In an early scene in Iron Man, one of the evil terrorists makes a speech about Genghis Khan, explaining how impressive it was that he managed to take over so much of the world given the technological drawbacks of his time. That one moment says a lot more about the real Genghis Khan than the entire, bloated 126 minutes of Mongol. Directed by Sergei Bodrov (Prisoner of the Mountains), Mongol does a lot of "sweeping." It moves from sweeping vistas to sweeping battles and when it stops sweeping, it really has no idea what to do; it merely waits for the next opportunity to sweep. In one scene, our hero, Temudjin (Tadanobu Asano), returns to his family after some time in captivity, and he has brought his new bride with him. Bodrov films a quiet dinner scene inside a tent, but he's so impatient and restless over such an "ordinary" scene that the dialogue mainly consists of, "isn't it great to have Temudjin home again?" The film can't wait to get back outside and start sweeping again.
Of course, most people like "sweeping." It carries with it an implication of grandeur and greatness, even if it signifies nothing. So far the film has received stellar reviews and even wound up with an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film. Our own Eric D. Snider's review (from the Portland Film Fest) seems politely appreciative but not enthusiastic, as if it were verboten to actually give a movie this big a bad review. Inside all this impressive hugeness, we have the story of Genghis Khan, or the Genghis Khan-to-be, since this is the first part of a proposed trilogy (it's the Phantom Menace of the Khan story). He's mostly called Temudjin. We meet him as a child (Odnyam Odsuren) in the year 1172 when his powerful father takes him to choose a bride. His choice offends another tribe and starts a war. His father is murdered and young Temudjin is hunted and hounded. He meets a young prince, Jamukha, and the two become blood brothers.
He's captured and escapes (several times; I lost count) and during one escape, he finds his now-grown bride Borte (Khulan Chuluun). Then she's captured, and Temudjin and Jamukha (Honglei Sun) declare war to get her back. Everyone keeps telling Temudjin that it's not worth going to so much trouble for a woman, and that a horse is far more crucial to a man in Mongolia. But Temudjin and Borte's love is pure, perhaps a little too pure for my tastes. Their tale smacks more of legends and tall tales than anything really romantic or organic. Eventually Temudjin and Jamukha have a falling out, and the final battle is between the former blood brothers, each with their own giant army. Oh yeah... before that, Temudjin is captured and escapes yet again.
In essence, we're not talking the world's greatest storytelling here. Director Bodrov depicts his Genghis Khan as a pure, innocent soul, driven to his violence and misdeeds only because of the harshness and cruelty of the world around him. He's not angry or crazy or anything. He's not weird or obsessed like Lawrence of Arabia, nor is he driven like El Cid. Really, he'd just like to be left alone. If a hero is to deserve of this much spectacle, he ought to be at least a little bit interesting. Plus, what about this: isn't Genghis Khan, you know, kind of a bad guy? Where's the sneering ambition? Where's his inner Hans Gruber? Why doesn't he plot or scheme? It's as if Bodrov made a movie painting Vlad the Impaler as rational and understanding or showing Dick Cheney as benevolent and considerate.
None of this matters, really. The point of a movie like Mongol is the battle scenes. Bodrov goes through the motions, copying bits and pieces from battle scenes past. It's a fairly complete, satisfying collection, though his overall tone is polite and observant rather than reckless or exciting. It's more The Last Samurai than Seven Samurai. But these scenes are big enough and bold enough and "sweeping" enough that everyone will come away thinking they're really seen something. (You won't have to wait too long for someone to haul out the old blurb "visually stunning" to adorn ads.) I don't know... I found myself thinking instead of the smaller, quieter Mongolian films by the director Byambasuren Davaa, The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003), which was also nominated for an Oscar, and The Cave of the Yellow Dog (2005). Twin Davids to the Goliath of Mongol, neither of them had many vistas or battles or much taking over the world, but they had far more in the way of poetry and humanity. They moved rather than swept.