By Murray Dahm
How has the ruler of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan (or Chinggis Khaan), been depicted in film?
The simple answer is many times, from serious biopics and historical epics to sci-fi and even comedy – such as in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). I have tracked down no less than twenty-five films depicting the Great Khan from roughly 1950 onwards and, no doubt, there are more. These films run the entire gamut from the very good to the unbelievably bad and, since we have no hope of getting through all twenty-five in a single article, we will sample some from each zone of the quality spectrum.
It is remarkable just how many cultures have taken a hand in making Genghis Khan (and Mongol) films; not only China and Hollywood but Russia and several other diverse filmmaking industries including Italy, France, Germany, as well as those in Mongolia, the Philippines, Japan, and several of the former Soviet republics such as Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
One reason for the widespread interest in Genghis Khan on film is that it is only in recent years, with the fall of the Soviet Union, that Genghis Khan has been celebrated in Mongolia. During the Soviet era he was suppressed or ignored; now he is viewed as the founding father of the nation. It therefore fell to other countries’ film industries to make films of him. Other nations, like China (and perhaps more peculiarly, Japan) also claim him and part of his legacy and this can lead to agendas within films which detract from the real history. For European countries, Genghis Khan, and the Mongols in general, are out-and-out villains. Attempts to film him as a positive figure have only come more recently.
Genghis Khan’s legacy as a great military commander and empire builder can still be felt and his name still evokes awe, fear and admiration. He was also guilty of the cruellest oppression and inhuman brutality; these too have persisted in the cultural memory of several peoples. Genghis Khan is also given credit in the popular imagination for things his successors achieved. In many ways, the vastness of Genghis Khan’s achievements in all their complexity is impossible to put into a single film. Those films that do try to cram everything in are invariably dissatisfying; they must either miss out vast tracts of history or drastically contract and simplify. The most satisfying films are those which take a small part of Genghis Khan’s story and pursue it. Many get their equipment and costuming right although there are many cliched aspects to ‘Mongol’ attire that creep in among the worst examples. Non-Mongolian examples have furred conical helmets rather than the fur caps and much less clothing gets worn. Swords are straight (and more Celtic in design) rather than the curved authentic examples. Yurts or gers, the distinctive Mongol hut, are ubiquitous. Western cinema (especially those filmed in Europe or America) use Arabian steeds rather than the horses typical of the steppe.
1956’s The Conqueror, directed by Dick Powell, is a famously bad film and yet, it is nowhere near the worst of the films of Genghis Khan. It gets some of its history right and does not try to depict all of Genghis’ life and is, if I’m honest, actually quite enjoyable. The famously woeful dialogue is nowhere near as prevalent as you’d think and some is quite good. Utah looks nothing like the steppe but the horse riding is exhilarating. The worst part for me is watching actors cavort in (what we know is) radio-active water or watching the horses drink it.
Genghis Khan (1965) was directed by Henry Levin and starred Omar Sharif. Shot in Yugoslavia, it also starred Stephen Boyd (as Jamuga) and here there is also the idea of a unification of all the Mongol tribes, inaccurately achieved in the film’s final moments. The film has Genghis Khan reach Moscow (which he never came close to; his generals only reached Bolghar and Kiev), and he then dies of wounds in a one-on-one combat with Jamuga (who thus lives twenty years longer than he did in reality). Of course, the star power of Stephen Boyd couldn’t be wasted in 1965 on a character who should have died much earlier in the film. Boyd was actually the headliner (Sharif was perhaps too new to risk top billing even though this was the same year as Dr Zhivago). Boyd shared that top billing with James Mason (as Kam Ling the Chinese diplomat) and Eli Wallach (as the Shah of Khwarezm who only really has a cameo at the film’s end). Boyd is fabulous as the villain Jamuga (and close to the cruel and merciless reality of Jamukha). Jamuga does, however, crop up in the most unlikely of places – as a general for the Manchurians and then for the Shah of Khwarezm. Jamuga also incorrectly identifies himself as from the Merkit clan.
Genghis Khan has many Europeans in Oriental roles, something which has become a hot topic in recent years but was not even a consideration in the 1960s. Shot over 125-days, the story is largely fictional and does history a greater disservice than The Conqueror does (the earlier film doesn’t try and get through all of Genghis Khan’s conquests but ends before they occur – ending with him becoming Genghis Khan after his defeat of the Tatars). Much of this film’s history is wrong. The idea that it was Genghis Khan who first realised the military applications of gunpowder is a bit much. One thing to note is that the number of dangerous horse stunts – with no animal rights in Yugoslavia in 1965 – results in a vast number of appalling horse falls.
Mongol military organisation was a ‘decimal’ system based on tens: 10 men equalled an aravt or arban, 100 men a zuut or zuun, 1,000 a mingghan, and 10,000 tumen. Most of Genghis Khan’s expeditions therefore consisted of a certain number of tumen. Perhaps one of the most satisfying and authentic Genghis Khan films is 2012’s Genghis: The Legend of the Ten directed by Zolbayar Dorj and U. Shagdarsuren. Genghis Khan himself only has a peripheral role – he orders a trusted aravt of ten men to locate a Master Physician and then rescue his granddaughter from a rival leader, Hukhtumur of the Hulin clan. The film is satisfying in terms of setting and language (Mongolian), culture, and the performances are all flawless. Armour, weapons, clothing, horses (not to mention horsemanship), and equipment are all top notch. Even the campfire song when it comes is satisfying. In fact, the film is immersive in a way much bigger-budgeted films can only dream of.
The warfare that there is, is small scale but this too is satisfying and even though this is a ‘small elite unit behind enemy lines’ kind of film, it satisfies on every level. The men of the aravt are elite (and able to eliminate the more numerous enemy), suggesting that they may have been part of Genghis Khan’s Kheshig guard (meaning ‘favoured’ or ‘blessed’) although this unit was usually just that, a loyal guard unit which did not fight in campaigns.
In 1961 Riccardo Freda directed the battle scenes in Andre DeToth’s The Mongols starring Jack Palance and Anita Ekberg. Once again the ahistorical context of this film is Genghis Khan’s siege of Kraków where his son Ogotai (Palance) wants to keep the war going and take the city even though his father wants peace. It is also good to see Anita Ekberg as Hulina, Ogotai’s mistress who eggs him on – and ends up a Mongol Amazon on horseback, not to mention the murderess of Genghis Khan.
Ögedei was indeed the third (and favourite) son of Genghis Khan and succeeded his father in 1227. It was under his rule that the first Polish invasion was undertaken in 1240. Under his father, Ögedei had campaigned in China and Persia as well as Afghanistan. Ogotai takes Kraków and a polyglot Polish relief army takes it back from him. The fourteen-minute siege of the city sequence at the film’s close does involve many extras and horses (the varied livery and weapons are overall fine if a little too uniform), as well as oversized siege equipment which looks more ancient than medieval. Mongol costumes are ridiculous with fur and helmets like you wouldn’t believe. Many extras actually hold their shields upside down and history is pretty thin on the ground here. Ögedei did not take his own life on Genghis Khan’s funeral pyre (himself killed by a stab in the back by Hulina) inside Kraków.
Before we take leave of Genghis Khan, we should examine one more successful film: 2007’s Mongol from director Sergei Bodrov. Casting was a worldwide affair and a Japanese actor, Tadanobu Asano, was eventually cast as Khan, and Chinese actor Sun Honglei as Jamukha. The film did use Mongolian actors for the children and Chuluuny Khulan as Börte and had (as was pointed out at the time) an all-Asian cast. This film also chose to only tell part of the Genghis Khan story, from Temüjin’s early life to (almost) the unification of the tribes – we hear in postscript that in 1206 he achieved it. In the film, Jamukha is allowed to live, it is the other rival Targutai who is killed after the climactic battle in 1196. This and several other historical inaccuracies mar what is, otherwise, a very satisfying film (the scythed cavalry are a little over the top).
Many of the complex aspects of Temüjin’s story are present – the captivities and escapes, the doubt over his first son’s parentage (also present in 1965), and tribal rivalries rather than personal relationships which drive motivations (although those personal relationships are present too). The Russian Bordov wanted to show Temüjin as an inspiring leader rather than the legendary monster he had been brought up on. Modern Mongolians feared (and some protested) that, as a Russian production, the film would not properly portray their national hero, The idea to unify the clans comes very late in Bodrov’s film – it is not a destiny which was present from Temüjin’s birth as it is in some other portrayals.
This resistance meant the filming had to be shifted from Mongolia to the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia and Kazakhstan. Initially the film was to be the first in a trilogy to tell the story of Genghis Khan but the two later parts have never been seen (in 2013 it was announced that filming the second part, The Great Khan (first announced in 2008) was again underway, but it has not appeared). The shoot lasted 25 weeks and the crew prided themselves that not a single horse was injured (which is in marked contrast to earlier films). Mongol is a very successful medieval epic and was nominated for the 2008 Academy Awards. The film has battles aplenty. Equipment, weapons, horse furniture and riding are all first rate. The film has the advantage of the authentic steppe as well.
Genghis Khan, and the Mongols as a whole, are a complicated subject. He can be a divisive figure who is still held up as one of history’s villains or he can be admired by others for his military strategy, sound governing principals and as the founding father of Mongolia. The films which deal with him (and the Mongols) as a subject are an uneven bunch, some are very good, others very bad. The best seem to be those which deal with only a small part of his story rather than try to cram too much into a single film – those that do the latter have either radically altered history or have had to telescope material in a dissatisfying way. Nonetheless many enjoyable hours can be spent absorbed in films of this intriguing individual. Happy viewing.