Mongol: The Rise to Power of Genghis Khan – out now

Encompassing shifting tribal allegiances, a good friend turned sworn enemy and a loving relationship that lasts a life-time, Mongol presents an epic account of the dramatic and harrowing formative years of the young tribal warrior Temudgin, who will eventually become the mighty ruler Genghis Khan.

Based on leading scholarly accounts and shot on the steppes of China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan, Sergei Bodrov’s historical biopic gives a full-blooded account of life in this harsh and unforgiving region that sticks closely to the established facts.

One of this year’s Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film, Mongol is the first in a planned trilogy. The screenplay depicts only the first twenty years of Khan’s life, and there is a sense throughout that Bodrov is setting the scene for the two films to come. This means that initially dramatic scenes can end on a rather anticlimactic note. The final battle sequence, for example, begins promisingly with hundreds of brawny horsemen thundering through the steppe but is curtailed when a storm begins to brew (apparently Mongols are frightened of thunder).

Opening in 1192 during a period of captivity, the film flashes back twenty years to when Temudgin (Odnyam Odsuren) was a 9-year old boy with his father Esugei (Ba Sen), a tribal leader. On the way to choose a future bride, Temudgin meets the spirited 10 year old Börte (Bayartsetseg Erdenabat) with whom he finds true love and later weds. His decision is a dangerous one – his father is killed by one of his own men on the way home, and Temudgin is forced into hiding. From then on we get a series of isolated incidences, intended to demonstrate the various aspects of Temudgin’s character which were to make him into a ferocious but well-rounded warlord. Central to this undertaking are his devotion to Börte, which goes against the grain of chauvinistic Mongolian thinking, and his filial relationship to the charismatic tribal prince Jamukha, played by China’s Honglei Sun, who’s familiar to Western audiences from Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home.

With a host of subsidiary characters, passions, skirmishes and political intrigue are played before a terrific backdrop of grassy slopes, snow-covered steppe and mountains that jut into a ravishing blue sky.

An engaging film, Mongol nonetheless makes little effort to enter the mind of its ruthless leader. The film’s eagerness to present Genghis Khan in a humane, compassionate light instead of the rapist and pillager we’re all used is sometimes implausible. We see him in various roles – friend, family man, ferocious warrior – but our understanding of how these aspects hang together remains patchy.

Nonetheless, Mongol is a dynamic and beautifully filmed account of a legendary figure, notable for its attention to detail, if a little colourless in its characterisation and plot.

Leave a Reply