June 9, 2008

THAT KHAN DO SPIRIT:

Genghis, patron saint of the steppe: He was a generous leader, a true romantic... it turns out Genghis Khan has some admirers (BRIAN D. JOHNSON, June 4, 2008, Maclean's)

[M]ongol, a widescreen epic by esteemed Russian director Sergei Bodrov (Prisoner of the Mountains), portrays Genghis Khan in glowing terms, as a generous leader, a devoted husband, a good father — and a diehard romantic who goes to war over a woman. The vicious warlord has had a makeover and comes out a romantic hero. Shot in the mountains and deserts of Mongolia, this sweeping spectacle evokes tribal tradition with an air of authenticity reminiscent of the Inuit epic Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner — but with battles involving horses, spears, swords and arrows. Despite some obvious computer-generated panoramas, it's the kind of old-school epic Hollywood just doesn't make anymore, a primeval western set in the East.

Bodrov concentrates on the early years of his protagonist. If Mongol were a superhero movie, it would be the Batman Begins phase of the franchise, the story of how Genghis Khan became Genghis Khan. It all begins with a tribal feud and a childhood whim. At the age of nine, Genghis, then called Temudgin, travels with his father to choose a bride from a neighbouring tribe, to atone for the fact that the father stole his bride from the same clan. Instead, the boy picks a girl from another tribe — who later becomes his first wife — and a chain of retribution is set in motion. Later, after a rival prince steals Temudgin's wife, our hero's first battle is to recapture his true love — all this despite the rule that "Mongols never make war over a woman."

The script is full of "Mongol" aphorisms and etiquette rules that verge into Borat territory. Choosing a good wife "is the hardest thing," we're told. "Her face has to be flat like a salt lake, and most of all she must have strong legs." Yet "it's better to have a horse than woman." (Genghis Khan later had over 100 wives, but in the early years covered by the film, he's a one-woman man.)

Bodrov did extensive research, yet with no written history from the era, he had to rely on speculative accounts and a poem written after Genghis Khan's death, The Secret History of the Mongols, which left a wide margin for dramatic licence.


It's a tad too short to qualify for an official Summer Reading recommendation, but if you're looking for a good book, try Jack Weatherford's bio of Genghis Khan, A Kinder, Gentler Khan: a review of Genghis Khan and the
Making of the Modern World
by Jack Weatherford (Alexander Rose, June 14, 2004, National Review)
The Mongols were the thieving magpies, not the busy beavers, of the Middle Ages: Instead of diligently building and developing things, whenever they saw something new and shiny they needed or liked, they took it. And, for some time, they needed a lot, for, owing to their nomadism, the Mongols were ignorant of such basics as how to bake bread or make pottery. Later, Muslim mathematicians, Chinese anatomists, German miners, Persian merchants, Italian silversmiths, English translators, Indian astronomers, all trekked — sometimes involuntarily — to the court of the khan and performed their miracles.

But despite the cosmopolitanism and sophistication of their empire of illusion, one can't help feeling that the Mongols remained, at heart, a hunter-herder steppe people who lucked out and made it big, yet were happiest when down home on the range: They were the Beverly Hillbillies of history's conquistadors.

Weatherford devoted years to this very fine book, and it stands as a necessary corrective to the Enlightenment-invented view of Genghis Khan as an unbridled savage. The author followed the trail of the Mongols through "Russia, China, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan," and then, for good measure, undertook the "sea route of Marco Polo from South China to Vietnam, through the Strait of Malacca to India, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, and on to Venice." There is excellent editing throughout — only a single typo, the irresistible "Genghis Kahn" — and just a couple of stylistic infelicities (I briefly sighted the monstrous phrase "snuck in") amid its many splendid passages.

Two other small cavils. First, Weatherford's enthusiastic determination to prove that the Mongols "made" the modern world can sometimes lead him astray. It is not true, to take just one example, that German High Command based its blitzkrieg doctrine on a study of Mongol cavalry operations circa 1250; the Panzer generals in fact took their cue from such distinctly un-Mongol-like figures as British military theorists J. F. C. Fuller and Basil Liddell Hart.

Then there is Weatherford's over-reliance on a single source, The Secret History of the Mongols, an enigmatic 13th-century biography of Genghis Khan. As any medievalist will tell you, never ever unquestioningly cite military estimates given by contemporary chroniclers, who are invariably fabulists in this regard. Nevertheless, Weatherford repeatedly quotes impossible numbers without raising an eyebrow. Were there really "hundreds of thousands" of Mongol cavalrymen at Khubilai Khan's command? How likely is it that "25,000" Europeans were killed at one clash alone in 1241? Consider that at the near-contemporaneous battle of Evesham in England in 1265, which was regarded by medieval observers as a bloodbath of unbelievable savagery, some 30 barons were massacred, along with perhaps another several hundred foot soldiers. Or that Field Marshal Haig lost 20,000 troops dead on the first day of the Somme in 1916, but that stupendous figure out of 600,000 men.

But these are mere quibbles. Thanks to Weatherford's excavation of the great khan and his era, we mighty can again look on Genghis's works, and despair!




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Posted by Orrin Judd at June 9, 2008 7:21 AM
Comments

So, does this mean that the actor who plays Ghengis in the film is a Kahn artist?

Posted by: Mike Morley at June 9, 2008 8:31 AM

And does he look like John Wayne?

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at June 9, 2008 9:23 AM

And it still flowed away from his descendants. Nothing substantial was made, just destruction.

Posted by: Mikey at June 9, 2008 10:58 PM
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