For not in my bow do I trust,
nor can my sword save me.
But thou hast saved us from our foes,
and hast put to confusion those who hate us.
Russian director Sergei Bodrov, who co-wrote the screenplay with Arif Aliyev, gives a very different view of the conqueror who was regarded by 13th century Europeans as the scourge from the East, Genghis Khan. In this first of a projected film trilogy, we follow the ups and downs of the young Temujin (Odnyam Odsuren), which was his given name, from the age of nine to a middle-aged warrior uniting the warring Mongol tribes. The story is filmed episodically, leaving out many details, presumably because so much of Temujin’s early life have been lost to history. How accurate Sergei Bodrov’s version of Temujin’s character as a deeply devoted family man and devout believer in his god Tengni we must leave up to scholars. That this version makes him more attractive than the traditional view of him as a violent and cruel despot is beyond dispute.
The film begins with Temujin and his father journeying to repair relations with the powerful Merkit tribe by having the son select a bride. Because the boy was then nine, the actual marriage would take place five years later. This political marriage was necessary because the father had stolen his own wife from a Merkit warrior some years before, and thus the tribe harbored a grudge against him. However, when the travelers stop at a lesser, but friendly, tribe’s encampment for the night, a bold girl named Borte (Khulan Chuluun) breaks tradition by speaking first to Temujin, telling him that he should choose her. Temujin, taken by her, tells his father they need go no farther, that he has found his mate. Father is just a little upset that his political ploy will be thwarted, but is pleased by his son’s decision, telling him that it is good that he has followed his own will. As we will see, this will be the best decision that Temujin will ever make.
However, on the way back home the father dies of poison from milk given him by another tribe at a rest stop, and it is not long after his return home that most of the warriors, led by the ambitious Targutai (Amadu Mamadakov) refuse to accept so young a boy as their new khan. The boy is enslaved, rather than killed, Targutai waiting until Temujin grows tall enough to be regarded as a man, and then fit to be killed. ( “Mongols do not kill children,” we are told.) There follows a series of calamities, with Temujin having to flee for his life several times. It is during this desperate period that a young Jamukha (Amarbold Tuvinbayar) takes in the almost dead boy, and the two become blood brothers. During this long period Borte (Bayartsetseg Erdenab as the young Borte – and Khulan Chuluun as the adult) remains hopeful that her betrothed will come to her, which after a great many trials, he does. They marry, but have little time together because of so many enemies—at one point Borte herself is taken captive by Merkins. Temujin, not having enough followers, goes to Jamukha (adult played by Honglei Sun) for help in rescuing her. Told that Mongols do not go to war for women, Temujin persists, until his blood brother agrees—but not right away. When they finally do catch up and rescue Borte, she has had a child, whom Temujin accepts as his own despite the uncertain paternity. Another battle, and later still more—this is a bloody epic, with red blood spurting as Mongol swords slash through bodies.
Told in a series of flashbacks from the perspective of Temujin being held captive by the Chinese 20 years later, the story has many gaps—for instance, when young Temujin falls into icy waters while fleeing from enemies, we are not shown how he was able to escape from the watery depths, or how he was able to dry out and avoid freezing to death.
The acting and photography of the beautiful mountains and steppes of Mongolia are superb. For anyone who has seen the lamentable The Conqueror, the 1956 film in which John Wayne vainly tried to play Temujin, Sergei Bodrov’s epic is infinitely preferable. Temujin would probably have agreed with the Psalmist that it was not by the sword that one is saved—in the film we see the warrior several times appealing to his god Tengni. Though Christians will side more with the Buddhist monk who, when asked by the captive Temujin to kill his guards, replies, “My religion does not permit me to kill,” we can appreciate the film’s broader view of the man who became known as Genghis Khan.
For reflection/Discussion 1) What had been your view of Genghis Khan before seeing the film? Given that the film reflects more than a touch of hero worship by its maker, what have you gained from it?
2) How does the film show by what a slender thread hangs the future of a man or of nations? How many times was the life of Temujin at risk?
3) What qualities of Temujin attracted his followers, such as the two warriors who left Jamukha? Generosity; loyalty; courage; tenacity; resourcefulness? At what points in the film do we see these demonstrated?
4) Given Jesus’ injunction to Peter at Gethsemane, “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword,” how do you regard the sweeping success of Temujin? Do you think that God can use such conquerors in his divine plan for humanity? For one instance see what Deutero-Isaiah thought of Cyrus, conqueror of Babylonia: see Isaiah 44 & 45