The horse, it seems, is the most important of these -- Mongol men at the edge of history seemingly have no qualms about ditching their women, children and belongings and beating a hasty retreat should they be outnumbered in a scuffle. A wife is a close second. Clans, as illustrated by Sergei Bodrov's quiet, sweeping, bloody film Mongol, will follow any leader who treats them generously.
Ostensibly a story of the youth and young adulthood of Genghis Khan -- when he was simply called Temudjin, the iron worker -- Mongol is a film about tradition, the times it should be upheld and the times it must be exploited. Temudjin's father dies young because he cleaves stubbornly to custom. Upon meeting a rival Khan at a resting place, where no blood can be shed, the two men exchange milk in the traditional manner. An aide implores Temudjin's father to let the servant taste it for poison, but that is not how a Khan acts, so he drinks the milk and dies soon after, bringing no end of strife for the family that survives him. Temudjin's mother and small extended family are left to fend for themselves in the harsh Mongolian steppes. Targutai, the man who becomes Khan, would have killed Temudjin on the spot, but Mongols don't murder children, so the boy is enslaved, a mercy Temudjin exploits repeatedly.
Through an adolescence of strife, Temudjin learns that tradition is an important tool for keeping order. It keeps the common man in line and keeps conservative leaders from exploiting natural advantages. There's a balance to be struck, then, between keeping custom and breaking it. Each success is a step toward Temudjin's ascendancy to Khan. Each failure is too, though it makes the road longer.
Mongol, then, is an external epic and an internal one. For every minute of massive, bloody battle -- shot with a calm freneticism that steals your breath while allowing you to keep tabs on which side has the advantage -- Mongol has three minutes of Temudjin plotting and struggling, his cavernous eyes combing his surroundings. Shooting wide to capture the austere, forbidding vastness of the steppes, director Bodrov works hard to paint the landscape as the Mongols' limiting factor. How could one man unite such a far-flung, hardscrabble people into an empire that would one day rule the largest contiguous empire in human history? As Temudjin grows, Bodrov slowly unveils the answer: sheer force of will. The man who would be Khan is imprisoned nearly as much as he's free. It forces him to rely on others -- especially his wife, Borte -- while hardening him against undue loyalties.
The infrequent, though slaughter-filled, battles punctuate a film of quiet grandeur, hinting at perhaps the key difference between this man who ended up ruling the world and all those who didn't. Genghis Khan wasn't a warrior who hacked and slashed his way to emperor. He was a born leader who used war to achieve his destiny.
Directed by Sergei Bodrov
Starring Tadanobu Asano