Directed by Sergei Bodlov
Starring Tadanobu Asano, Khulan Chuluun and Honglei Sun
John Wayne playing Genghis Khan? You heard me, pilgrim: 1956’s The Conqueror finds the Duke playing the 13th century scourge of Asia and eastern Europe, cosmetically narrowed eyes and all, in a casting choice made doubly tragic by the studio’s decision to film the ill-fated epic on the site of still-fresh A-bomb testing in Utah. Wayne, director Dick Powell, actors Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead and Pedro Armendariz and nearly half of some 220 other cast and crew members subsequently developed cancers thought to be linked to the location. Bazillionaire weirdo Howard Hughes had bankrolled the movie—which Wayne had literally fished out of a producer’s wastebasket—and even paid for hundreds of tons of radioactive Utah dirt to be shipped to the studio for added realism on the sound stage. Stricken with guilt, Hughes later bought back every print he could get his hands on. Only in 1974 did audiences get a second chance to see the movie. Too late for a few, at least.
So let’s not speak ill of The Conqueror, except to say that it’s a strange baseline for a discussion of Genghis Khan movies through the years. Honestly, I can’t think of any others until now, with Mongol—a movie that would have been beyond just about anyone’s imagining in 1955: extraordinary cinematography, epic battles, buckets of blood, all brought to the screen by an international consortium that reads like the complete roster of the Allies plus the Axis in World War II. Not to mention an international non-English-speaking cast and a director named Sergei Bodrov. Not many critics could name a living, working Soviet filmmaker in 1955.
Mongol is no homely little shoestring production. The horse logistics for the battle scenes alone must have been epic. For 2008 audiences, it’s got everything we’ve come to expect in a battle-packed semi-historical action flick. Bodrov has evidently been gathering intelligence from decadent American action cinema for a long time, and he’s got his craft honed to a scimitar’s edge. He even uses the trick of shooting action scenes at half the number of frames per second and then doubling up on an optical printer to give them that gritty stroboscopic look. That technique was brand-new with Saving Private Ryan and now you see it in every movie with battle scenes. It’s effective: Thanks to this new look, the violence of wars previous to Oliver Stone-washed Vietnam is no longer as romantically abstract to modern audiences as it was just 10 years ago. I admire the technique for its analogue simplicity—the technology has been around longer than The Conqueror, but no one thought to try it before Spielberg’s director of photography, Janusz Kaminski.
If Saving Private Ryan started it, Gladiator took the new war look and put it in the wayback machine to Roman times. And now along comes Mongol, the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan’s eye-popping entrée to world cinema, to ship it several thousand miles east for use in a vast Mongolia full of enemies, enemies that must fight each other on horseback or in thrilling hand-to-hand melees one clan at a time. If you’re into big medieval battles, you haven’t had it this good since Braveheart. Or as unsullied by digital tomfoolery: there’s a fake spray of blood here, a few computer-generated hordes there, but Mongol is far more impressive for its all-natural cinematography, shot on locations so remote the crew evidently had to build roads to reach them. The old-fashioned grunting and slashing of the battle scenes is a tonic after Sparta and its ilk, thick with stylized acrobatics and gratuitous pixels.
Mongol follows the young Genghis Khan (Tadanobu Asano) when he was still called Temudgin and his main pastime was getting captured, escaping, and getting captured again. It happens about five times in the first hour. Or Temudgin’s bride Borte (Khulan Chuluun) is getting captured and has to be rescued. No wonder the Mongols never learned to farm. Who had the time? Mongol is essentially one long capture-and-escape story within a capture-and-escape story, always on the go, never settling into anything more static than brief chats in a yurt. It stays as fleet as the Mongols themselves.
Asano cuts a stoical figure as Temudgin. By contrast, Honglei Sun plays his blood-brother and rival Jamukha droll and eye-rolling to the hilt—the one odd note in a movie otherwise acted with low-key gruffness and every so often a lilt of femininity or a mischievous twinkle. Sun’s performance doesn’t quite fit the general scheme; he’s like Gary Oldman in True Romance surrounded by implacable Toshiro Mifunes. It’s not fatal, but it’s kind of weird at first. And why is he the only one with his head shaved? Mongol sticks close to the facts, but a few things bigger than Jamukha’s paratrooper haircut do go frustratingly unexplained.
Small potatoes. Not only did I love Mongol, I’m eagerly anticipating a Visigoth, a Scythian, a Hittite and a Hun (it would be fine with me if the last turned out to be a World War I movie). Maybe we don’t need a Macedonian so soon after Stone’s flatulent elephant of an Alexander the Great epic, but Assyrian! Thracian! Carthaginian! Mongol shows, encouragingly, that they can still make a ripping semi-historical action epic the old fashioned way, and I hope they keep doing it.