Movie Monday: Genghis Khan (1965)

I’ve done at least one previous Genghis Khan movie on this blog: the diabolical 1956 John Wayne vehicle The Conqueror. I haven’t done Sergei Bodrov’s 2007 Mongol, but I have seen it and it’s pretty entertaining, although it does kind of end just when things are getting good. Anyway, somehow I missed this one, directed by Henry Levin and starring Omar Sharif, but it’s on Netflix now, so let’s give it a look.

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So, OK, it covers the sort of origin-story stuff you’d expect, beginning with young Temujin being enslaved following the death of his father and lots of horns going VWOOP VWOOP and whipping and stuff, and Michael Hordern being a wise old mentor to the lad. In fact, I wonder if this credits-sequence origin story wasn’t an inspiration for the relevant sections of Conan the Barbarian.

Anyway, Temujin catches the eye of Borte (Francoise Dorleac), who gazes beatifically at him while he gazes intently at her. I have to say that if you have a part that requires a lot of intent staring, Omar Sharif is probably your man. Borte looks about as white as she did when she was Susan Hayward, if not whiter. Jamuga (Stephen Boyd) is a sneering outright baddie and Borte is Temujin’s forbidden love; again, the historical Temujin and Borte were engaged from childhood.

Telly Savalas is the Telly Savalas character, Yvonne Mitchell is another sidekick, and there are lots of exciting adventures. Temujin makes a big speech about how women have to be respected and treated fairly, then kidnaps Borte from her tent and goes into the whole yer-beautiful-in-yer-wrath routine so familiar from many a previous Movie Monday. Fortunately it doesn’t last long, and soon Temujin and Borte are realising that niceness is better than meanness — although niceness expressed in lines like, er, “you talk too much, woman.” I guess he was kidding.

Meanwhile, Jamuga, to whom, if you recall, Borte was engaged, is all furious and, if possible, even greasier than he was before. And he was pretty goddamn greasy. Anyway, he goes and tries to recapture Borte, but danged if he doesn’t leave behind a clue that alerts Temujin’s faithful mute sidekick whatsisname. Yadda yadda, jilted lover, yadda yadda glare of defiance, yadda yadda daring rescue mission and I suddenly realised we’re only half an hour into this thing. Borte uglies him up pretty good with like a bear claw or maybe a marten or something, so that’s cool.

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I don’t understand, 1965 Hollywood. Are you trying to make some kind of implication about people’s personalities and the colour of their skin? That’s crazy

Anyway, Temujin and his boys attack in one of those highly implausible tactical uses of fire you get in movies. But Borte has probably been raped and is all torn up about the implied shame and what not. But Temujin is cool, because true love. The tribe goes on the run into the east to look for some kind of advantage that will help them get back at Jamuga and also, y’know, to get away from Jamuga because that dude doesn’t play.

So they go to China and they meet … well … it’s pretty rough. I’m not too happy with what I’m seeing here.

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Even the guy on the left is uncomfortably aware how racist this is. 

Yeah, it’s James Mason in yellowface. And he’s doing the voice, too. Anyway, by tactical niceness Omar Sharif befriends James Mason and together they go off. Also Borte is pregnant. Son is born and Temujin loves him as his own, etc. Anyway, they meet the emperor, who is another white dude (Robert Morley), and realise they have much to learn from Chinese culture, etc., etc. It turns out that the emperor has no intention of letting Temujin leave. But when disaster strikes, Temujin volunteers to help. There’s a bit of business with the emperor’s daughter (Susanne Hsiao, in wonder-of-wonders casting of an Asian actor to play an Asian role) and Borte’s brothers that is mainly distinguished for fantastic leaf placement.

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Aaaanyway, the enemy leader turns out to be Jamuga himself, and Temujin fights him in a big set-piece battle with cavalry charges and bolt throwers and all sorts. Borte provides lessons in toughness and resolution, Temujin learns about gunpowder, Temujin, full of vengeance, refuses to kill Jamuga, blah blah blah. Seeing a threat from Temujin, the emperor conspires with Jamuga, and I swear there are still over 30 minutes left in this damn thing.

While Jamuga prowls the city lookin’ for vengeance, let’s go over the elements of the Genghis legend (they’re calling him Genghis by this point — with a soft G, no less!) they keep and the ones they discard. We have a rivalry between Temujin and Jamuga (or Jamukha or whatever), which is standard, and a love story with Borte, as well as the suspicion of Genghis’ son not being his. Some historical characters have script immunity — so for instance there’s a scene where Jamuga doesn’t kill Subutai because, you know, it’s Subutai and he has to live. Except the historical Subutai wasn’t Borte’s brother and this character has nothing in common with him. Perplexing.

So Genghis and the boys blow everybody up and ride off, apparently on special horses that don’t give a dang about just riding into a blazing inferno belching smoke and flame. The emperor is perturbed, but so what? It’s hey for the open steppe, but Jamuga is still at large. Regardless, Genghis plans world conquest in a scene that I assume never happened but is still pretty cool.

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So while the whole thing plays out toward its inevitable final battle scene, let’s recap its strengths and weaknesses. First off, it is pretty racist. That’s hard to avoid. And the rape thing, which I have written about at length before. Just click on the movie Monday tag if you want an earful. Omar Sharif, of course, is a good actor, and even without a brilliant script he just turns up the charisma to 11 and glares intently at stuff. And of course, it’s full of 1965-vintage spectacle: sword fights, armies thundering past on horses, fireworks, people leaping off waterfalls, and lots of lovely landscapes (in Yugoslavia, I think?). It’s the kind of Hollywood big-budget spectacle that today would have a million identical CGI Mongols.

But overall, I mean … if it’s 1965 and you’re only gonna see one Omar Sharif movie this year, maybe Doctor Zhivago.

Eventually the preliminaries wrap up and Jamuga kills poor old James Mason, so it’s on. Clatter clatter hooves, boom boom cannons, kling clang swords. Wouldn’t you know it, Temujin and Jamuga end up facing off in single combat, in which, despite the fact that both of them have just been in a battle, only one of them is super greasy with sweat. Anyway, the final fight is good fun — and I take it back Omar Sharif is pretty greasy, must have been the lighting — but guess what? Our guy wins. But then he dies, which is a little premature, since in reality he lived over 20 years after uniting the Mongols and six or seven years after beating Khwarezm. Oh well.

I can’t believe I wrote 1200 words about this.

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Movie Monday: Genghis Khan (1965)

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