Genghis Khan barely survived the laughable 1956 Hollywood misfire “The Conqueror,” produced by Howard Hughes no less, in which none other than John Wayne donned incredibly unbecoming headgear—but made no attempt at an accent in reciting the script’s howlers—to portray the thirteenth-century Mongol leader who amassed an empire than encompassed most of Asia and eastern Europe. Leave it to Kazakhstan, the home of Borat, to rehabilitate the great man with this huge, old-fashioned epic—the first of a proposed trilogy—directed with a real flair for wide vistas and gargantuan crowd scenes (as well as co-written) by Russian Sergei Bodrov.
Apart from a chronologically fractured structure that would have been rejected as excessively complicated at the time, “Mongol” actually represents the sort of oversized but simple-minded historical saga that might have been made in Monument Valley a half-century ago. (No wonder it was one of the five entries chosen to be nominated for the foreign-language film Oscar last year.) It’s certainly sumptuous in its visuals and operatic in its gestures, and it’s enjoyable in a big-boned, slightly wacky way. But while it’s no “Conqueror,” unfortunately it’s no “Lawrence of Arabia,” either: it doesn’t attempt to puncture the mythic quality of its subject so much as to perpetuate it.
“Mongol” covers the first portion of the life of Temudgin, the later Khan, but in a rhapsodic way that flashes back and forward. It starts in 1192, when he’s being held captive in a gloomy fortress cell, and then cuts back twenty years, when the nine-year old lad trekked with his father Esugei, the tribal chieftain, to remote plains so that the lad can select a future bride. His choice falls unexpectedly on the high-spirited, self-confident Borte.
On the way home, however, Esugei is treacherously killed, and his ambitious lieutenant Targutai seizes his property and his title, forcing little to flee. Happily he falls in with Jamukha, the prince of another tribe, and the two become friends. A series of captures and escapes follow until Temudgin can make his way back to Borte. Their happiness is short-lived, however, when she’s taken captive and Temudgin and Jamukha must rescue her. Unfortunately, the two men have a falling out and Jamukha turns against his erstwhile friend, leading to yet another period of captivity. But Borte proves a resourceful and determined spouse, and eventually Temudgin not only regains his freedom but defeats his enemies in battle in 1206 (by overcoming a fear common to all other Mongols) and unites the tribes under his leadership, imposing on them a code of conduct that mandates, first and foremost, loyalty to one’s lord.
In sheer pictorial terms there’s enormous sweep to Bodrov’s telling of this story. He and cinematographers Sergey Trofimov and Rogier Stoffers obviously relish the opportunities afforded by the Kazakh and Mongolian landscapes, achieving some striking effects in scenes like the one in which Temudgin and Jamukha encounter a defense force when tracking down Borte, or another in which a monk traipses across the desert; and they clearly enjoy staging the clashes of great armies, too. The director adds to the larger-than-life feel by encouraging outsized performances, especially from the smoldering Tadanobu Asano as the grown Temudgin (young Odnyam Odsuren plays him as a child) and Honglei Sun, who recalls a striding Yul Brynner as the older Jamukha (shades of “Taras Bulba”). Add to the mix elaborate costumes by Karin Lohr and a rich music score, complete with folk elements, by Tuomas Kantelinen that accentuates the sense of spectacle.
In its mixture of bombast and poetry, “Mongol” vaguely recalls the Eisenstein tradition in Russian cinema. And though it hardly approaches the status of a “Nevsky” or “Ivan,” the picture’s bravura style makes for an intriguingly exotic adventure only occasionally hobbled by the finicky mode of storytelling.