Mongol, the new film by Sergei Bodrov, is strangely appealing. Despite the length (120 minutes), the distracting subtitles, and the never-ending bloody battles, the interest never dims. The hero is always in danger, his wife is lovely, the scenery in stunning, and the music perfectly captures the spirit of the age. Yet to grasp the secret of of this film, one must -- as the director must have done -- view the earlier version, made in 1956, called The Conqueror.
Both films tell the story of Genghis Khan during his first 40 or so years. The Conqueror stars John Wayne as a cowboy rendition of Genghis, and Susan Hayward as his wayward wife. The highlight of this film is Susan Hayward's "Dance of the Single Veil"; and the lowlight is the first meeting between Genghis and his future bride, where the macho Wayne introduces himself to Hayward by ripping off her dress and exposing her breasts (not shown to the audience, of course). The Genghis Khan depicted in The Conqueror is a barbarian, hardly different from any of the killing, burning, ravishing hordes of other tribes and tribal leaders. But late in the film, Genghis's blood brother explains why the fighters follow the great Khan:
"He has a quality of spirit that commands love, and makes men greater than themselves. "
The earlier film talks about this quality of spirit, yet the film's hero never shows it, not in his treatment of his enemies or friends. The Khan in The Conqueror is a bully, who says of his wife "There is no limit to her perfidy," and then kicks a slave to the ground so that his wife can use this human being as a step to descend from her palanquin.
In the new film by Bodrov, we do see this rare great quality of spirit. The hero is not merely a bloodthirsty warrior who dominates by force, he is a true leader who unites the barbaric world by bringing laws to these lawless tribes. Bodrov's Genghis Khan is a family man who believes in justice, who cares about the common tribesman, who respect women and children, and desires peace far more than war.
By election-time in November, let us hope that American voters can understand this all-important difference.
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