Genghis Khan (1965)

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].

Omar Sharif in and as Genghis Khan

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 tribe of Yesugei is attacked
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.

Jamuga capture Temujin
…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.

Temujin is 'imprisoned'
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.

Sengal takes Temujin to fetch water
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.

Temujin helps Borte - and receives her friendship in return
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.

Jamuga arrives on the scene
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 and Sengal join Temujin
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.

A quick lesson in geography
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).

Temujin frees a captive, Shan
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.

Temujin sets off down the road to Tashkent
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.

...and saves a married woman from Shan's attentions
Temujin interrupts Shan, by summarily pulling away the woman and handing her back to her husband.

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.

Temujin kidnaps Borte
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.

Borte introduces her brothers to 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 rescues Borte after Jamuga's raped her
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.

The ambassador of the emperor of China
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.

Temujin offers an escort
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.

The emperor of China
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?]

Disaster strikes - but is not taken seriously
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):

Eli Wallach 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!)

Omar Sharif as Genghis Khan
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.

The Mongols massed for battle
What it boils down to is this: a fairly scenic film (shot in Yugoslavia, by the way), with some good sets and some decent battle scenes, but really not much more.

A scene from the film
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.

Genghis Khan


24 thoughts on “Genghis Khan (1965)

  1. I actually did not know that Omar Sharif had played “Genghis Khan”. When I saw that you had watched a film about this character, I first assumed that you had seen the 1957 Premnath starrer in Hindi called “Changez Khan”. I think the heroine with him was Bina Rai, his (then or later????) wife in real life. The film has at least 2 outstanding songs, the superb “Mohabbat zinda rehti hai” by Rafi and the ethereal “Jab raat nahi kaTti” by Lata. When I first discovered the latter, it played several times a day on my cassette player for a while. I have not seen this film only because it is hard to find. But Premnath makes for one heck of a handsome hero – nothing like his later years look. Bina Rai never was my favorite either as an actress or in terms of looks. If you get a copy of this film, would love to read a review and how the storyline compares with the Hollywood version.
    I will now have to check out the English version. I am hoping Netflix has it. Thanks for the review.


    • Ah, yes. I have seen (and reviewed, over three years back) Changez Khan too:

      I think Genghis Khan, even if it was pretty historically inaccurate, was at least about the man himself. Changez Khan, on the other hand, was more about the Premnath-Bina Roy jodi, with Changez Khan being just the convenient tyrant who kept the lovers apart. But the film had good songs.

      Incidentally, talking about Premnath looking good, have you seen Naujawaan or Sagaai? He’s awesome in both of them. Eye candy to the hilt. :-)


  2. As always, your asides make me smile. :)
    Haven’t seen this film, and your review of it doesn’t make me want to see it though I do like Omar Sharif. I think the historical distortions will make it unpalatable. As you said, why couldn’t they change the film into a fabulous swashbuckler, with lots of intrigue and sudden twists and turns?


    • Yes, I like Omar Sharif a lot, too – and he acted in some great historicals. :-) This one, sadly, is a waste of his talent. Why, oh, why? Maybe I should watch The Fall of the Roman Empire someday soon to try and wipe out the memories of this film and replace them with the memories of that one…


  3. Lovely review, Madhu! had to laugh at your side comments!
    Nice to see that good research had been done for the film, but it gets lost of the plot has not been developed well and a pity, when you have good actors on your hand. The ymight as well have made a docu on it.


    • Thanks, Harvey! Glad you liked the review. :-)

      I can’t imagine why whoever scripted this film obviously did so much research but then bungled it all up. Okay, I can understand that maybe they didn’t think the real life of Genghis Khan was exciting enough for a film (I beg to differ, though – it sounds pretty interesting even otherwise) – but then, instead of distorting some bits and weaving a totally skewed story, why not throw all accuracy to the winds and do what we people did with Changez Khan? (I.e, only retain his name, and make the film a romantic drama instead).

      Of course, they could’ve made a documentary, as you suggest, but I don’t know how amenable the cast would have been. And whether a documentary would have made much money…


  4. From what I know about Ghengiz Khan, this film seems more like a fairy tale and less like a historical film, but then there are very few films which are historically accurate. Even as I was reading your review, like you I too was thinking “these actors are supposed to be Chinese!”. That reminds me about a Hindi film Lalkar in which Shetty played a Japanese, I haven’t seen the film but that is what I heard. Imagine Shetty – a Japanese! — Shilpi


  5. I remember that I saw this movie when I was young not very much impressed and felt boring all through . How ever I liked Stephan Boyd. Boyd is wonderful in Benhur.Later I saw Mecann’s gold where Omar sariff is excellent .As usual your review is lovely and interesting than the movie itself


    • Thank you! Glad you enjoyed the review. :-)

      Stephen Boyd is wonderful in Ben Hur, isn’t he? Another historic film in which I really liked him (and which, incidentally, also featured Omar Sharif) was The Fall of the Roman Empire – a very good film, and some excellent acting.


  6. Thanks for the interesting review DO.
    It’s a good follow up from Halaku. I learnt something. That the ancestors of the Moghuls cannot be traced back to Changez Khan. I always thought it was so. :-/
    The Chinese section of the film could have actually been made into something attractive, which they didn’t.
    The only actor I’m familiar with is Omar Sheriff, because I’ve seen him in Dr Zhivago
    which I watched because I’d heard Lara’s theme and thought it was nice.
    Enjoyed reading the review even though I can see the film won’t be half has enjoyable :-)
    How should one pronounce Ghengis? Is the ‘g’ as the ‘G’ of George?


    • That the ancestors of the Moghuls cannot be traced back to Changez Khan.

      That’s not what I said. ;-) I said that the film says that “Genghis Khan’s grandson founded the Moghul dynasty” – which isn’t true. Babur did trace his ancestry to Genghis Khan, but the relationship was not quite so short. (After all, Genghis Khan lived in the 12th century, Babur in the 15th and early 16th). The Wikipedia page on Babur has a brief section about the lineage of Babur, explaining how he was descended from Genghis:

      Genghis‘, by the way, is pronounced as you guessed – with a hard G, as in George. A sort of Anglicized pronunciation of Changez.


      • Just remembered. Have you see Ben Hur, Pacifist? If you have, then that’s a film where you’d have seen another actor from Genghis Khan – Stephen Boyd (Jamuga in this film) played Messala in Ben Hur.


      • Thanks for that DO.
        I missed out the ‘grandson’ part. :-)
        Even though I love history I’m not so well informed. Just checked out the link. It reads like Genesis :-D, – and grandson he’s not.

        Oh yes, I’ve seen Benhur. In fact I’ve just bought the bluray dvd and the film looks gorgeous.


  7. Even if you seem to have had a love-hate reaction to this, bear in mind that this is actually the *good* HW film on Genghis Khan from that era. You might have got unlucky and ended up watching the *other* Genghis Khan flick – The Conqueror with John Wayne! *shudder*


    • I did come across mentions of the John Wayne film, but the mere thought of it made me steer clear of it! Wayne I like in Westerns (though not all either). Wayne I can like in The Quiet Man, too. But Wayne as Genghis Khan? The mind boggles.


  8. The film is a prime example of a film whose production history and aftermath are infinitely more interesting than the actual film itself. Just look up the trivia section on IMDb and you will get a gist:

    It was Wayne’s own idea to play Genghis Khan. He said he viewed Khan as a cowboy and so he was going to play him like one.


    • That’s a very interesting bunch of trivia. The fact that so many people died as a result of that filming at a radioactive site does put me off a bit, but I am a bit curious now to see just how awful this film is.


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