June 09, 2008


During the 13th century, the name of Genghis Khan spread like wildfire throughout the world, the conqueror of Khorasan and the mongol steppe, the fear of both China and Europe, he brought destruction to almost every part of Eurasia and founded an empire that at its maximum extent subdued both China and Europe. The problem with Genghis Khan though is how little not how much we know about the man- his history is preserved in the chronicles of those he conquered and in the secret history of the Mongols- but almost nowhere else. The reputation of his hordes and the pyramids of skulls that they left behind remain the most tangible memorial to his presence. That and now this film, directed by a Russian director and made in Kazackhstan, whose impact is clearly designed to imprint a legend upon the world- as Matt argues here, this is a film not so much about the man but about the myth.

As Vino right notes though, myths have a political content- as well as a mythological one- and its worth examining what myth we are presented with here as we come to a judgement upon the film. Genghis Khan is a figure around whom a great deal of myth has accumulated- there are many for example in China who see the figure of the great Khan as the leader who actually vanquished Western Armies and held for a time Russia in thrall. The twentieth century has seen efforts by various nationalities to 'claim' Genghis- the Chinese, Japanese and Mongolians have all made attempts to try and annex Genghis. Those who were subjugated by him saw him in another light- there is good reason to think that he was a brutal tyrant- perhaps the most murderous tyrant until the twentieth century, whose massacres were tactical but also bloody and who slaughtered in his thousands and his tens of thousands- if not more. Genghis Khan's reputation deserves to be as low as possibly any tyrant's reputation can be- a foolish relativism might seek to excuse his rampage, but it would be unworthy of us to deny that he wreaked havoc on the sedentary world of his day and the fears that many felt were genuine and justified.

Coming with that attitude to this film, I was amazed and not in a good way. Because this is not a film about the growth of a tyrant- it is a film about the hero Genghis Khan. We see his suffering and his conquest of Mongolia but we see none of his brutality. This is a film about a great man- and the fact for instance that we was locked up for seven years means in the language of the film, that it was acceptable to eliminate a city and the people who lived within it. This is the kind of film Thomas Carlyle would have been proud of: the best artistic representations of war convey the experience of armies from top to bottom. One thinks of War and Peace, or even of The Siege, but this is not about that at all- who cares how many Mongol soldiers perish, so long as Genghis and his family are reunited. The focus of the film is awry- its not so much that the story is wrong as that its heart, its purpose is in the wrong place. The little people are forgotten so that the greater can be remembered. In particular for instance it gets the world of war completely wrong: whereas war is about accident and fortune, this story is about inspired leadership from a great man.

Perhaps this is most evident in the way that the story is told. We begin the story with Genghis at 10, we end the story with Genghis at 30. The historical accuracy of what lies between is dodgy at best. But lets ignore that. Basically what we have is the tale of Genghis's rise to become warlord of all the Mongols- the film basically stops once he takes that crown. Though in reality its even shorter- the last half hour deals with his rise to the leadership of the Mongols- the main body of the film concerns his earlier attempts to lead a war band, his marriage, his relationship with his blood brother and his eventual fall into slavery. That is about it. The driving force in this story is the perception that Genghis is a man of destiny, unjustly treated, and yet he never seems to do anything particularly glorious and the reparations he inflicts for his unjust treatment are to destroy the lives of everyone around him. The tension therefore is maintained by the romance between Genghis and his wife, and the fellow feeling between him and his 'brother'. Unfortunately the film is about as romantic as cold soup and the relationship with his blood brother undermined by portentious piety. The real issue here is that for a film that is ostensibly about character- there are no characters to get familiar with or to care about. Who gives a damn about Genghis and his wife, lets watch them conquer the world- but the film doesn't cover that.

Unlike Hero, what it also doesn't do is pursue any deeper questions about tyranny or law. It doesn't seek to argue for Genghis's tyranny, it merely bathes us in lukewarm hero worship and leaves it at that. There is some lukewarm paganism- we get a couple of mentions of the sky god thrown in for fun- one wonders what a real polytheist would have made of the dismal slow motion wolf who strolls about at will through the groves of temples. One wonders why we get no sacrafice, no indication of any real religion, one wonders why we get no idea about the empire that Genghis maintained, no idea about his cruelty or his character. This is a blank sheet of paper- and its a blank which continues for over two hours. There is some fantastic photography- particularly of central Asia and it makes me even more certain that I want to go there at some point. But this is a poor poor effort- it is neither a historical film, nor does it do anything with teh myth. It is just a film which lauds a great man, who lets not forget slaughtered human beings in cold blood- as though someone were to make a film about the Bosnian conflict, lauding the Serbian army, without mentioning Srebrenica.

This is a poor effort, the greatness of the landscape conceals the poverty of the thought.


The Organic Viking said...

The film sounds exactly what I would have expected. One can say, however, that such portrayals of 'heroes' have long antecedents. The West has created pretty favourable myths for centuries about such leaders as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, perhaps even (although as an Anglo-Saxon historian I baulk at this) William the Conqueror, although their tactics were not much more pleasant. Amusingly, early medieval writers even wrote dreadfully cheesy 'Alexander Romances', in which Our Man From Macedonia was paired up, Hollywood Style, with some doe-eyed Greek or Persian.

Baht At said...

it says alot about our views on the world that most western people know so little about what was the greatest land empire ever.

Looks like you've put me off the film though!

Gracchi said...

Organic Viking totally agreed. I think that myths always gather around conquerors- I do think though that when we make films about them or write about them we shouldn't ignore their cruelty and their terrors. Perhaps in a sense what this reflects is the way that our morality has evolved over the centuries- I think that we have become less militaristic and in general I think this is actually a good thing.

Baht at yes indeed- too few people know about Genghis Khan or the other great Mongol khans- not to mention very few people could name a Chinese emperor. When it comes to the Mongols it is worth noting that one of our problems with them is that we don't have much evidence of their activity from within the Mongol world- we have the secret history- but say unlike Caesar we don't have Genghis's own reflections on his rise. Most of our evidence about the Mongols comes from the people they conquered- its almost as though we only had records of the colonial expansion of the British from Indians, Africans and Canadians- that would include an important perspective but it would leave our knowledge of the British empire impaired. Similarly our knowledge of the Mongol Empire is incomplete.