Longtime readers will know that I am a skeptic about the possibilities of epic cinema. Epic and movies sort ill together, since the one is a heroic medium and the other is a realistic one. The art of combining a “high” style — like that of epic poetry — with the sort of realism suited to the movies seems to me to have eluded film-makers, at least since John Ford shot his last Western. But Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol has made a believer out of me. He has managed to find a cinematic equivalent of the paratactic style appropriate to epic, where one declarative statement follows another, and one event follows another, without any significant degree of authorial or grammatical intervention to explain or rationalize the relationship between them. Sentences are simple or compound, rarely complex, and the same is true of the visual sentences in Mr. Bodrov’s film.
He tells the story of the Mongol leader Temudjin (Tadanobu Asano) — later to be known as Genghis Khan — as a series of picturesque defeats followed, after the worst defeat of all — by an amazing victory in which the future emperor appears to be assisted by divine intervention. That’s got to be the hardest thing of all to portray on film, by the way, and I would say is not quite successfully represented even here. But Mr. Bodrov has prepared the ground for the divine lightning bolts perhaps as well as it can be prepared — partly by means of the film’s general visual magnificence and partly by the sense of mystery naturally conveyed by the movie’s narrative style.
For the secret of his success is his ability to use the camera to moralize these wonderful Central Asian landscapes. I particularly liked Temudjin’s periodic return to a holy place on an isolated part of the steppe where no one else ever appears to go — except for a wolf, who eyes him as he prays with a mixture of curiosity and predatory restraint. As Temudjin offers up his prayers to the Great Tengri, the Lord of the Blue Sky and God of the Mongols, the wolf becomes his own totem. Some time later, his friend, blood-brother, rival and enemy, Jamukha (Honglei Sun), says that “My brother is as crafty as a wolf.”
Also, Tengri appears, unlike some pagan gods, to have at least a somewhat moral outlook on the world, and we are meant to understand that Temudjin’s winning of the god’s favor has something to do with the fact that he imposes on the Mongols a rudimentary legal system. Before his advent as their leader, his people are said to be “worse than ever” — because, unlike before, they “kill and steal and don’t even spare the children.”
“I know what to do with Mongols,” says Temudjin. “Mongols need laws. I will give them even if I have to kill half of them.” There sounds the authentic note of the pagan moralist.
His laws are simple: Don’t kill women and children; pay your debts; fight to the end and never betray your Khan. The last of these is illustrated when the defeated enemy soldiers in the final battle bring their dead leader to Temudjin. He orders them to be killed, even though they killed him to curry favor with him. “You broke the law. You betrayed your Khan,” he tells them.
“We didn’t know,” they plead. It doesn’t matter. That, too, is the authentic, and authentically chilling note to sound.
Otherwise, Temudjin is generous even to defeated enemies — foolishly so, some of them think. “I forgive you, brother,” he says to Jamukha after he has defeated him.
“It is too late,” says the other. “I will always be a rock in your boot.”
“What would you do?” Temudjin asks him.
Without hesitation, Jamukha replies: “I would kill me.”
But he lets him go anyway. Such generosity is a feature of his character from the beginning, and he attracts warriors away from Jamukha in the first place by being more generous with them than they are used to: “Temudjin is fair to his warriors,” says one of them. Later, when one of these renegades accidentally kills a brother of Jamukha, he pleads with Temudjin: “I brought you war. Send my head to Jamukha,” he begs, knowing that this is the only way in which war will be avoided. But Temudjin won’t do it, even though he knows it spells disaster to himself. He is loyal to his men even as he expects them to be loyal to him.
Also among the movie’s first-rate achievements is its portrayal of Temudjin’s relationship with his wife, Borte (Khulan Chuluun), whom he chooses for himself from a neighboring tribe when he is nine years old, even though it means war with another tribe and untold suffering for himself and his family. Through long separations and almost constant tragedy, Borte shows a heroic character the equal of his own, and his devotion to her is part of what marks him with the stamp of magnanimity that makes him a hero for our time, as well as for his own. Bridging that gap of eight centuries in this way is part of Sergei Bodrov’s accomplishment in this movie, and suggests that his two films to come on Temudjin’s subsequent career as Mongol emperor will be well worth waiting for.