It’s Genghis Khan week at Old and in the Way.
Yesterday I happened to catch Mongol, the film by Sergei Bodrov, on Netflix. I experienced two firsts while watching this film, first full length feature I’ve ever seen about Temujin, better know by his Mongolian honorific, Great Leader i.e. Genghis Khan. The other first, my very first movie in Mongolian, with English subtitles thank you. Oddly enough I thought Mongolian sounded a lot like Korean, but I happen to know that Korean (like Finnish and Hungarian) happens to be an isolate language, having no other related languages. Someone else will have to tell me if this is coincidence or not.
For the past couple weeks I’ve been reading Conn Igguldens’s Trilogy about the rise of Mongol Empire and the life of Temujin, the young tribesman who would unite the nomadic tribes of the Mongolian Steppe into the most feared military in world. As I was sitting around Saturday cruising Apple TV, I found Steve Jobs and the Netflix folks recommending that I watch Mongol, Well the idea of movie about Genghis had appeal with all the reading I’ve been doing. Little did I know I had picked an Academy Award nominee for best foreign language film? Probably the first film in Mongolian to be nominated as well.
Conn Iggulden is well known two epic works of historical fiction, one about the rise of Caesar and the Romans, and Genghis Khan series; Genghis: Birth of an Empire, Genghis: Lords of the Bow, Genghis: Bones of the Hills. The books are interesting, but they are historical fiction. Actual historical accounts of Temunjin life are completely absent. This means that Conn has to pull source material from several secondary resources and augment a tremendous amount of his imagination. He does it well and is able to weave a very readable story. His focus in the first book were the trials of the young Temujin and his rise to power eventually uniting the nomadic tribes in Mongolia. Conn spends most of the book in the period before Temujin became Khan, when he and his immediate family were left to die on the Steppe by their clan following the death of Teumunjin’s father, the Khan of his tribe.
The novel presents the young warrior as the product of a brutal environment. Iggulden’s Genghis is a brutal guy who will do anything to ensure the survival of his family and his tribe, including the killing of his half brother after the family is cast out of their tribe. By the end of the book, Genghis has asserted himself as the Great Kahn of the Mongol’s and taken his vengeance on all those who have wronged him. By the end of the first book, Genghis has assembled his horde, created a nation and is standing ready to being their conquest of the known world.
The second novel, Lords of the Bow finds Genghis and the Mongols early in their campaigns of conquest, rolling through the empires of the Western Xia and the Chin, culminating with the siege of Beijing and the conquering of the Chinese empire. Lords of the Bow is also about the transformation of Temunjin from tribal leader to national hero and Chief of Staff. In this novel Conn writes about Genghis’s development as a strategic leader. When they Mongols first explode south out of the steppe and into the heartland of the Chinese, they’re stymied by walled cities. Unable to rely on their usual tactics of encircling enemies with highly mobile mounted troops, the have to learn about sieges, breaking walls and war engines.
Genghis also begins to understand delegation and organization. The Mongol nation is too big now to be ruled by dictate from one Khan. Learning from some of the nations he conquers, he beings to institute laws and rules on tribes, a new concept for nomadic families.
The last novel in the series, Bones in the Hills covers Genghis and the Mongols as they march west conquering the Islamic kingdoms in Persia and central Asia. In the third novel the Kahn is starting to think about succession, how will he divide up the great empire when he dies. His sons are fighting among themselves and the Persians and the Arabs are turning out be tougher to defeat than anticipated. The young former slave from the steppes has certainly come a long way.
The movie was a nice compliment to the books. The cinematography was spectacular; it was filmed in Inner Mongolia and Kazakhstan. The film featured wide sweeping scenery, huge skies and stark landscapes. The characters and scenery were exactly as I had imagined it. Genghis was a brutal guy, the book and movie did not shirk from this fact. The violence here, makes an important point to the plot, these are bloody stories. Temunhin’s character was portrayed more sympathetically in the movie than the books, for example, the story of him killing his older half brother was not mentioned in the movie. Still, there is no getting around the fact that Genghis Kahn, from an early age, had a seriously ruthless side. If you were against him, you could count on your head being separated from your body at some point.
These are decent adventure stories more than anything. The history of the Mongol’s was never written down and therefore is all legend and no real facts are known. The movie it turns out was received with acclaim around the world with the exception of Mongolia. Apparently the descendants of Temujin took issue with accounts in the movie. Goes to show, history is an interpretation of past events, not a retelling.
If you like adventure stories, historical fiction or are at all interested in learning about one of histories most influential characters, I would recommend the books and the movie. If you’re squeamish about violence and bloodshed, I’d say not so much.