Considering the last film I reviewed—about Genghis Khan’s grandson, Halaku (Hulegu Khan)—it seemed to me about time that I watched this one. What strengthened my resolve was that I happened to watch the Julie Andrews-Omar Sharif starrer The Tamarind Seed last week, and I was reminded that Omar Sharif starred as Genghis Khan here. ‘And Omar Sharif as Genghis Khan’, as the credits read. [An uncanny coincidence there, with—as in Halaku—the lead actor’s name appearing at the end of the credited cast].
The story begins on the steppes in Central Asia, where a small tribe of Mongols is moving along, riders, hide-covered wagons and all, when another tribe—an enemy of this one—attacks.
The attackers catch the little caravan unawares, and their leader Yesügei, his teenaged son Temujin, and many others are taken captive.
The leader of the attacking clan, Jamuga (Stephen Boyd), has his hands on Temujin’s throat, ready to throttle the boy, when the venerable old Geen (Michael Hordern), who belongs to Temujin’s clan, hurries forward and stops Jamuga. Look at Temujin’s palm, he tells the irate warrior—there’s a blood clot on the boy’s palm, which means, according to portents, that Temujin is destined to be a great leader. And that he who takes Temujin’s life will die. Jamuga, with ill grace, lets the boy be.
…but kills Temujin’s father, Yesügei, in a brutal fashion (tied by ropes to two horses), right in front of Temujin’s eyes. Temujin is then ‘imprisoned’ by having a huge wooden collar locked around his neck.
And that is how [very Hindi film style, this] Temujin grows up (now Omar Sharif), still with the collar around his neck. He’s been kept as a slave in Jamuga’s tribe all this while, and just about everybody in the tribe treats Temujin with contempt.
One day, Temujin is sent—under the less-than-watchful eye of the mute Sengal (Woody Strode)—to fetch water from a stream.
Temujin is filling his leather buckets when a group of young men and women, playing with a ball, comes prancing along. The ball, which belongs to Börte (Françoise Dorléac), falls into the water, and despite Börte’s pleas to her companions to fish it out, nobody helps. They’re probably thinking the water will ruin their lovely silks and fine woolen garments. Temujin, seeing Börte’s plight, goes into the water and brings back her ball.
She is, to his surprise, grateful (Jamuga’s tribe have not given Temujin any reason to believe they even think of him as human). And not just grateful, but even friendly—something her friends obviously don’t approve of.
It is in the midst of this momentous moment that Jamuga comes galloping in with some of his warriors. He hurls abuses at Temujin, tries to lash him, and is finally challenged by Temujin to a fight that will allow Jamuga to actually show he can do more than attack a man who’s saddled with a collar.
The result being that the collar is removed. Temujin immediately leaps forward, knocks Jamuga and his men down, and escapes.
Within a few hours, he is joined by two other escapees: one is old Geen, who had saved Temujin from Jamuga years ago. The other is the slave Sengal, who has decided he’d rather throw in his lot with these two, who (between them) comprise the ‘smallest tribe of Mongols’.
Geen, discussing with Temujin what they should now do with themselves, gives the young man a quick lesson in geography. The world, he says, is divided into three parts. To the far west lie the rich lands of Samarqand and Yarkand, which trade with distant Europe. To the east lies China, so rich that even the men wear silks. In between the west and the east lies the barren steppe, inhabited by the Mongols. Who, by the way, aren’t even friends with each other. Their mutual enmities have contributed to their being scattered.
Temujin is scornful of the way his people have not taken advantage of this situation. Wealth to the west and wealth to the east, and they’re sitting in the middle, without any of that wealth? It’s time they laid their hands on it.
To solve the problem, Temujin’s first move is to increase the size of their tribe—by the simple expedient of adding members from other tribes.
That night, seeing a passing group of horsemen—with prisoners, horses, and precious hides in tow—Temujin and Sengal stage a swift and lethal attack. They surreptitiously pick off the guards, untie the prisoners (who then help them overwhelm the now-awake ex-captors), and are left rich with horses and hides. And a tribe that now includes the members of the other tribe, headed by a man named Shan (Telly Savalas).
As they progress, we get a taste of what Temujin (who, of course, went on to be better known as Genghis Khan) really is like. When they reach the road to Tashkent, Geen and Shan warn Temujin that this is a protected zone, so to say—the Mongols have signed a treaty, guaranteeing that they will not attack travelers on the road. “But I didn’t sign it,” Temujin says with a gleeful smile, and sets off determinedly.
Soon after, on the road, they run into a couple of wealthy traders who’re not just dragging along riches, but also a group of slaves—most of them women, among whom Temujin finds a relative. The traders have barely registered a protest when Temujin and his men attack, overturn their palanquin, thrash (and loot) the traders, and free their slaves.
Shan’s men, who’ve been forced to be celibate all this while, are very happy at the sight of all the women slaves. One of them, to his joy, discovers that his long-lost wife is here, too, and there’s a sweet reunion between them—which is abruptly broken up by Shan, who’s decided he fancies this woman, no matter if she’s already happily married.
That’s just not done, Temujin tells Shan; if Shan wants a woman, Temujin will give him one as a wife—not someone else’s wife. [The poor woman chosen for this dubious honour is Temujin’s own relative, but since she simpers when he suggests the idea, it’s probably implied that she doesn’t mind].
All this talk of finding women and getting married has reminded Temujin that he needs to find a woman for himself too. Fortunately, he needn’t waste much time looking for one—he already knows of a woman who has shown an interest in him. Börte, back at Jamuga’s camp, and whom, as Temujin knows, Jamuga himself has an eye on.
Temujin decides to kill two birds with one stone: he’ll thwart Jamuga, and get himself a wife. Along with Sengal, he creeps into Jamuga’s camp at night, and kidnaps Börte.
One would expect Börte to be at least a little indignant, but she recovers swiftly [the fact that Temujin looks the way he does probably plays an important part]. By the time Geen, who’s gone to quietly lure away Börte’s three brothers from Jamuga’s camp brings them back, Börte proudly introduces Temujin to them as her husband.
That event, naturally, flings the fat into the fire, since Jamuga—deprived of his prospective bride—won’t let this pass. He creeps up on Temujin’s camp, and surprises Börte while she’s washing her hair at a secluded stream. Börte is [once again. She must be getting sick of this by now] kidnapped and dragged off. Sadly, by the time Temujin and his men arrive and rescue her, Jamuga’s already raped Börte and branded her on the shoulder.
Temujin [and I applaud him for this] is loving and comforts Börte, even when—some months later, en route to Peking—she gives birth to a baby boy. Börte is doubtful about her son’s paternity, but Temujin silences her. She is his wife; the child is therefore his son, the first child to be born to the Yesügei in twenty years. Temujin is a very proud father, even if his wife is not absolutely sure that he is the father.
Meanwhile, proceeding eastwards, Temujin and his caravan of warriors and women have met up with a trio of people like nobody they’ve encountered before. Their rather silly-looking leader (James Mason), perpetually smiling and looking subservient, is Kam Ling, the ambassador of the emperor of China. He is headed back to China, and along with his two assistants, has been robbed by bandits, who’ve also driven off their horses.
Temujin, without revealing to Kam Ling his identity, asks the Chinese if he’s not afraid of the fearsome Mongol Temujin, who terrorizes this area. No, admits Kam Ling; he hasn’t. Never mind, the Mongol tells him, after his men have helped put Kam Ling’s cart back in order. This group of Mongols will personally escort Kam Ling and his men back to their destination. But what about Temujin? Oh, I have an understanding with Temujin, says the young man.
And so, escorting the ambassador, the Mongols arrive at the Great Wall of China, and are led in, to be the honoured guests (or honoured prisoners, as Temujin soon realizes they actually are) of the emperor of China (Robert Morley). The emperor and his courtiers seem to be all quite effeminate and just a little too refined for the Mongols to feel anything but contempt for them.
Temujin (who has now revealed his identity, but with no effect on the implacable Chinese) bides his time. He makes sure his men—apt to succumb to the charms and luxuries of Peking—practice and remain fit. And one day, when news arrives that a small army of Manchurians has invaded a Chinese city, Temujin is there to see the emperor’s reaction [which is to comfort himself by doing some painting—what, after all, does one need to fear from a few Manchurians?]
And so comes another turning point in Temujin’s life—because he, seeing the emperor’s likely-to-be-disastrous apathy, proposes a plan: a mobilization of an army, consisting of Mongol warriors, to ward off any further attacks. What happens when Temujin sets out to build a Mongol army—even if it is to help the effete Chinese—is what the rest of the film is about.
What I liked about this film, and what I didn’t like:
For once, I’m not separating these two sections, because what I liked and what I didn’t like about Genghis Khan are two closely linked areas. Overlapping, in fact, to some extent.
To begin with, there’s the casting. The cast of Genghis Khan includes some names I like and/or respect a lot: Omar Sharif, long a favourite; Stephen Boyd, ditto; Robert Morley, James Mason, Eli Wallach (yes, he has a short but delightful role as the Shah of Khwarezm):
…but, sadly, too many of these are simply miscast. Michael Hordern and Robert Morley are cringeworthy as Chinese, for example. In an age when it was easy to find English-speaking Oriental actors (the all-Oriental cast of Flower Drum Song, made in 1961, is a case in point), I don’t see the need to use white actors in yellowface, and acting in a very affected manner (Mason is particularly guilty of this).
Françoise Dorléac is another of the glaringly obvious stick-out-like-a-sore-thumb members of the cast. This woman doesn’t look remotely Mongolian or Central Asian, and considering she doesn’t really have much to do except be flung about by the men and very occasionally say a dialogue or two, it really wouldn’t have hurt to have an Oriental actress here. A Nancy Kwan, for instance.
On the other hand, the good thing is that there is actually some good acting here. Eli Wallach’s, for one. Boyd’s, for another. Not to mention Sharif’s (and it is so good to hear an actor actually pronounce Samarqand, Tashkent and Yarqand the way they should be pronounced!)
Then, there’s the historical accuracy of the piece. When a film includes (as part of the narration) a sentence about Genghis Khan being the grandfather of the “man who founded the Moghul dynasty in India”, you know this isn’t something you should be expecting to be historically accurate. And it isn’t.
Even if you just skim through the actual story of Genghis Khan’s life, you can see that some of the main elements are there in the film. Börte, for example, and Jamuga, and the legend about the blood clot on Temujin’s palm, or the doubtful paternity of Genghis Khan’s eldest son. Or the Mongol invasion of China.
Somebody, obviously, did spend some time doing some research into Genghis Khan.
Why, then, did they take the ingredients, but make a completely different dish altogether out of it? (And this is something I intend to address in the next post I write) Why did they decide to make Jamuga—who, in real life, started off as a bosom buddy of Temujin’s—his arch enemy? Why did they make Jamuga kidnap and rape Börte, when actually it was Jamuga who had helped Temujin rescue her after she’d been kidnapped by someone else?
On the other hand, the characterization of Temujin/Genghis Khan is well-done. He’s not merely an ambitious and bloodthirsty conqueror (as much of the West generally regarded him back in the 60s), but an amalgam of warrior and unifier of the Mongols (as Mongolia seems to regard him). Also, the script makes an attempt to show other facets of the man’s personality: a loving husband, a good father, a man compassionate to the oppressed. A lot of it may not have been really true of Genghis, but it presents a more interesting, multidimensional picture of the man.
And not terribly interesting, either, once Temujin arrives in China. If they had to distort history so much, why not go the whole hog and change the film into a fabulous swashbuckler, with lots of intrigue and sudden twists and turns? As it is, this is a sad waste of some formidable talent. Including some talent that shouldn’t have been in this film in the first place.