Genghis Khan is one of those historical figures most of us have at least an inkling about, but whose life and, frankly, accomplishments a lot of us would be hard pressed to detail. This epic Japanese production (originally known as The Blue Wolf, now rechristened Genghis Khan for home video release) attempts to give the backstory of the Mongol leader, known as Temujin for the bulk of this film.
I kept thinking of Oliver Stone's Alexander throughout Genghis Khan: To the Ends of the Earth and the Sea, for both good and bad reasons. Like the Stone opus, Khan covers decades of its title hero's life, a man who would conquer much of the known world, in epic fashion, with a personal story playing out against vast vistas of at times overwhelming majesty. At the same time, there's an at times pretty paltry attempt to slap on some dime store psychoanalysis (something Stone at least seems pretty fond of), with a none too subtle underlay of Temujin's quest to figure out whose son he is providing an emotional foundation for a lot of what goes on in the film.
Khan begins with his mother (the character in fact narrates the entire film), a member of the Merkit tribe, being abducted by the rival Mongol tribe shortly after her marriage to a Merkit chieftain. Within a few months, she's pregnant, supposedly by her new Mongol husband, though rumors persist that Temujin, the newborn, is actually spawn of the woman's brief Merkit marriage. This dialectic plays out not only in the Mongol population at large, but also within Temujin's family itself, leading to some tragic consequences for one of Temujin's brothers.
The film takes this basic idea and gives it what I suppose is supposed to be some delicious irony when Temujin's own bride is abducted by the Merkit years later and is recaptured months later, pregnant herself. As laudable as these attempts are to reveal the warring factions that Khan supposedly wanted to merge into one, the whole mirroring plot conceits seem heavy handed. They're obviously an attempt to humanize a figure who is often relegated to the ranks shared by Attila and Hitler, mindless thugs who fought their way to glory with nary a thought for the consequences. Khan probably swings the pendulum a bit too far in the opposite direction, positing its hero as a well meaning, if flawed, visionary who was willing to sacrifice a few (OK, quite a few) innocents in order to achieve the dream of worldwide unity.
What Khan lacks in a cogent analytical bent (and, frankly, historical accuracy) it partially makes up for in a beautiful production that makes the most of what was, despite its enormous expense, a relatively paltry budget for a film this large in scope. Production values are uniformly high, with elegant costumes and sets, and some well staged equine battle scenes. If some of the CGI augmentation of battle forces seems a little ham-handed to our new well-trained western eyes, overall the film has sweep and momentum, with a very firm directorial hand by Shinichirô Sawai. The film is unfailingly visual, and often quite brilliantly so. A nice segue from Temujin as a teen to a young adult is handled by a fade from his (none too subtly) stigmata-scarred hand morphing over time, and there's a great sort of "reverse Vertigo" moment with Temujin suddenly jutting out from his advancing hoard that is quite captivating. These sorts of moments give the film a nice visual crackle that keeps the dramatic failings from sinking it.
The performances are generally quite excellent, though it is absolutely necessary to stick with the original Japanese soundtrack for this film. While the mixes are surprisingly similar (the Japanese is in True HD 6.1 and the English dub is DD 2.0), the English language version is really lamentable from a performance standpoint. Temujin's teen voice, for example, comes off as a petulant Valley Boy, kind of teed off that he's not quite sure who his Dad is. Bummer.
Takashi Sorimachi's Khan is a gruff, yet appealing, character who can bark out orders at one moment, and then be surprisingly tender the next. It may not be the stuff of historical accuracy, but it gives the actor a little range to flaunt, and he handles it well. His battle scenes are also exceptional, and he seems to be doing most, if not all, of his horseback stunts.
Genghis Khan: To the Ends of the Earth and the Sea completes its two hour and fifteen minute journey on the brink of Khan's first overwhelming battle victory, as he is about to storm the Great Wall of China. That may seem like an odd place to end the film, and yet it ultimately reveals the real motive behind the film's creators--they were not attempting, like Stone in Alexander, to give an overall retrospective of an epochal historical figure. Rather, they were attempting to provide a little known backstory leading up to the section of Khan's life that is ostensibly better known. Playing out against a probably little understood era of feudal life, this is a culture seen through the prism of one individual that would not only define that culture, but lead it into a new, potentially prosperous, but ultimately very dangerous and tragic future.