I went to see the Russian director Sergei Bodrov's film "Mongol" the other night. It was beautifully shot, tho did 12th-century Mongols, still rustling horses and stealing one another's wives, reallly have such spotless clothes and perfect teeth? The casting and acting were good, the images striking, and the battle scenes pretty much up to Peter Jackson's standards in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. On in Ridley Scott's contemporaneous crusader movie "The Kingdom of Heaven," which I just saw again (the kids rented it) on DVD.
"Mongol" is also the first film in a trilogy, this one aiming to trace either Genghis Khan's life or that of the Mongol Empire to c. 1400. But if you want to see spectacular shots of central Eurasian steppes, yurts, yaks and such, you could do just as well with Ulrike Ottinger's documentary "Taiga." I only saw an hour of this, at the 1992 Berlin Film Festival (the whole thing lasts 501 minutes, but who besides imdb.com is counting?). The steppes and the way of life have hardly changed a bit, assuming Bodrov's vision is historically accurate.
I got into the Mongol business last summer in the aftermath of the Lincoln Center Festival presenting -- courtesy of the Festival d'Automne a Paris, which curated the programs in the first place -- Mongolian bardic history, music and dance. The bardic history consisted of solo chanting of a fascinating manuscript called "The Secret History of the Mongols," which forms the basis of much of what we know -- and what Bodrov knows -- about the inner workings of the empire, and especially the early life of Genghis Khan. Assembled back in the 13th and 14th centuries by scribes writing for the exclusive readership of the Mongol royal family (hence secret), it came to public view a century or so ago and was translated into English more recently than that. A terrific read, if you wish to pursue it, though full of weird, decades-long gaps in the narrative, like the whole process by which Genghis united the Mongol tribes. Bodrov doesn't try to fill in those gaps, which makes for sudden forward lurches in time.
Better still is Jack Weatherford's book "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World," which combines personal biographical detail, the sociology and anthropology of the Mongols, military tactics, political and economical analysis of the empire and sometimes polemical speculation of the Mongols' role in elevating barbarous Europe toward the Renaissance. Weatherford is determined to portray the Mongols not as rapacious slaughterers of the innocent but as enlightened harbingers of modernity. Rather like defenders of Moorish Spain, so much more advanced and tolerant than primitive late-medieval Europe. Despite one churlish and semi-llterate put-down among the Amazon reader reviews, I recommend Weatherford's book most highly. Among other things, it's a barn-burning summer read.
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