Come and take me, mongrels — if you dare. While I have fingers to grasp a sword, and eyes to see your cowardly faces, your treacherous heads will not be safe on your shoulders. For I am Temudjin, the Conqueror. No prison can hold me, no army defeat me. —John Wayne as Genghis Khan in 1956' The Conquerer
Take a moment to shed a tear for poor Genghis Khan. He wasn't born ruthless, society made him that way. Or so it seems to Russian director Sergei Bodrov (Oscar-winning Prisoner of the Mountains), who adopts Akira Kurosawa's widescreen epic approach to the early life of Mongol tribesman Temudjin (aka Genghis Khan).
The scenery is magnificent, the battles impressive and Japanese film star Tadanobu Asano is ferocious and sympathetic in equal doses as the young Khan. As a grand glimpse into a bygone time, well, they just don't make 'em like this anymore.
Unfortunately, as an insightful or illuminating examination of what makes a world-class conqueror, Mongol, unfortunately, falls woefully short. But let's face it, this is history writ huge and it's rare that filmgoers get to experience the kind of glorious larger-than-life moviemaking that David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago) once reliably delivered.
In direct challenge to the myth of unrelenting savagery that hangs over Genghis Khan (and is refuted by recently published anthropologists), this first part in Bodrov's Khan trilogy depicts, as you might expect, the early years of the man who would go on to conquer a fifth of the planet's land mass (wrap your head around that).
At age 9, young Temudjin draws the short end of the stick. His father suffers an untimely death and the boy who would be Khan (Odnyam Odsuren) is forced into hiding when a family rival seizes the "throne" and vows to execute him once he reaches puberty. This sets off an endless series of captures and escapes that follow Temudjin well into young adulthood. For nearly 30 minutes, Bodrov and screenwriter Arif Aliyev test our patience with a primitive game of cat and mouse — which would be fine if the episodes revealed something meaningful about our hero. Though Temudjin's resilience is never in doubt, nearly every other aspect of his character remains unclear. Mongol suggests that Genghis Khan was an innocent until violence and cruelty visited him. But it's the 12th century. Were the filmmakers expecting any other reality? The fact is their approach turns Genghis into another boringly noble hero. While researching the facts of their tale, they should have studied Lean's unique ability to puncture historical myth and reveal the man underneath.
Luckily, Temudjin is buddies with a warlord named Jamukha (the charismatic Chinese actor Honglei Sun) and betrothed to the beautiful, feisty Borte (Mongolian newcomer Khulan Chuluun). When a rival tribe kidnaps Borte, he finally has a reason to violently express all those years of suffering, and Mongol kicks into high gear. There are battles and betrayals and spirit quests and endless wells of devotion to test the young Khan before the film's final massive battle that crowns him top dog.
The key word here is sweeping. There's no doubt movie critics across the land will use that word to describe Mongol's incredible vistas and legendary canvass. More interesting, however, is the unique and alien culture the movie captures.
Life on the steppes was nomadic and pastoral. The social conventions of urban societies simply didn't apply; instead, Bodrov provides us with a snapshot of Temudjin's fascinating culture, clueing us into our own country's past with regard to the great native tribes of the American Plains. While that's not enough to hang a movie on, it does provide an incredibly rich backdrop for Khan's fitfully dramatic rise from oppressed slave to brilliant military leader.
If for nothing else, Mongol is worth seeking out for the incredible world in which it'll immerse you. The small screen won't do justice to the Bodrov's cinematic grandeur. And thankfully, it'll forever banish memories of the hilariously awful The Conquerer.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.