It was Genghis Khan, they say, who killed John Wayne. I refer to the 1956 film The Conqueror, a work of such celebrated awfulness that its producer, Howard Hughes, withdrew all the prints. This turkey was remarkable not just for the Duke’s improbable casting as the feared Mongolian warlord, with dubious “slant-eyed” make-up, or for his unflinching True Grit swagger as he ravaged both the citadels of Eurasia and Susan Hayward, portraying, equally impossibly, a Tatar princess. Here, the fallout was literal. Shot in the Utah desert, downwind of a nuclear test site, the film attained greater infamy as the production on which half the personnel succumbed to cancer allegedly linked to radiation - Wayne eventually included.
According to lore, Genghis (or, if we are to pronounce him correctly, “Chingis”) was responsible for many deaths besides. “The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters,” quoth the man himself in one of his lighter moments. Between 1206 and his death in 1227, he led his hordes on a rampage unparalleled in destruction, sweeping from the steppes to the fringes of Europe, slaughtering millions, getting thoroughly medieval.
“Genghis Khan is one of the most unpopular names in Russia,” recounts the film director Sergei Bodrov. “I read only bad things about him and the Mongols in my schoolbooks: barbarians; primitive, cruel people; almost monsters.” By the time Genghis’s grandson had taken over the family business (Kublai Khan, he of the pleasure dome), the Poles and Hungarians, too, were but a twitch of a Fu Manchu moustache from obliteration. The shock waves continue. Western collywobbles over the rise of Asia seem to spring from something more deep-rooted than mere trade.
Great stuff for a film-maker, though. Next month sees the release of Bodrov’s epic film Mongol, the first part of a proposed mighty trilogy. Deservedly nominated for a best foreign film Oscar, this Russian/Kazakh co-production was shot on the remote grasslands of Kazakhstan and Mongolias Inner and Outer. It’s a homegrown affair, featuring pan-Asian leads and a legion of Central Asian extras, with the dialogue entirely in Mongolian.
Others have tackled Genghis cinematically - Omar Sharif put on the marmot fur in a 1965 swashbuckler, and there was a 1998 Chinese biopic, among several others - but Mongol aspires to be the most authentic take. “I found a great story about his childhood,” Bodrov explains. “He wasn’t born a monster. It’s good to swim against the current.” At a time when a strong man has again emerged to lead Bodrov’s homeland, celebrating the life of a tyrant admired openly by Hitler might be considered questionable. “He was defamed and stereotyped in Russia and in the West,” Bodrov points out. “In Central Asia, he is a hero.”
When the end product is as magnificent as Mongol, it’s difficult to argue. A sumptuous, cast-of-thousands extravaganza (shot on a laughably knockdown budget of less than £10m), it easily rivals The Lord of the Rings, Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for sheer scale and mysticism – but all, of course, based in reality.
Unusually for a subtitled film in an obscure tongue, Mongol is being given a wide release in Europe and America, with the spectacular battle scenes – the work of its Kazakh and Kyrgyz stunt riders - played up in the trailers to woo the acne brigade. Still, it is the human story that shines through. In the film, we meet nine-year-old Temudgin (Ghengis’s given name), on his way to bag a bride. After the murder of his father, Temudgin ascends from petty cattle-rustler to tribal avenger (played by the cult Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano), abetted by his prone-to-kidnap wife, Borte (Mongolian first-timer Khulan Chuluun), and blood brother Jamukha (the Chinese actor Honglei Sun).
A case of revisionism? “I would certainly hope so,” says John Man, the British historian whose book Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection became Bodrov’s definitive reference. “It’s not revisionism in that you can downplay the deaths or the drive for empire, but you can see where it comes from.” The film concludes with Temudgin anointed Genghis Khan (“Supreme Conqueror”), an act he celebrates with the genocide of the rival Tangut nation - though we can forgive him that for the lack of a strong male role model.
It seems Genghis has been misunderstood all these years. The reason, Man explains, is archival: in this case, history being written by the vanquished. “And the victims have a one-sided view,” he says. For the Mongols, illiterate nomads, there had been little point in getting their antics down on paper. It was only in the late 19th century that a cryptic Chinese tome, The Secret History of the Mongols, resurfaced, and as recently as the 1980s that the most complete western translation of it emerged. Comparable to the Iliad or the Norse sagas, it offers a more lyrical, romanticised portrait of Genghis than anything available previously.
Genghis may have started out as “little more than a gang leader in a turf war”, as Man puts it, but within 20 years he was running a manor that took in, in today’s terms, Mongolia and all of the Central Asian republics, as well as parts of Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, China and North Korea - the largest contiguous land empire ever known. “This demands some sort of explanation,” Man insists. In founding the Yuan dynasty, Genghis also forged a unified China, his single greatest legacy. ...
Directed by Sergey Bodrov
Starring Tadanobu Asano, Honglei