(Spiked Online, 4 July 2008) ‘Do not scorn a weak cub; he may become a brutal tiger.’ The wise old Mongol saying, which introduces this portrait of the thirteenth-century Mongol emperor Genghis Khan, may be a genuine, if hackneyed, attempt on the part of Russian director Sergei Bodrov to bring a sense of authenticity to the film; it’s just a shame the rest of the film is so historically disingenuous.
Faced at the age of nine with the death of his father – who had been the Khan, that is, the leader of his tribe – Temudjin (aka Genghis Khan – no, they don’t explain the name change) is cruelly cast out by the same people who once served his father. Temudjin’s subsequent meteoric rise from slave to ruler of all Mongols and commander of the largest contiguous empire in history – four times the size of Alexander the Great’s and twice that of Rome – is an incredible story, yet it’s tacked on as an afterthought, like those ‘where did they end up?’ credits at the end of TV documentaries about children’s hospitals or troubled teens (1). Admittedly, this is just the first in a trilogy of films about the life of Genghis Khan. Yet whether anyone will want to sit through the next two after this slow start remains to be seen.
The film begins strongly, depicting Temudjin when he was a child (played with conviction by the young Odnyam Odsuren). Self-assured and fearless, the composed expression with which he greets every danger or obstacle is what we expect of someone deemed worthy of yet another film some 800 years later. It’s just that the moment of glory we’re waiting for never quite comes.
The film does portray a number of key battles in the rise of Temudjin, complete with spraying blood, sharp swords and more stomach slicing than your average episode of 10 Years Younger. Unfortunately, Tadanobu Asano, who plays the older Temudjin, fails to fully capture the ambition, charisma and brilliance that inspired so many men to follow Genghis Khan into battle. And because this is only the first instalment of the trilogy, the final showdown is not the ruthless and triumphant seizure of territory across Asia – including China, Russia, Persia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe – but a half-hearted fight between Temudjin and his ‘blood’ brother Jamukha.
With his quirky neck-cracking habit, tendency to sing after a few drinks and a mohawk where the other men have long plaits, Jamukha (played by Honglei Sun) brings a touch of ‘character’ comedy to the proceedings – although you do half expect him to roll his eyes mock-despairingly at the camera, don a pair of sunglasses and start using the silver jewellery piece on his ear to make hands-free calls to one of his ladies. Although the two men’s love/hate relationship or rather love/troubled-but-with-mutual-respect relationship is a welcome break from Temudjin’s dull worthiness, it shouldn’t take up nearly all of the script. This is Mongol warfare à la Oprah.
The women take more of a back seat in the film, as they probably would have done in Mongol life at the time. So, although Temudjin’s wife Borte (Khulan Chuluun) is feisty and sticks by her husband throughout, she still spends most of the film either watching him leave or waiting for him to return. The tension of ‘will they ever see each other again?’ is overused to the point where I couldn’t have cared one way or the other.
Besides, Genghis the romantic hero? Hardly. He may have loved his wife and rescued her after she was kidnapped, but he’s also said to have taken on a number of other wives. Moreover, according to recent research, through harems, concubines, not to mention raping captured women, Ghengis’ demographic contribution was such that nearly eight per cent of the men who now live in what was the Mongol empire share near-identical Y chromosomes (2). His descendents are even thought to stretch to our Royal family, Iranian royalty and the family of Dracula (3). Presumably true love gets higher points with the film focus groups.
Such a varnished portrait is problematic. The film blurb promises to deliver the untold story of Genghis Khan ‘based on leading scholarly accounts and written by Bodrov and Arif Aliyev’ yet it seems that they’ve chosen to pick and choose the most sentimental parts from the academic research and leave out the rest (4).
One spectacular element to the film – and perhaps the reason why it was nominated for an Oscar in the 2007 Best Foreign Language Film of the Year category – is the scenery. Like an extended episode of BBC2’s Wild China, the camera (and horses) gallop across endless deserts and steppes, over lightning-lit rocks and through lush green grasses and forests. Filmed around remote steppes and forests in China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan, which was once part of the Mongol empire, it stays true to Genghis Khan’s roots.
Despite being only two hours long, this biopic manages to feel both much longer and not long enough, with many unanswered questions, unexplained escapes and loose threads. It would have been far better if Bodrov had taken a lead from Genghis himself and brutally chopped the three-part script to make one fast-paced film with an engaging and fluid narrative. In some ways the film is similar to Ridley Scott’s fantastic Gladiator – also about the fall and rise of a man from leader to slave to leader again, and the love he has for his family.
The thing is, Gladiator makes no real claims at historical authenticity. And this is Mongol’s problem. For it would have worked far better as fiction than half-baked history, especially if you too struggle to accept the perfectly timed good fortune frequently bestowed on Temudjin by Tengri, the God of the Blue Sky, in times of danger. Since when is that a fair fight? What next? Moses rustling up another sea-parting for God-fearing Nelson in Battle of Trafalgar: the Movie?