Review: Mongol (2007)

I am roughly half way through the book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford. This history of the Mongol empire that Genghis Khan created in the 13th and 14th century is interesting and likely reasonably close to the truth, as it is based on a secret history that was recorded at the time. There have been lots of movies about Genghis Khan over the years, some good, some quite dreadful, but few have been both really good and reasonably historically accurate. Mongol, an excellent Russian production released in 2007 comes quite close.

To the extent that we think about Genghis Khan today, we tend to thing of him as some sort of crazed Mongolian leader bent on empire and loving to dish out death, misery and torture. There is no question that in his quest for empire Genghis Khan and the Mongols killed a lot of people, and many perished in ways that would make even a medieval torturer squirm. Life was very harsh back then so the behavior of the Mongols was actually rather typical. Genghis Khan succeeded so well because he was a brilliant strategic thinker, and because Mongols traveled light. A full review of the book will come once I am done with it. Since Genghis Khan’s empire endured after his death, the Great Khan goes to his reward well before the halfway part of the book. So it was safe to Netflix this 2007 movie. It is part of an expected trilogy of movies about Genghis Khan and the Mongols. The next installment was supposed to released last year, but it has not appeared in theaters yet.

Reading Weatherford’s book, you realize that Mongolia is a very desolate, arid and cold place. The Mongolians did not have much besides lots of horses. Back then they spent much of their time warring with each other. Genghis Khan realized that to rise as a nation and as a people they first had to unite. Mongol tells the first part of Khan’s remarkable story: how he united his people and, tangentially, how he conquered his first Chinese kingdom.

Based on Weatherford’s descriptions, the film’s director Sergey Bodrov does a remarkable job of getting the details right. To say that life on the Mongolian steppe was harsh was to understate just how hard survival was. It meant constantly moving from place to place. It meant endless winds and unfathomable cold. Aside from their horses the Mongols had almost nothing. Bodrov does an outstanding job of depicting the harshness, poverty and cruelty of 13th century Mongolia. Mongolia had no kings, but there were all sorts of warlords who vied for constantly shifting regional leaderships.

Genghis Khan’s childhood and young adulthood would appall our modern sensibilities, but it is very well rendered in Mongol. It was a time when a man picked his bride as a prepubescent; where men about to be overrun often sensibly abandoned the women and fled just to survive; and where the notions of chastity and monogamy largely did not exist. Life was ephemeral on the steppe, and Genghis Khan, then known as Temudjin, got far more persecution and abuse that most. This was because his father was a clan warlord, and he made enemies with the leader of a local clan, who thus wanted Temudgin dead.

Actor Tadanobu Asano plays the key role of Temudgin. He is certainly not a name we would recognize here in the states, but he does an exceptional job in a very challenging role. It is hard to render Genghis Khan likeable, but Asano does a realistic job. By the standards of the 13th century, Temudgin was something of a gentleman. While capable of being ruthless, he built trust through being respectful of his men and not seeking to take more than his share of any plundered booty. He never really lusted for empire, or for gold and jewels. He lusted for unity and peace among his people. To end their endless civil wars he had to break more than a few eggs.

Much of the movie focuses on Temudgin’s basic fight to stay alive, starting as a young boy. He survived through a combination of luck, unusual resourcefulness and the exceptional loyalty from those who grew to know him. This included his wife Borte (Khulan Chuluun) who remained remarkably loyal and faithful to him. This was despite more than once having her life ripped apart when neighboring tribes captured her. Temudgin loved and was very attached to Borte as well, even though they spent much of their lives separated. Temudgin’s primary opponent turns out to be Jamukha (Honglei Sun), which starts as a great boyhood friendship. Temudgin also must endure years as a slave and imprisonment in a neighboring kingdom. Asano well captures Temudgin’s steely character and plays him as a man full of great self-confidence and ceaseless but quiet determination.

It is hard to find fault with any of the casting. As you might expect, the movie has an exotic Lawrence of Arabia feeling to it. In addition to the fine casting you get to enjoy gorgeous scenery in very distant lands. And there will be plenty of blood drawn. There are many, many battles, mostly on horseback. Mongols were great shots with a bow and arrow while riding on horseback, and they were efficient when using their swords. You will see lots of spurting blood during the battle scenes, but it’s clear they were added by CGI.

Mongol thus qualifies as a distinctive, well done and largely historically accurate movie that is well worth seeing. Genghis Khan was a remarkable character and his life story turns out to be very compelling. You will find the movie very well done and very engaging, and won’t even notice the subtitles. I am ready to see its sequel, and I hope it is as good as this first movie, which was deservedly nominated for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year at the 2008 Oscars.

Good stuff and worth my 3.4 out of four points rating.

[xrr rating=3.4/4]