Twilight Time has released the 1965 action adventure film "Genghis Khan" as a limited edition (3,000) Blu-ray. The film was released almost ten years after Howard Hughes produced the notorious clinker "The Conqueror" starring John Wayne as the legendary Mongol leader. A decade later, producer Irving Allen ensured he did not make the mistake of laughably miscasting the leading man. Omar Sharif, then a red-hot up-and-coming star, was cast in the title role, and while an Egyptian actor might not seem to be an obvious choice, Sharif possessed an exotic international appeal that saw him convincingly play characters of many different ethnic backgrounds. Ironically, while Allen had successfully hired a leading man, his judgment did not extend to the key supporting roles. If you want to enjoy "Genghis Khan", there are many positive aspects to the film- but you will have to overlook some jaw-dropping casting errors. That feat is a bit like trying to calmly peruse a newspaper in your living room while ignoring the 800-pound gorilla who is sitting across from you, but more about that later.
The film opens with a brutal raid on the tribal home of the young Mongol Temujin and his family. The raid is led by a rival Mongol tribe headed by the merciless Jamuga (Stephen Boyd), who murders Temujin's father and enslaves the women of the tribe. The story then jumps ahead a number of years and we find Temujin (Omar Sharif) has now grown to manhood and is still a captive of Jamuga. He's forced to wear a giant wooden yoke around his neck as a reminder of his humiliation. Ultimately, Temujin escapes captivity with the help of holy man Geen (Michael Hordern) and a mute Mongol warrior named Sengal (Woody Strode.), much to the chagrin of the infuriated Jamuga. Temujin vows to bring the warring Mongol tribes together so that they can form an unstoppable army capable of conquering the known world. How he achieves this is never shown but before long we see he has indeed amassed a devoted army intent on uniting the remaining Mongol tribes, one of which is headed by Jamuga.One of Temujin's obsessions is to humiliate Jamuga, which he does by kidnapping his woman, Bortei (Francoise Dorleac), who he then makes his own wife. As played by the gorgeous but ill-fated Dorleac (she died in a car crash in 1967), Bortei sports a modern hair style and the latest trends in makeup. She's a Mongol by way of the emerging mod scene on Carnaby Street. Dorleac is miscast but at least her performance isn't embarrassing. The same cannot be said of some of her otherwise revered cast members.
Since the film is designed to entertain, not enlighten, we are presented with a truncated historical record of Temujin's conquests. In short order, he and his army become feared as they relentlessly conquer seemingly any land they want to occupy, either by having the inhabitants willingly accede to their demands or face defeat in battle. The script boils down these tumultuous events into a Cliff Notes adaptation of a Classics Illustrated comic book. Temujin next sets his sights on the legendary land of China, and are admitted entrance through the Great Wall. Here they are guided by Kam Ling, a wise man who serves as chief adviser to the Emperor. The role is played by James Mason and if you thought, as I did, that this great talent was incapable of presenting a bad performance, be prepared to be enlightened. Mason sports a sem- Fu Manchu mustache and seems to be foreshadowing those now cringe-inducing Chinese detectives that would be played by Peter Sellers and Peter Ustinov. But wait! Mason's performance seems positively inspired compared to that of Robert Morley as the Emperor. Yes, that Robert Morley, the rotund and usually delightful British character actor who played every role in precisely the same manner. Thus, we have the Emperor of China depicted as a prissy, comical figure. (Presumably, Paul Lynde was not available for the role.) The miscasting of these two pivotal roles makes it difficult to concentrate on the otherwise compelling script by Clarke Reynolds and Beverly Cross. Fortunately, events move quickly. The Emperor treats Temujin and his army with great reverence and respect- and Temujin is even giving the honorary title of Genghis Khan ("Great Conqueror"). But Temujin correctly suspects that they are being held as captives in a gilded cage. Seems the Emperor realizes that Temujin suspects that the Chinese military is a paper tiger and that he would be tempted to gather an even bigger army and take the nation by force. In a creatively-staged scene, the Mongols use the Chinese fascination with fireworks as an elaborate method to affect a daring escape. Armed with the advanced military technology they have secured from China, the Mongols' ever-growing armies continue to sweep through kingdoms far and wide. Jamuga, who had been held captive by Temujin but managed to escape, refuses an offer to join Temujin's forces- and even insults him by implying that Temujin's young son had been fathered by him. This results in a "Mongol Duel" in which both men go mano-a-mano, with the surviving winner taking control of the armies. The sight of two sweaty, hunky shirtless men grappling with each does have an unintended and amusing homo-erotic aspect but the scene is quite suspenseful.
Because of some disastrous casting choices, one might think that
"Genghis Khan" would be unwatchable. However, there are many attributes
to the production, which is very ably directed by Henry Levin. Among
them is the stunning cinematography by legend-in-the-making Geoffrey
Unsworth and a terrific score by Dusan Radic. The film also boasts
outstanding production design and use of matte paintings. There are also
some other esteemed names in the film that fare better than those who
were miscast. Eli Wallach has a brief role as a cowardly war lord and
Telly Savalas is fine as one of Temujin's devoted warriors. The great
Woody Strode is, unfortunately, under-utilized but is a rare example of
an actor who is suitably cast. Sharif is excellent in the title role,
bringing sensitivity and pathos to the part and making Temujin something
other than a mere man of action. Stephen Boyd is miscast but gives a
powerful performance that compensates for his physical distractions.
"Genghis Khan" was filmed in Yugoslavia during an era in which the
dictator Marshal Tito was filling his country's coffers by offering
deals to major studios. "Khan" benefits greatly from the stunning
locations as well as the legions of Yugoslav army regulars that Tito
would usually incorporate into any deal so they could reduce the costs
of hiring extras. Thus, the film takes on the grandeur at times of a
genuine epic, with hundreds of horsemen involved in elaborately-staged
attacks. The Twilight Time Blu-ray does justice to the scope and sweep
of the film with an excellent transfer. There is also an original
trailer (which amusingly plays up the casting of Mason and Morley) as
well as a very well-written collector's booklet with text by Julie
Kirgo. There are plenty of unintended hoots in "Genghis Khan" but at its
best, it's outstanding entertainment. Highly recommended.
(Note: There are some interesting, if irrelevant, ties between the
filmmakers and James Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli. Producer Irving
Allen had once been partners with Broccoli in the British production
company Warwick Films. One of their most divisive issues was that Allen
did not share Broccoli's enthusiasm for bringing Ian Fleming's novels to
the screen. After their breakup, Allen did get a piece of the
Bond-inspired spy craze by producing the four Matt Helm films starring
Dean Martin. Euan Lloyd, co-producer of "Genghis Khan", also worked at
Warwick Films and would go on to a successful career topped by his 1978
film "The Wild Geese". The story for "Khan" was written by Berkeley
Mather, who co-authored the screenplay for the first Bond movie, "Dr.
No". The impressive stunts for the movie were orchestrated by Bob
Simmons, who would serve as long-time stunt coordinator on the Bond
films as well as Sean Connery's double. Joe Powell also is credited on
"Khan". He would go on to perform and arrange stunts for various 007
movies as well.)