By the will of Appellate Judge James A. Stewart, movies would be less pretentious.
"One day you will become the Great Khan."
When you Google Genghis Khan, you'll see a Mongolian barbecue among the first screen's entries, making you hungry immediately. There's also a Google timeline for Khan, born as Temujin ("ironworker") in 1162. By the time he was forty, Khan had taken control of "much of the known world." Even in 1200, that was a lot of territory. A riding accident claimed his life in 1227.
The Russian-made By the Will of Genghis Khan fleshes out this outline of Khan's life.
Facts of the Case
The future Genghis Khan's dad dies when he's young, leaving his mother to face a really nasty suitor who wants to transfer power to his own family. This sends little Genghis into hiding until he can do away with Bekter, the pretender Khan. From this point on, there'll be a lot of fighting, including beheadings, until Khan (Sergei Egerov) rules. All the while, he prays for peace while creating large piles of his enemies' heads.
There's more to By the Will of Genghis Khan than fight scenes and beheadings. Still, bloodshed does seem to be the central theme. Seeing heads of his comrades scattered on ground covered by both snow and blood makes Genghis Khan vow to become a great leader. The ending battle scene runs for somewhere around half an hour. In between, there's lots more fighting and beheading. If you like bloody battle scenes, you'll love By the Will of Genghis Khan.
Director Andrey Borisov is fond of dramatic panning of battlefields. The final battle's close is bathed not just in the red of blood, but in the red of a sunset for additional impact. The scenery is sweeping throughout, from the mountains to the plains to the desert. You could watch this without subtitles (if they weren't burned on) and still admire the beauty of Borisov's handiwork.
Borisov tries to ground his film in importance, with those scenes of Khan praying, some attempted poetic narration, and a final sequence in which a scholar writes the secret history of Khan's life. These things come across as pretentious, and the movie would have been better off concentrating on the basic story and the battle scenes.
There are no extras. Some background on Genghis Khan would have been nice, whether in the form of a documentary, a booklet, or even a text feature on the DVD.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The movie goes briskly over the actual history, which implies that you're actually expected to know something about Genghis Khan before you watch. You could still enjoy the battle scenes anyway, but I'd recommend a peek at the encyclopedia first.
The movie is longer than the running time listed on the DVD case. Since that final scene is rather boring and pretentious, it feels like less rather than more.
This portrait of a gentle, prayerful man who was adept at killing and violence, even if he didn't like it much, won't appeal to everyone. It'll most appeal to those who enjoy a good battle scene now and again, if they don't mind a dose of history to go with it.
Not perfect, but not guilty.
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