Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Genghis Khan Again on Film

The young Genghis Kahn on the Mongolian steppe

I recently watched and greatly enjoyed the first in a planned trilogy by Russian movie director Sergei Bodrov on the life of the early 13th century warrior and conqueror Genghis Khan. Bodrov’s movie, simply titled Mongol, is the fourth major modern attempt to capture the life of Genghis Kahn on film—the first being a 1956 The Conqueror starring John Wayne and Susan Hayward, the second, a Hollywood style epic filmed in 1965 with Omar Sharif and Stephen Boyd, and the third the Japanese-language To the Ends of the Earth and Sea (2007), which I am eagerly awaiting from Netflix. Hollywood’s productions were filmed in English; the 1956 version was made in Hollywood, but producers trekked to Yugoslavia with cameras for the Sharif blockbuster.

Mongol is the first production to be filmed in the Mongolian language and principally in Mongolia. It is a cinematographically beautiful film, with captivating costumes, jewelry, and music. Battle scenes are bloody, but unexaggerated. Modern moviegoers have been well-prepared by the film industry for mass slaughter (even in such youngster-oriented films as the Tolkein trilogy), and there is nothing particularly new here. Perhaps the second and third installments will educate viewers on the astounding military capabilities of the Mongol horseman, who could string and repeatedly fire his bow at an enemy advancing to his rear, while keeping his horse at full gallop. Genghis Kahn’s genius as a military commander is an aspect of his life that also waits to be more fully depicted in coming films.

What is so fascinating to film makers (and viewers like myself, I must admit) about an oriental warrior unequalled in his depredations against military opponents and civilian populations alike? A quick look at the historical sources reveals that Genghis Kahn created the largest contiguous empire in human history, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to Adriatic Sea by the time of his death in 1127. He created the Uighin script, the basis of the written Mongolian language, a system of law (the Yassa) affirming the existence of a single Creator, and established religious tolerance throughout his empire. Historian David Morgan notes that, in bringing the Mongols under his leadership, he transformed the society of the western steppe from that of a tribal system to a relatively more advanced feudal system. Bodrov’s film hints that his charisma was based on his elevation of the principle of meritocracy over that of clan/tribe affiliation, and an attitude of fairness toward his men, particularly in matters of discipline and distribution of booty. These tendencies may be considered to be the kernels of truth embedded in his system of rule, and intersection points, however weak, with the western Christian culture that suffered so grievously under the swords of his horsemen.

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