The Mongols became the most famous horsemen-warriors in history, under the banner of Genghis Khan, who united the Mongolian tribes into an army that conquered most of the known world, including China, Turkey, Persia and Russia. But the Khan had more in mind than just spilling blood throughout the globe. Though ruthless when necessary, he believed in and followed a strict code of ethics based upon his peoples' traditions. Contrary to the barbarian image, Genghis Khan has been portrayed by more recent scholars as an inspiring, often generous and visionary leader; he believed in education, cultural enlightenment, and stability for his people in a harsh world. Nevertheless, the man could wield a sword.
The first film in a planned trilogy, Mongol begins Khan's childhood, when he was called "Temudgin," depicting his perilous-as in filled with several close calls-journey to adulthood and ending with his rise to power, when he unites the Mongolian tribes into a massive army. Japanese actor Asano Tadanobu (Last Life in the Universe) plays Genghis Khan with masterful subtlety and power. Borte (Chinese newcomer Khulan Chuluun), the love of the Khan's life, also becomes his most clever and trusted advisor, although they are forced to spend years apart at a time.
This is "horse culture" at its pinnacle. The Mongols relied on horses for transportation in a largely nomadic lifestyle. And, according to the historian Donald Kagan's book The History of Warfare, Genghis Khan's mastery of mounted archery allowed him to devastate his enemies. He rarely won battles by direct engagement (but instead by picking off enemies with arrows), thereby changing the course of warfare. Seemingly impossible-to-film scenes depict warriors using only their legs to guide their horses, freeing their hands in order to slice and dice with double swords, or to let fly with lethal bows and arrows while at a full gallop. For battle scene fans, the segment where a column of riders emerges from the ranks of archers, delving into double-bladed battle is ingenious, reminiscent of Braveheart. But overall, Mongol's closest comparison of another movie would have to be Lawrence of Arabia: the endless spaces, the challenging terrain; the sweepingly epic, against-all-odds nature of both films; and of course the countless hordes of horses.
Mongol lacks the melodramatic flourishes of Hollywood, though, and at times even resembles a documentary-style account of "life on the steppes." The horses are not the gorgeous steeds with shiny coats that prance through most modern films, instead we see dusty, shaggy mounts that more accurately reflect the period and place. The film is in Mongolian (with English subtitles), but it's easy to follow the story through the action. Cinematography captures the stark beauty of a cruel terrain, while using color sparingly yet powerfully. Combining these qualities with realistic costumes, Russian director Sergei Bodrov (Prisoner of the Mountains) shows his command of the period piece.
The film is long (just over two hours), and sometimes deliberately slow, but I didn't want it to end. Mongolian throat singing and indigenous instruments throughout, accompanied by a symphonic score, add to the stroy's haunting quality. So what's next for Genghis Khan and his mounted warriors? I'm already looking forward to the next installment, when they return for continuing yurt-to-yurt adventures.