Steppes to great­ness

Evan Wil­liams

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

NOT far from my place there’s a pop­u­lar restau­rant called the Genghis Khan Mon­go­lian BBQ, and I al­ways feel a lit­tle queasy when­ever I pass by. Wasn’t Genghis Khan a ruth­less tyrant, a blood­thirsty mon­ster who mas­sa­cred mil­lions in his lust for do­min­ion, lay­ing waste to cities and slaugh­ter­ing in­no­cent women and chil­dren?

At the height of his power, in the early 13th cen­tury, he held sway over more of the world than any sin­gle con­queror be­fore or since, rul­ing most of China and large slabs of what is now Rus­sia, In­dia, Afghanistan and Turkey.

I sup­pose the pro­duc­ers of Mon­gol would tell me that I am a vic­tim of a his­tor­i­cal cam­paign to be­lit­tle Genghis Khan’s rep­u­ta­tion. This ad­mir­ing film, di­rected by the Rus­sian Sergei Bo­drov, is the first of a planned tril­ogy aimed at restor­ing Khan’s good name.

We are asked to be­lieve that the man was not only a great lover but a brave so­cial re­former and vi­sion­ary leader who left be­hind an en­light­ened le­gal code and set an out­stand­ing ex­am­ple of skil­ful ad­min­is­tra­tion of his far- flung pos­ses­sions.

The same has been said of Julius Cae­sar, Napoleon, Ivan the Ter­ri­ble and Mao Ze­dong. But Mon­gol is such grip­ping en­ter­tain­ment that I’m happy to ac­cept its novel ver­sion of his­tory.

It’s a sort of east­ern west­ern: all horses and open spa­ces, prim­i­tive set­tle­ments on the edges of nowhere, and not much law and or­der. As a spec­ta­cle it ranks with Alexan­der Nevsky , Sergei Eisen­stein’s epic tale of 13th- cen­tury Rus­sia, when the coun­try was in­vaded by Teu­tonic knights on one side and Tar­tars on the other.

Thanks to Stalin, Eisen­stein had half the Rus­sian army at his dis­posal to pro­vide ex­tras for the bat­tle scenes, and those in Mon­gol are in much the same class. Blood is sprayed co­pi­ously dur­ing cavalry charges and I felt des­per­ately anx­ious for the horses ( though we are as­sured, not al­to­gether con­vinc­ingly, that no horse was harmed in the mak­ing of this mo­tion pic­ture).

The prob­lem for mak­ers of re­vi­sion­ist biopics is how to awaken sym­pa­thy for a char­ac­ter whose rep­u­ta­tion is black­ened. First, a great ac­tor is needed to play him. Khan is played with heroic dig­nity and fine, men­ac­ing still­ness by Tadanobu Asano, the Ja­panese ac­tor I last saw as the blind swords­man in Takeshi Ki­tano’s Za­to­ichi .

Khan pos­sesses prodi­gious sword- wield­ing skills but there’s no way he can be made to seem warm- hearted or benev­o­lent. Cen­turies of iconog­ra­phy have stamped his fear­ful im­age on our con­scious­ness: the mounted fig­ure with wispy beard, great fur head­dress and im­pla­ca­ble gaze. Even as a nine- year- old in the early scenes, when he chooses a child bride and sees his beloved fa­ther Esugei poi­soned by ri­val tribes­men, he looks like some­one you wouldn’t want to meet one lonely night on the steppes of cen­tral Asia.

Work­ing from a screen­play he wrote with Arif Aliyev, Bo­drov re­lates the saga in a se­ries of ti­tled chap­ters, be­gin­ning in 1162 when Te­mud­jin ( as Genghis Khan was named) is rid­ing with his fa­ther on a rare mis­sion of peace. Esugei needs to re­store good re­la­tions with the Merk­its, a fierce Mon­gol tribe from whom he once kid­napped the wife of a war­rior chief. Te­mud­jin is to choose a Merkit wife in a ges­ture of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

But be­fore they reach their des­ti­na­tion the boy has al­ready cho­sen a bride from a line- up of beau­ti­ful 10- year- old girls from an­other clan ( and lest any­one sup­pose that Mon­gol is an in­cite­ment to pe­dophiles, fit to be seized by po­lice, I stress that the girls are am­ply clad against the cold). The win­ner is Borte, who is bold enough to ad­dress the princely young Genghis be­fore she is spo­ken to. It’s a sign of self- con­fi­dence that wins the fu­ture con­queror’s heart.

Will this love- struck boy, ready to wait five years to wed the girl of his dreams, be any­thing but a kind- hearted leader of his peo­ple? Of course not. Mon­gol is as much an epic love story as an epic slice of his­tory, and one has to won­der about Bo­drov’s schol­arly re­search.

All records at­test that Te­mud­jin and Borte were be­trothed as chil­dren. It may also be true that the grown- up Borte was as beau­ti­ful as Khu­lan Chu­luun, the ac­tor who plays her. It may even be true that Genghis Khan es­caped from years of cap­tiv­ity at the hands of his ri­val Targutai ( Amadu Ma­madakov), in­clud­ing con­fine­ment in a wooden yoke, to go in search of his im­pris­oned bride.

It may just pos­si­bly be true that when Genghis is cap­tured by the Mon­gol chief­tain Ja­mukha ( Hon­glei Sun) and held as a slave, Borte de­vised a dar­ing ( and suc­cess­ful) plan to res­cue him. But was real life ever so thrilling, so au­da­cious?

The dis­jointed nar­ra­tive leaves much un­ex­plained. Genghis, crit­i­cally wounded by a spear, is seen mirac­u­lously healed in the next scene. And when he col­lapses on his long trek through the wilder­ness, Borte is alerted to his plight by dreams and tele­pathic sig­nals.

The most con­vinc­ing char­ac­ter is the weather. Amid the bleak mag­nif­i­cence of th­ese empty steppes, swept by sud­den down­pours, icy winds and ed­dy­ing snow­falls lit by shafts of light­ning, the hu­man fig­ures seem strangely puny. Even the most in­tense hu­man drama is some­how re­duced by the land­scape.

But there’s at least one bat­tle sur­pass­ing any­thing I re­mem­ber in Troy or Gla­di­a­tor . Khan’s cav­al­ry­men have per­fected a tech­nique of hold­ing their swords rigidly out­stretched on ei­ther side as they charge through the en­emy lines. I won­dered if this was the ori­gin of the phrase cut­ting a swath.

Un­like Ivan the Ter­ri­ble , an­other Eisen­stein film, which was banned by Stalin for what seemed to him a thinly veiled re­buke to the KGB, Rus­sians will prob­a­bly be al­lowed to see Mon­gol . But I’m not sure about the Chi­nese. Genghis Khan may be por­trayed as a great helms­man, a be­nign fa­ther of his peo­ple and de­voted lover, but it’s still dif­fi­cult to care for him.

Makeover: Tadanobu Asano as Genghis Khan with his son in a scene from Sergei Bo­drov’s Mon­gol

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