CAPSULE: MONGOL is grand historical spectacle made on a budget. It is the legend of the young warrior Temudgin in the days before he became Genghis Khan. This makes for a saga of blood feuds, betrayals, vendettas, and a lot of fighting. In the style of the sagas of the era, the characters are not well developed, and the story not really complex. The film is entertaining but more macho than intelligent. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Director Sergei Bodrov intends to tell the story of the Great Khan in three films. This at first glance might seem like it should be a huge and expensive project. But with digital technology to help create spectacular battle scenes and with relatively inexpensive sets--how expensive is it to set up a yurt for the camera?--the film probably looks more opulent than it actually is. The budget is rumored to be $20M, small by Hollywood standards. This is a Russian/Kazakh/German co-production filmed in the Mongolian language. Years ago it would have been risky to subtitle a film like this rather than dub it, but audiences, possibly conditioned by anime, are more tolerant of subtitles. For the current release the subtitles are noticeably briefer than the speech they translate leaving the viewer frustrated at not getting the full story and leaving one to suspect that a dubbed version might have had a fuller or more nuanced story. This story is mostly just a chronicle of feuds and fighting.
Not much is known about the life of the historic Genghis Khan. Most of what we know or think we know comes from A SECRET HISTORY OF THE MONGOLS, an anonymous work written well after the fact and which is recognizably laced with folklore and self-serving interpretations. Further, since Genghis Khan conquered a fifth of the world, in many countries he is still considered a great villain of history. There are complaints that the film is as sympathetic to Temudgin as it is, but he is not far humanized. He is more just a perfect warrior, cunning, intelligent, brave, and thoroughly deadly. He is a man with a personality as thin, sharp, and dangerous as a sword. In at least two scenes he also seems to have magical powers.
The movie begins by quoting a proverb: "Do not scorn a weak cub; he may become a brutal tiger." It fits the film well. In the twelfth century different Mongolian clans, led by khans (or rulers), struggled for power among the Mongols. The story tells how the son of a murdered Khan, a boy who had mortal enemies from age ten, killed those enemies and rose to power as the greatest of the Khans. The sensibility of the telling and even much of the plot is reminiscent of CONAN THE BARBARIAN. That is no coincidence in the films, of course. Temudgin inspired much of the script of CONAN. Each tells the story of a young boy who loses parents and is yoked into slavery only to be strengthened by captivity to rise to become the meanest warrior of all. [Conan says that what is best in life is "to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women." That is John Milius and Oliver Stone borrowing a quote from Temudgin.]
The story begins when Temudgin is a boy of ten being taken by his father, the Khan of his clan, to choose a wife from another clan. After choosing Borte, a year older than the boy, they promise to come for her in five years. The father and son head for home, but the father never makes it. He is murdered, leaving the son a young and weak Khan. Other clans move in to steal from Temudgin's clan. The boy is taken into slavery and put into a cangue. (A cangue is a heavy yoke much like wooden stocks were in colonial New England, but smaller and more portable.) But we know he will not stay there long. Temudgin makes friends and enemies with equal ease. He also knows how to turn friends into enemies, but cannot well turn enemies into friends. He goes from one conflict to the next so that even his wife, once he eventually wins her, complains that he is never home. He is always off fighting someplace.
This is a film of blood and thunder. The blood is frequently digitally created and floats around in globules like something from STAR TREK VI. Thunder is also near and dear to Temudgin's heart as he is the one Mongol who has learned not to fear it. Writers Arif Aliyev and Bodrov could have given us a little less action and let us know a little more of who they think Temudgin was. But unfortunately it would have been inventing. All we really know about the historic Temudgin is a little of who he fought. And even of that we are not sure. MONGOL may be close to the myth of young Genghis Khan, but all we know is a little of who he fought. I rate MONGOL a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0416044/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2008 Mark R. Leeper