‘Mongol’: the romance of Genghis Khan
The Washington Post
Aspen, CO Colorado
Perhaps the most reliable modern empirical gauge of a movie’s effectiveness is this: How fast does it send you to Wikipedia? The faster, the better, because that means you’ve got to know more.
In the case of “Mongol,” the answer was: very fast, close to a new record. It was about nine minutes from theater to computer. Add another two minutes as I tried to figure out the random distribution of h’s in the name Ghenghis Khanh, or possibly Hgenghis Khhhhan or even Genghis Kahn (it turns out to be Genghis Khan), and I learned that “Mongol,” while a hell of a good time at the movies in its chronicle of the first 30 years of the man who went from slave to conqueror, is more romantic and less squalid than the reality.
This is because the Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov ” his big international hit was “Prisoner of the Mountains” in 1997 ” has clearly followed John Ford’s advice from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” which was something like, “When confused by the legend or the facts, make the movie about the legend. That’s where the box office is.”
The result is a wallow in old movie pleasures, full of battles, flying dust, thousands of men on horseback, beautiful women, treachery, slaughter, really cool hats, and even more slaughter. Moreover, it has a kind of morphic connection to the American imagination, in that, while watching the comings and goings of these fleet, horse-borne, extremely handsome warrior-archers and warrior-archer women across undulating grassy infinity, it’s hard not to see the Lakota Sioux or the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers or the Mescalero Apache in the mind’s eye. When you consider that Temudjin (played by Japanese heartthrob Tadanobu Asano), as the man who would become Genghis was once known, controlled the world from China to Bulgaria, you think: OK, that’s one for the Indians.
But when the big-budget, cast o’ thousands Russian epic begins, he’s a pudgy-faced, imperious 9-year-old kid (the excellent Odnyam Odsuren) on his way to pick out a bride, accompanied by his father, a minor lord. The place is central Mongolia in the 12th century, which is to say, really, no place, nowhere. It’s grasslands forever and a day, and human presence is marked only occasionally by the appearance of a cluster of yurts. One can see a hunter-gatherer existence in full flower as everything is built of leather and bone and nothing is permanent because at any moment the clan may have to up and follow the ” er, not buffalo, the yak, I’m guessing. Yet it’s far from primitive: A complex society of clan networks and obligations has sprung up, and the marriage being set up has more political purpose than social. Love’s got nothing to do with it.
But immediately young Temudjin, who knows his own mind, shows his emperor’s will, demanding of his father that the selection take place now, that is, at a way-station among a minor clan rather than at a more powerful, politically appropriate camp. Temudjin has seen Borte, and that’s enough for him.
It’s somewhat akin to believing that the Trojan War was fought for Helen to believe, as the movie theorizes, that Temudjin conquered the world for Borte, but both Diane Kruger, who played Helen in “Troy,” and Khulan Chuluun, who plays Borte in “Mongol,” make you believe it. Beautiful, talented actresses, the two have that little something extra that makes us boys say: You know, I’d raze a few cities and execute a few prisoners for a date with this one.
So that core of love, lust and touchy-feely-more-touchy-lots-of-touchy is what drives “Mongol,” more than politics or land-lust, and the surprise is that the movie is as much about Borte’s cunning and relentlessness in dealing with the obstacles between her and Temudjin (such as five mythical years in a Chinese prison) as about conquest. In fact, a better title might have been: “Genghis Khan: A Love Story.”
Still, there’s a lot of guy stuff. When the young man’s father is poisoned, his clan is dispersed, prey to stronger clans. For the first of several times he is captured and imprisoned. Instead of wilting under the challenge of slavery, he grows stronger, more cunning and more virile (he’s a little like the proto-Conan, which is perhaps a way of saying that Robert E. Howard, Conan’s creator, modeled his hero on Temudjin, not the other way around). He escapes several times, each time returning to Borte, each time recaptured. At one point he makes an alliance with another noble youth, Jamukha, who becomes his “brother,” thus setting up a famous Genghis legend.
They ride, they fight, they ride some more, they fight some more. Bodrov loves to watch as thousands of horsemen clash on the plains, not a smokepole in sight (it’s 1207, after all) so the heavy lifting is done with blade and spear. Whoever was on the electronic blood spurt machine probably got overtime or at least a bonus, for there’s a lot of arterial spray and some wet loogies of plasma that look like jellyfish sailing through the air.
In the end, we’re about a third of the way through the great Khan’s life; he hasn’t even begun to take down the cities of Cathay or spread his seed (his genetic traces are found in about 8 percent of Central Asia and 0.5 percent of the male population today, according to some researchers, meaning the guy did even better than Warren Beatty!). That suggests two sequels. I, for one, can’t wait.
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