Mongol reminds us that it is possible for a movie to be big and slight at the same time. Like the thunder and lightening that constitute its symbolic and narrative pivot, Mongol is all portent; if the title forecasts an apocalyptic storm, the film delivers only scattered showers. (Indeed, the final scenes are humid with the threat of a sequel.) The problem, I think, is that director Sergei Bodrov has little feeling for his main character, which is not surprising, given that his main character is Genghis Khan (née Temudgin) the charismatic leader of the nomadic tribes that would, ultimately, conquer nearly all of Eurasia. Telling his story is like narrating the destruction of Pompeii from the volcano’s point of view: it’s hard to imagine the inner life of a force of nature. Of course, Genghis Khan was a human being—though not, as one reviewer has suggested, one subject to typical standards of plausibility, which is what makes him most compelling and enigmatic: in the process of our approach, we have no purchase. There are no firsthand accounts of his life, and the paradox of his nascent empire—it was broadened through ruthless violence but sustained with relative tolerance—meant that life, for many of his subjects, continued as it had been before their subjugation. Genghis Khan himself was a mystery to them, and has remained so to us; the centuries since his death have only clouded our perception, as successive generations have scratched their fears and aspirations on the palimpsest of his legacy. Think of Bodrov’s work, then, not as a daring revision—Genghis Khan’s life has been under constant revision since his death—but as a modernization. In the process of making him accessible to contemporary audiences, however, Bodrov has domesticated and diminished him: if the final subtitles didn’t insist on it, we might not recognize our stoic hero as Ghengis Khan at all.
The film stutters to a start and never really rights itself. Temudgin, the soft-cheeked child of a stern nomadic leader, goes with his father to choose a bride for himself. The girl who ends up choosing him instead is Borte; we know from her preternatural self-assurance, and from the precocious nature of their conversation, that she and Temudgin will be a good match. This match—the film’s only propitious event not aided by Tengri, the god who seems particularly invested in Temudgin’s survival and success—will have to wait several years for its consummation. In the meantime, Temudgin witnesses his father’s ignominious murder, survives the disintegration of his clan and the murderous intentions of its new leaders, flees captivity, falls into and is rescued from a frozen-over lake, sanctifies his relationship with his blood-brother Jamukha, is re-captured by the pretenders to power from his old clan, and escapes again. The film’s epigraph about the young cub growing into the brutal tiger has prepared us for this story of nine lives, but it nonetheless feels preposterous, and, worse, arrhythmic. After forty minutes, the movie has re-started three times and we know no more about Temudgin than we did at the opening credits.
Indeed, the entire movie feels like exposition, and not just because the first half or so is a flashback; Bodrov is an obdurate director, and he cuts away from important scenes when more sustained attention might give us real insight. Instead of palpable hardship, suffering, or moral stubbornness, we get plot. Why show us Temudgin’s two escapes from his rivals’ camp when neither one demonstrates his ruthlessness or endurance? We see him escape, but not with any particular difficulty. When we see him again a new day has dawned. His hands are still bound at neck level, but his composure is implacable, his body unscarred: Did he spend his night breathing through reeds at the bottom of a creek-bed, or in a motel? All we need to know is that he made it and he’s angry. Bodrov’s narrative is artless, and reflects his deterministic view of history: to him, Genghis Khan’s life is a tapestry—static, two-dimensional, and fixed. The camera takes it in simply by panning to the right. Bodrov is faithful to sequence but indifferent towards causation; events happen, but they seem linked only by their order. There’s no urgency or irony here, no sense that things could have turned out differently. The possibility of departure and the acknowledgement of contingency are what make historical fiction exciting, but Bodrov isn’t interested in what might have been. Mongol has plenty of blood, but no life of its own.
It’s this fundamental conservatism that gives Mongol the pallid taste of propaganda. Aided by Tengri, Temudgin’s growth and his empire’s metastasis are inevitable. We never see the arduous and mysterious work of coalition-building, which might answer the question, What could Temudgin offer the Mongols that no one else could? Whatever this is, it’s the keystone of the world’s largest empire and would give this movie the density that it needs. But Mongol is all surface and no center. The prolific Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano gives Temudgin a credible cunning and resolve—his eyes shine like a card sharp’s from behind his beard and heavy fur hat—but not a voice or a vision. Bodrov himself is fascinated by violence—when blood is shed it tumbles like rubies from an overturned chest—but confounded by war and utterly unaroused by statesmanship. He casually adumbrates Temudgin’s politics, as though worried that viewers, still traumatized by too-long games of Risk years ago, might begin to twitch anxiously, and rushes us to another gruesome battlefield. Battles are shot in graphic close-up, which only emphasizes the irrelevance of their political justification—and the incoherence of their choreography. Still, audience members gasped appreciatively when one of Temudgin’s unfortunate victims was thrown backwards by the spear that perforated him and then stuck him, like a note, to a tree. All in a day’s work for a nation-builder. But what about for a film director? Mongol’s romance is tepid, its action vivid but pedestrian. One concludes that the only reason for its existence is to suggest that the central Asian autocracies enjoying a modern-day political revival have a terrifying historical precedent. They may be the real tigers-to-be of the film's epigraph.