The name Genghis Khan is familiar to just about everyone but his story almost certainly is not. This film from Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov is about an entertaining and a scholarly look at the life of this leader who many consider to be in the same league as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar as you can get.
Shot on location in the actual places where the events took place in the early 1200s, this film is a sweeping epic that looks at the life of Genghis Khan during two times of his life – his early days and in the days when he was conquering everything in sight including Russia at one point. But what Bodrov (and the guy that did a lot of the writing and research with him, Arif Aliyev) does here that is even more impressive is completely erase all the stereotypical notions about Genghis Khan as this Mongolian savage whose name signifies violence and brutality. Bodrov has painted a rich and resonating picture of a man who was fearless and ambitious but who also truly believed that it was the love of his wife that made everything possible for him. So while this film is a historical true life epic it also, amazingly, functions as a love story as well.
Had anyone told me there was a film coming out about Genghis Khan that was described as a love story I would have immediately thought Mel Brooks was behind it – but this love story in this film is told so masterfully that it sneaks up on you and before you realize it you are thinking completely the opposite about Genghis Khan than the way you thought when you went in to the cinema.
The actors in the film are all first rate (Khulan Chuluun is fantastic as Genghis Kahn’s wife) – none are familiar faces but most all are seasoned professionals and it shows but for me one of the main characters in this film was the scenery and the landscapes – it really gives you pause because you imagine how insanely tough life would have been during these times in this place and you end up having all the more respect and admiration for someone that not only survives it but turns it on its ear and ends up doing great things despite it. Bodrov shot his film in remote parts of China and Khazakhstan (the film was entered as an official entry from Khazakhstan to the 80th Academy Awards).
Sergei Bodrov was the perfect guy to make this film – his heritage is Russian and he actually lives part of the year in Kazakhstan. He has been writing and directing heartfelt humanistic films for the better part of thirty years and in 1996 won an Academy Award for his wonderful film Priosoner of the Mountains. What I like about his films and in particular this is true for Mongol, is the fact that he is a patient filmmaker and clearly takes his films very personally.
The section of the film dealing with the childhood of Genghis Khan (or Temudgin as he was known throughout most of his young life) is slow and thoughtful while the section dealing with Genghis Khan the conquerer and the warrior is much more exciting and vibrant – it would seem on the surface that the two tones would be at odds with one another but Bodrov is really brilliant and pacing his film so that the lulls in the action are perfectly placed and allow us to get the deeper meaning of the story that is clearly very important to him.
But that said, this is a film that takes some patience – it is not a Hollywood historical epic like Alexander or Troy or even 300 – this is a thoughtful film that shows not just what happened but why it happened and what it was like for all those involved to live in this time during these events. MONGOL is a wonderful film to look at and it is also interesting to think about long after you have left the theatre.