Thursday, June 26, 2008

Movie Review: Mongol

No noon post today because I got home too late to act on my new resolution to write posts ahead of time. I was out late because I was watching Mongol, the first of three movies recounting the life of Genghis Khan.

The movie can be summed up in one word: Magnificent. It was definitely one of the best historical epics of recent years, and much better than fare such as Alexander, Troy, Kingdom of Heaven, and 300. Shot on location in Kazakhstan, the scenery is almost a character by itself, a very beautiful yet alien-looking world that envelops the humans in the story, giving a true sense of endless expanses, without boundaries or permanent settlements.

The movie covers the life of Temudgin (I use the spellings employed by the film; there are a number of ways to transliterate Mongol names), Genghis Khan’s given name, up to the point when he unified the Mongol tribes. The actual unification is not shown in any detail, probably a good thing since it took some 20 years and was a rather tedious affair. Instead, the movie focuses on the relationships that most affected his early years: with his father Esugei, his wife Borte, his blood-brother Jamukha, and his enemy Targutai. The acting is excellent and all of the characters are well rounded and believable. The producers seem to have taken special care to portray the Mongols and their neighbors as real societies, not as stereotypes or cartoon characters. One can easily believe that these are real people operating in a real place, something not all historical movies can claim.

I can’t speak in detail about the movie's adherence to history, as this is not a subject I am expert in. The broad details seemed plausible, although there was an idealized feel to the whole plot, which isn’t surprising since much of what we know about Genghis Khan was passed down via oral tradition. I would compare the overall feel to the Viking sagas, which also have believable characters who act in very human and comprehensible ways, yet move in a society without disease, deformity, filth or fatigue. “Noble” feelings such as bravery, loyalty, cleverness and skill in battle are emphasized and the hero (Temudgin) does not seem to get tired or lose hope. A comparison to the Homeric epics is also appropriate, except that the supernatural is not a main element to the story, apart from a couple sequences illustrating Temudgin’s relationship with the Mongol sky god, Tengri. I don’t think these elements diminish the movie, although they do mean it can’t be treated as a documentary; despite them, the story rings truer than the usual Hollywood fare.

Pedantic note: I only learned relatively recently that I had been pronouncing the English name of Genghis Khan wrong for most of my life. I knew that the Mongolian name was generally transliterated “Chinggis” by modern authors, but for some reason it didn’t register that “Genghis” was also meant to be pronounced with a soft ‘G’ as in ‘general’ or ‘generation’ instead of a hard ‘G’ as in ‘gun’ or ‘gang’. As noted above, most English words beginning with ‘ge’ have a soft ‘G’. I don’t know how the hard ‘G’ pronunciation got started. I choose to blame John Wayne, who turned in a memorably awful performance as Temudgin in 1956s The Conqueror. "Genghis Khan" itself simply means "Universal Khan."


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