When I first heard of a film about the life of Genghis Khan, I pictured three solid hours of rape and pillage, with enough blood to fill the Marianas Trench. This expectation was a smidge wide of the mark, but then such films are made for mass consumption, even if they are from Kazakhstan. Nonetheless, Mongol was an intriguing work made all the more interesting by its decision to focus on that which made the ruler different from other Mongols, rather than on his body count. Disappointing as that decision was, I remained seated, waiting for the film to leave the rails fully and commence a bloodbath worthy of the Khan. I may have to wait for the sequel.
Genghis Khan was born Temujin in 1162, and went on to unite the various Mongol tribes into a force that eventually conquered most of Asia. What is known about him is mostly word of mouth history, and the factual account is filled with holes, but the film attempts to remain as faithful as possible to this version. I should say there are two versions of the story, as one would expect of any great individual. His people know him as a great uniting visionary, and those who endured the invasions of his descendants consider him a genocidal maniac. The film comes from the former point of view, and proceeds to immerse you in a world wholly unfamiliar to anyone who lives in a society governed by law, property rights, and a life expectancy above 30. The cinematography is impeccable, not only for bringing out the beauty of the Mongolian steppe, but for bringing to reality the vast distances involved in the travel taking place in the film. The production values are more than accomplished here, which is very helpful when the film is attempting to impress upon the viewer just how impossible it was to live in such an era. Fortunes change quickly, and for many people the most they can hope for from life is to toil endlessly in a land devoid of law only to sustain the thieves that surround you until you die via the sword or dysentery.
At the start of the film, Temujin is being taken by his father, the khan of his nomadic tribe, to a neighboring clan to pick a wife at the age of 12. The boy chooses an impetuous girl from a small and impoverished village before they reach that clan, which is the first hint that this person does not necessarily follow tradition. The girl, Borte, becomes the love of his life, and the focus of his will to survive. Yes, you read that right – the story of Genghis Khan is in part a love story. Believe me, it plays better than it sounds. Anyway, his father, while returning home, is poisoned by a neighboring tribe while at a ‘resting place’. This scene, in a way, is the fulcrum upon which the rest of the film rests improbably. You see, while resting, Mongol tribesmen are not to attack each other, as is the custom. He takes food offered by a tribe that he is well aware wishes to kill him. He eats anyway, remarking “We cannot break the customs.” He pays dearly for this rigid view, as he dies within days, and his son is dispossessed of his tribe, his family, and any hope. He must live on the run or else risk capture and enslavement or murder at the hands of his rivals who fear his revenge.
The film is concerned with tradition, and the way it compels people to act against their own best interests. Repeatedly, certain decisions are made in the name of tradition, and the individuals making that decision pay dearly for it each time. Temujin loses his father, then his tribe, and is beaten, enslaved, recaptured, re-enslaved, and suffers the kind of cruelty that is the bread and butter of a nomad. His family loses everything to someone from his own tribe. Small wonder the future ruler had little use for tradition. He breaks with the accepted custom of taking whatever wife your khan wishes (for the sake of forging closer ties with a neighbor), and as a result, she saves his life repeatedly and does not hesitate to sacrifice her honor. Borte goes on to become a smoking hot bit of tail, willing to spread for whomever, and then kill whomever it takes to restore power to her husband. So his rebellious nature served him well. He breaks with his own tribe (since it drove his own family into poverty) and finds a blood brother, Jamukha, who becomes a valued friend. The sacred custom of allying with one’s family or tribe means nothing to him, since they were so quick to oppress him. Temujin’s eyes were set on a much bigger tribe to which one would owe allegiance, one numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and capable of repelling any aggressor.
History is often unkind to those who perpetrate invasion and murder, but this view is governed by perspective. If you live during an era when at any moment you can lose everything, all that matters is your ability to repel a rival. Societal rules about morality exist only because we have the leisure time to consider them. The chance that I will be shot in the head tomorrow is vanishingly small, and so I can consider such things as god, freedom versus responsibility, or the ethics of violence.
Temujin had no such options – after becoming a slave and watching his family suffer, he knew that the traditions of old were no longer helpful. The time had come to create a new tradition, that of order, to be enforced with an iron fist. He enshrined the rules of the new Mongol order in a series of laws called the Yassa, designed to create a standard of law across the empire. Though riddled with death penalties, the gist of it was that there would be no theft of property, no murder of women or children, no betrayal of your khan, and a predictable structure for an army or society. Though the Yassa involved execution for anyone who commits adultery or for such nonsense as doing laundry during a thunderstorm, it represented a dramatic improvement over the chaotic lawlessness that was the daily way of life for Mongols for the past thousand years.
Not a bad film – beautifully shot, well acted, and a complete experience that fully places one in the 1100s with not a single errant ice-cream truck or cell phone in sight. Though it contained significantly fewer severed limbs or gang rapes that would be expected of a story about the greatest conqueror the world had ever seen, it is likely that this will change in the second part of the trilogy. Then, we will see Russians do what they do best: die in astonishing numbers.