DIRECTOR: Henry Levin | WRITERS: Clarke Reynolds, Beverley Cross | CAST: Omar Sharif, Stephen Boyd, Françoise Dorléac, James Mason, Robert Morley, Eli Wallach, Michael Hordern, Telly Savalas, Kenneth Cope | USA
Genghis Khan is a ludicrous 1960s sweeping, quasi-historical, costume epic that is also one of the most personally significant films I’ve ever seen, for what was starting to become clear to the 7 year old me who saw Jason and the Argonauts became blindingly clear two years later when I was dazzled by the flash of Omar Sharif’s smile, his furrowed brow, his bared chest. I’ve never gotten over it.
Well, okay, there are other aspects to the movie that I find wildly entertaining. The dialogue, for instance, is a hoot and filled with sententious statements, truisms, and portentous threats. (Fun fact: Beverley Cross, who co-wrote this screenplay, also wrote Jason and the Argonauts.) Jamuga (Stephen Boyd) threatens his sworn enemy and rival Mongol leader Genghis Khan with the ominous, “If I were free from this yoke my hands would still your jackal breath.” When Jamuga says those words he is Genghis Khan’s prisoner in the Chinese Emperor’s palace in Peking. Genghis has placed a wooden yoke around Jamuga’s neck similar to the one Jamuga had put on him when he was a child, but Genghis goes one step further in anticipation of what his descendant Timur does to Bajazeth in Christopher Marlowe’s fabulous Tamburlaine: he publicly humiliates him by placing him in a cage on public display.
Bad blood exists between Jamuga and Temujin, later known as Genghis Khan, for reasons that are not really explained. True, Jamuga did enslave the young Temujin after killing his father, but the root cause of the enmity is a mystery. Temujin escapes his captivity and begins rallying the various Mongol tribes together with the exception of the tribe led by Jamuga. On the eve of Jamuga’s wedding to the Mongol princess Bortei (Françoise Dorléac, so fetchingly Mongol with her blonde bangs and frequently impenetrable French accent), Temujin kidnaps the bride-to-be only to see Jamuga re-kidnap, rape, and impregnate her, after which Temujin re-re-kidnaps the princess and marries her himself. Bortei is a wily character as can be seen in this exchange with her husband:GENGHIS KHAN: Are you out of your mind, woman? Jamuga?! Who killed my father, kept me in chains? Or is all this forgotten, all forgiven? And you? The scar he put on your back. Has that also disappeared with the passing of time?
BORTEI: Neither the scar on my back nor the memories of how it came there….As long as this man lives, none of his tribe will join with you. They can’t! You know their laws. And our laws too.
GENGHIS KHAN: Killing him would be an act of mercy.
BORTEI: We’re not talking of mercy, but of common sense!
By this time the Khans are living in Peking at the Emperor of China’s palace. The great Robert Morley plays the Chinese Emperor as if he were Robert Morley with a Fu Manchu moustache. Luckily, Genghis Khan has a great ally in the Chinese ambassador-at-large, Kam Ling, who is played by the great James Mason as sort of a cross between Liberace and Charlie Chan, only effeminate.
Things happen, Jamuga escapes and takes up with the Shah of Khwarezm (Eli Wallach), fireworks are invented (at Genghis Khan’s direction), tribes are conquered, cattle are rustled on the Mongolian prairie, until a final showdown between Jamuga and Genghis Khan. They fight it out, one-on-one and shirtless, until the greater man wins.
But after killing Jamuga, Genghis Khan himself dies from his wounds, with Bortei at his side and the wind in his face. The End.