deal with that nastier stuff.

This one, at least, presents him as a progressive thinker and a just man—even if justice in this era is often necessarily harsh. Looking back on his life to date from the cage where he’s been put on display by an aristocrat of the Tangut kingdom (which he would later destroy as payback), the adult Temujin (Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano) recalls the events that upended his world at age nine. Then, his beloved father was poisoned by enemies, and the boy robbed of his inheritance as clan leader by jealous older warrior Targutai (Amandu Mamadakov). The latter decides not to kill the lad—who’s sure to seek vengeance—until he’s grown past childhood.

Between various captures and escapes from Targutai’s ever-pursuing men, Temujin makes a blood-brother pact with nomadic tribal prince Jamukha (played as an adult by Honglei Sun). He also claims Borte (Khuylan Chuluun), the bride he’d chosen just before his father’s death—such arrangements were then made in pre-adolescence, though not consummated till a less squirm-induing later age—and who’s patiently waited many intervening years despite reports of his likely demise.

Their bliss is short-lived, however, as . . . well, enough spoilage already. Let’s just say Mongol has no lack of kidnappings, horseback chases, long family separations, village raids, and harrowing getaways from enslaved captivity. It’s also got full-on battles, particularly once Temujin and Jamukha become reluctant enemies. The movie climaxes with a ginormous, subtly CGI-assisted engagement between their now-large separate forces. The fadeout screams "sequel" so clearly you might well feel like scanning the multiplex listings for Mongol 2: Electric Boogaloo next week.

With swords, spears and arrows a hurlin’, there’s no stinting on the slowmo blood-geysers here. Yet Bodrov is no Mel Gibson—he doesn’t feel the need to revel in gory sadism a la Braveheart or Apocalypto. (Wasn’t there some movie about Jesus in there too?) Shot by two d.p.‘s, Dutchman Rogier Stoffers and Russian Sergey Trofimov, on disparate locations (both Chinese and Kazakh) that range from vast bare tundra to fir-forests to snowy mountains, Mongol is a spectacular travelogue as well as vigorous action movie. There are a few over-the-top moments, but for the most part this is epic filmmaking that resists the cliches of yesteryear’s costume-drama extravaganzas—even if it’s not quite unconventional or inspired enough to transcend them entirely.

Will Mongol prove the best Genghis Khan movie ever? Who knows. But it will surely not be the worst. Omar Sharif in an eponymous 1965 turkey (the same year he played Doctor Zhivago!) was bad enough. Yet nothing could ever be as embarrassing as 1956’s The Conqueror, which had John Wayne (!!!) in soup-drip mustache as the Mongol emperor and always-wrong Susan Hayward as his spitfire wife, "Tartar princess Bortai." Plus such likely Asiatics as Pedro Armendariz, Agnes Morehead, John Hoyt, William Conrad, Thomas Gomez, and Lee Van Cleef. It was directed (haplessly) by erstwhile 1930s simpering musical-comedy juvenile lead Dick Powell.

That movie is unintentionally hilarious. Its aftermath wasn’t. After shooting largely on Utah locations rendered radioactive by US military nuclear testing, most cast and crew spent the next two decades dying from various forms of cancer. Now that’s one means of mass destruction Genghis Khan couldn’t have imagined.