Vox Nova At The Movies: Mongol

Vox Nova At The Movies: Mongol June 21, 2008

How does one present a movie about the life of Genghis Khan? With the often contradictory and questionable biographical material we have, which do you show and which do you gloss over? Those questions, of course, will be answered differently depending upon how much of the Khan’s life you want to show; for Sergei Bodrov, in his 2007 movie Mongol, the answer was clear: show the Khan’s path to ascendancy, and end with the battle that gave to him effective control over all his Mongol kinsmen.


Sergei Bodrov has pulled off a tremendous feat: he produced a movie about Genghis Khan which humanizes him, which makes the audience feel sympathetic to him, without rejecting ignoring the cruelty he was more than willing to show if he felt the need. Genghis Khan lived in a harsh time, in a harsh environment. After his father was murdered, he was a man on the run. His mother, his promised wife to be, and the few who were willing to help him live were, for many years, the only companions he would have. But he would remember them all – those who treated him well, he would honor and treat well back. He will show them mercy if they showed him mercy. However, those who hunted him, he would hunt back. Those who lacked honor and were willing to betray allies, he would despise and have killed, even if the one they betrayed was one of the Khan’s foes. To curb Mongolian tribalism, he had to establish a system of laws and honor, a system which helped unify his people, but was to be used to hold a bitter knife against the rest of the world. He would create an empire, but behind it… was a man, a man who loved his people and earned their love back. A man who loved his first wife and who would do anything to be with her. 

The movie is a beautiful to behold. The director proved that one can still do an epic with very little reliance on cgi. There are scenes of utter brutality which some might not be able to take, but they were scattered throughout the film, and surrounding them were wonderful, human scenes. They do not show, all the time, the best of humanity; they show, rather what someone is willing to do in desperation, how far they will go to keep true to themselves, and what they might be willing to give up for the love of others. It is at once a love story, an adventure story, and a war film. Surprisingly, of the three, the emphasis is on love. Genghis Khan is shown to be a man of many loves, and to be led by them, even to his own detriment. 

One should not come out of the film thinking that a humanized Genghis Khan justifies all the evil done by him and in his name. Rather, it points how there is always a human face, even by someone such as Genghis Khan. And it should make us pause and consider if we would have held up as well as he did, if we lived in such a time, under such difficult trials, as he. 

4 ¼ / 5 stars.

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