Steppes to greatness
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