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World Conqueror (Mongol)

Enter Genghis Khan

Jul. 15, 2008
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Genghis Khan’s birthright was to captain a small, nomadic tribe across the grassy sea of Mongolia. He grew up and made a bid for the whole world. He conquered as far as his eyes could see: Central Asia, portions of China, Persia and Russia. His name became synonymous in the West with cruel tyranny, but his conquests were no bloodier than most campaigns of his era and his empire was more tolerant, more wisely governed, than many states in our time.

  Mongol is the first in Russian director Sergei Bodrov’s trilogy on Genghis Khan. It’s the origin story: The 9-year-old boy witnesses his father poisoned by enemies, his family’s herds run off, his tribe’s leadership usurped by a traitor and his betrothed ravished by rivals. In those years the boy went by his given name, Temudgin. By the end of the film he assumed the title of Genghis Khan, “Great Chief,” after unifying the Mongol hordes on the field of battle.

  The rough but beautiful setting of Temudgin’s vengeance quest is reminiscent of John Ford’s saga, The Searchers. In that Western classic, John Wayne’s obsessive anti-hero rides the frontier to avenge his family’s honor. In Mongol, the stakes are higher. After tracking and killing everyone who ever harmed him or his kinfolk, Temudgin is positioned to lead Mongolia’s tribal warriors, raiders at the edges of great civilizations, onto the world stage. The landscape is vast and stark, an expanse of cold deserts draped in winter snow, grassy summertime steppes, thick forests and towering peaks. Little wonder that Temudgin’s imagination carried him across the horizon to the ends of the Earth.

  The adult Temudgin, played with the intense stillness of a Zen warrior by Tadanobu Asano, exudes dangerous but focused manly prowess. Let lesser chieftains fly into berserker rage; Temudgin bides his time, perceives the weakness of his enemies, wins by strategy as much as bravery. The many battle scenes are highly stylized showers of blood, suggesting the influence of Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein along with more recent martial arts extravaganzas.

  Genghis Khan understood himself as a man of destiny, and Mongol surrounds Temudgin in a mystic web of the miraculous; the young warrior is the junction of a network of purpose and pattern behind seemingly disparate events. He is not a kind man, although he is humanized by devotion for his wife, Borte (Khulan Chuluun), whom he rescues and who later rescues him in return. Temudgin fashioned himself as a lawgiver, bringing justice and order to the savage frontier on the outskirts of civilization.

The ethnography feels correct, including the costumes of warriors and their wives, the feathered garb of the shamans. But Mongol isn’t merely a dramatized documentary. Bodrov’s devotion to plausible detail is swept along by magnificent cinematography in a compelling epic of treachery and heroism, fidelity and love.


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