One of the pleasures we get from watching science fiction and fantasy films occurs in the first few minutes, when we almost subconsciously try to figure out what rules operate in this new universe we’ve entered. Does magic work? Are people kind to each other or monstrous? Do evil deeds get punished? To a lesser degree, this kind of sorting takes place in all films, but in Mongol we’re engaged in answering such perplexing questions from scene to scene. Though it’s history, watching it we’re strangers in a strange land.
Mongol tells the story of a boy named Temudjin who’s growing up in hard times, circa 12th-century Mongolia. It’s a place where nine-year-olds overruled warlord parents when picking brides and rival khans could not spill blood in rest areas, though poisoning was okay. Though it’s a true story-the making of Genghis Khan, history’s greatest conqueror-it’s liberally laced with exotic customs, sweeping cinematic vistas, and magic wolves.
But you shouldn’t come to Mongol expecting a saga of warfare and world domination, as the previews suggest. This movie chronicles Temudjin’s rocky ascendancy to power, and though it lacks the biopic magic of Orson Welles or even David Lean, there is a kind of homely grandeur and a pervading mystery to it. Proudly illiterate, Temudjin proves himself not only a brilliant military tactician but also a decider obsessed with promoting universal Mongolian laws. Even so, Temudjin bucks the ancient system by making war on non-Mongol neighbors who stole his wife. “Get yourself another,” says his neighbor chief. “Mongols don’t go to war over women.” We’re meant to see this as anomaly, maybe an allusion to Helen of Troy, yet how it prepares him for world domination is not really made clear.
In the end, it’s vaguely disappointing that this lush, exotic film doesn’t go for the World Cup. But its immediacy and strangeness are undeniably exciting. What period films have in common with sci-fi and fantasy is that they provide a working time machine. And while you’re watching, it’s a cool trip to a land far away and long, long ago.