Friday, August 07, 2009


As my energy has flagged of late, at least insofar as it sustains this blog, I’ll for the time being be more succinct in my comments. Mongol (2007; dir. Sergei Bodrov) is the first in a three-part series of films about the great Asian leader Genghis Khan, known in this film as Temudjin. Mongol tells the story of the early stages of Temudjin’s career, his struggle to rise as a leader. It seems a fusion of folk-tale, myth, history, and tall tale. It has a powerful narrative quality, and is truly epic in scope. The frame of the story focuses on Temudjin’s choice of a wife at the tender age of nine. His father tells him that it is important to choose a “good woman,” and this becomes one of the film’s themes, the demonstration of how the good choice Temudjin makes has a major role in the success of his aspirations. Another theme concerns the rivalry of two blood brothers. A final theme, and perhaps the most important, is Temudjin’s growth as a leader—his ambition is to unite the disparate and often warring Mongol tribes by stressing law, order, fairness in his treatment of soldiers, concern for family, and a basic pragmatism (when, after long separations, he is reunited with his wife to discover either that she is pregnant or that she has a child that is not his, he openly accepts the child as his own, recognizing that whatever she did was beyond her control, or at least done out of necessity). Towards the end of the film, there is a hint of darker elements in Temudjin’s character, and where these may take us will perhaps become evident in the second and third installments of this series. Mongol has a strongly melodramatic structure—it begins with an adult Temudjin languishing in prison, then moves back to his childhood. For much of the film the narrative switches back and forth between brief scenes in the prison and longer expository scenes about Temudjin’s various trials and tribulations as a younger man. As we discover, everything is leading up to a key scene in the prison, after which the film moves forward. Temudjin suffers one trial after another—his father’s death, betrayals, imprisonments, the kidnapping of his wife, beatings, the slaughter of all his followers—the ups and downs are relentless. The action is non-stop, yet at the same time character development is nuanced and detailed—highly unusual for most such films. Most significant of all in Mongol is the scenery. Few films use setting so spectacularly and effectively.

Mongol is, as Roger Ebert complains in his review, relentlessly violent. He notes Temudjin’s wife complaint (her only complaint in the film) that “All Mongols do is kill and steal.” Her complaint bruises Temudjin and perhaps leads him to his plan to bring order and law to the Mongol tribes.

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