What Russian movie is bringing in more money per American theater than Kung Fu Panda, Indiana Jones, and Sex in the City? If you said Mongol, a new film by Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov, you would be right. Like the warrior himself, Mongol is capturing audiences and awards around the world. The movie is based on The Legend of the Black Arrow by Lev Gumilev, which is the first book written in the western world that portrays Ghengis Khan in a favorable light. The story follows the young Temudjin from his childhood when his family is cast out of their tribe after his father's murder to the monumental battle that establishes his empire. Temudjin became the great leader Ghengis Khan, not inspite of every hardship but because of all that he went through as a child and young man.
This movie is about that struggle. But more than that, it is the love story of Temudjin (Tadanobu Asano) and his wife, Börte (played by Khulan Chuluun). It was a love that changed the course of his life more than once. She saves his life at least three times in the movie, and he saves her from the Merkits after her kidnapping, even though his friends tell him, "No Mongol ever goes to war over a woman. Take a new wife, take two." He loves and honors her more than any Mongol had ever honored a wife before. Börte is his chief advisor and confidant. Without her and his valiant mother, he never would have understood the intricacies of Mongol politics, human nature, or his own value.
Ghengis Khan (1162-1227) was born Temudjin, son of a Khan of a small tribe of Mongols on the steppes. By the time he died he had united all the nomadic tribes of Mongolia and conquered half the world. He ruled over the the largest contiguous empire in history. His decendents continued his conquests and eventually brought most of Russia, southern Asia, China, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East into the empire.
Little is known of his childhood and youth and no biographies written during his reign have survived. What we do know comes from epic poems and histories written one hundred years after his death. Temudjin was the eldest of seven children. To form an alliance with another tribe, Temudjin's father, Esugei Khan, pledged the boy in marriage to Börte, a clever girl only ten-years old. Part of the arrangement called for Temudjin to live with her tribe until the children were old enought to marry, but as he was returning home to make preparations, Esugei Khan was poisoned by the Tartars.
Temudjin, his mother, and his siblings were thrown out of their home by his father's rival and were reduced to eating wild fruit and groundhogs to survive. His mother taught him about the political problems of the warring Mongol tribes and instilled in him a desire to put an end to the in-fighting and unite them against their common enemies to the South, the Tartars and the Tangut (Chinese). Even as a youth he began to build the friendships that would help him later in life. One of these was with Jamukha, the son of a friendly Khan who sheltered the family in exile. Temudjin and Jamukha became anda (blood brothers), just as their fathers had many years before.
Temudjin was captured by the Ta'yichiut tribe and emprisoned with a changra, a heavy wooden yoke around his neck, that prevented him from eating or drinking without help from his captors. But even in this condition he made friends that eventually helped him to escape. He never forgot those friendships, nor did he forget his promise to wed Börte. Through many hardships he searched for her and found her still willing to marry him. In the movie, she tells him that there was never a day that she didn't think of him and believe that he would return for her.
At sixteen, Temudjin married Börte and they went to live with his family. Their honeymoon was cut short when she was kidnapped by the Merkits and given as a wife to one of its leaders. Temudjin turned to the leader of Jamukha's tribe, Ong Khan, for help. Ong Khan dispatched Jamukha, who needed more battle experience, to help Temudjin rescue Börte. After the rescue the young leaders parted ways. In Mongol one of Temudjin's warriors kills Jamukha's brother, thus turning these childhood friends into sworn enemies. In the written history, their enmity grew over a longer period of time and centered around their very different philosophies of leadership
Temudjin created the Yassa, the code or law of the Mongols. In it he established principles of equality, service, economics, morality, and even provided for a Pony Express-style postal service call the Yarn. All men, regardless of status or wealth were subject to national service in the army if called or be put to death. Women were charged with taking over the jobs that men left behind while serving as warriors. Priests and lawyers were exempt from service and taxes. All religions were to be respected. Positions of power were to be awarded on merit, not inheritance, nor could they be given as favors. Even Khans had to be elected by the tribal leaders. Jamukha did not agree with or live by the Yassa. In 1201 he was declared Gur Khan, or universal ruler, in defiance of the Yassa code. Temudjin's defeat of Jamukha finally united all the Mongol tribes under one law in 1206.
Temudjin's military strategies included gathering good intelligence, understanding the motivations of his enemies, and adopting new technologies. This is illustrated grandly in the movie when Temudjin sends his shock troops into battle against Jamukha. His well trained and heavily armored cavalry blast through their frontlines in one of the best battle sequences since Lawrence of Arabia.
Mongol was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2007. Mongol was released in Russia in 2007, England in June 2008, and opened July 1, 2008 in a limited number of US cities. It is currently showing in art houses around the country. Check your local listings for showings. Mongol should be available on DVD before the end of 2008. According to the filmmaker's website, this is the first film in a Ghengis Khan trilogy.
Mongol explores the life of Temudgin (Tadanobu Asano) who will ultimately become the great and fearsome Genghis Khan. The story begins when he is only nine years old and must already choose his future wife from a neighboring tribe. He takes the journey with his father, the Khan, who has been painstakingly grooming Temudgin to take his place….eventually. Well, “eventually” comes sooner than either expected and we are given a tiny look into what could possibly have been the harsh reality of life as a Mongol, out on the plains, exposed to the elements, and hunted by enemies of one’s family.
Young Temudgin finds refuge with another boy, Jamukha, who is destined to become Khan of his tribe, and they form a bond of brotherhood that will last well into their adult lives.
How Temudgin reaches adulthood, considering that the odds were stacked against his survival, is nothing less than miraculous. Now is the time for him to come into his own, collect his wife Borte (Khulan Chuluun) and begin his life anew. Well, we all know that nothing is ever that easy. More family enemies arrive and steal away his new bride. Needless to say, this does not sit well with Temudgin and he makes plans with Jamukha (Honglei Sun) to retrieve her.
While this is a foreign film with subtitles, don’t let that scare you off. Halfway through the movie, they’re hardly noticeable anymore since you are easily drawn into a well told story surrounded by picturesque scenery and well executed battle scenes. The score of the movie carries you on an emotional journey and communicates much of the story in the universal language of music. The Mongolian folk rock band Altan Urag provides additional music for Mongol that combines traditional throat singing and instruments with electric guitars and drum sets. Their song, Mother Mongolia, which was composed for the movie, is enthralling. You can listen to it on the Altan Urag MySpace page and in the trailer above.
I have no idea if this movie is historically accurate, but I do know that I came away with a feeling that I learned a considerable amount about the Mongol culture. I also thought the costumes and sets were wonderful and gave a feeling of accuracy to me that added to the entire movie experience. The battle scenes had just enough gore to add realism without going over the top with guts and yuck.
If you’re into history and like a good sword flick, you definitely need to put this movie on your “must see” list. Personally, I think it needs to also be in your home library right along with Braveheart and 13th Warrior. Check your local listings to see if it is playing in your town. Though no date has been announced yet, it should be out on DVD by the end of 2008.