Virtual Bourgeois

Just An Analog Guy Trying to Upgrade For a Digital World

A Khan’s Gotta Do…

Posted by Gerald on July 13, 2008

I just got back from seeing “Mongol.”  This is a historical epic by a Mongolian film maker (with support from, among others, the Kazakhstan Ministry of Information and Culture – Insert Borat joke here) about Temujin, or “Genghis Khan”.  The film is big and sprawling and feature beautiful shots of the Asian steppes.  The performances were good and the film didn’t raise any immediate flags for me on the accuracy front (not that I’m an expert).

Still, it fell a bit flat for me.

The film strongly emphasized the love story between Temujin and his first wife Borte.  The film really opens with their betrothal as children then follows his trials as a youngster, then their marriage.  After this we see them separated – she gets kidnapped and he rescues her, then he gets captured and she rescues him.  “Nothing will keep him from her.”  After she rescues him we see kindly loving Temujin playing with the kids and then announcing he has to leave to go unite the Mongol people.  Cut to him with a huge army fighting an old friend with an even bigger army.  That victory leads to a final narration about how his career was just beginning.

Here is my problem; nowhere do we really get any sense of WHY he developed this mission of uniting the Mongols save a vague reference to how they are fighting too much.  We also never get a sense of what it was about this man that would make him into a true world conqueror – good or bad.  We get no sense of vision from him in the story, we get no sense of driving ambition, we don’t even get a good sense of him as a superior tactician.

I suppose this movie is decent fur costume drama, but it doesn’t give any insight into what made Temujin who he was.  I’m not sorry I saw the film, but I can’t say I thought it did a good job as either biography or history.

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3 Responses to “A Khan’s Gotta Do…”

  1. Steve said

    When I was a grad student at ASU, I had a research assistantship that found me mostly putting together mailings for ASU’s visiting writers series. It did have a few perks. I got to spend some time with (paid, somewhat famous) writers. This is my lead up to: I got to be part of a small group dinner with Leslie Marmon Silko. During this dinner, I made the comment that Hollywood is responsible for a colonizing effect on world cinema. She misunderstood my meaning and argued with me. Apparently an inflated ego makes it hard to hear.

    Anyway, watching Mongol, I couldn’t help but think about that colonizing thing. Hollywood got in the way of Mongol being a better film. That and our postmodern revisionism that thinks it funny (or, worse, necessary) to suggest that Genghis Khan’s success is all because of a woman. (Oh, I hope that last sentence doesn’t get me in trouble!)

  2. bridgett said

    Well, I think there’s a lot of things going on. The market for historical costume dramas is pretty small and skews female. Historical film makers and producers, however, are overwhelmingly male and skew politically conservative (the books on Khan have sold very well among male upper executives). So, rather than putting together a historical costume drama about a woman, they decided to find the softer side of Khan — so you can have your movie about war and empire, but soft-peddle the ambition (which is a filmic turnoff for the ladeez, they suppose) and amp up the romance.

    Do you reckon that they also wanted to make the most politically neutral movie they could so they could make a killing internationally?

  3. Gerald said

    My sense is that the film is about Mongolian nationalism. The love story makes it entertaining and doesn’t challenge the paternalist culture (when Borte is assertive it is within “proper” bounds for a wife.) All of the violence in the film is aimed at Temujin and his family or is “justified” by such violence. We don’t see the conquest of the empire, but it is projected as necessary for peace and justice. I took this as a Mongolian origin myth intended to justify and glorify what Temujin did.

    I was heavily reminded of the Chinese film “Hero” starring Jet Li. The action of the film is the confrontation – or collusion – between Hero and a set of assassins that allowed him to get close enough to an emperor (obviously meant to be Qin Shi Huangdi – the first Chinese emperor) to kill him. He then spares the emperor and sacrifices his own life to maintain the emperor’s control over the court in the name of the idea of “One Land” (the characters are shown over the last shot of the film) – a blatantly modern message of Chinese national unity.

    I guess I’d argue that “Mongol”, “Hero”, and “The Alamo” are all of a type – nationalist myth films.

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