SUMMER MOVIE MEMORIES
One of the top fun-favorite pics of my youth, Henry Levin’s 1965 comic-book-come-to-life action adventure GENGHIS KHAN invades Blu-Ray in a fantastic, restored limited (3000 units only) 1080p rendition, thanks to the warriors at Twilight Time, in cahoots with Columbia Pictures Industries.
About as historically accurate a movie biopic as Night and Day (come on, folks, where else are you going to find comparisons between Genghis Khan and Cole Porter?), The Buster Keaton Story or The Scarlet Empress, KHAN begins with the capture, torture and slavery of the child Temujin (aka Little Genghis). The culprit is the evil Jamuga (real spelling “Jamukha”), who only resists pulling wings off flies because it’s too nice (he has Temujin’s father tied to four horses and ripped into quarters).
Temujin grows up wearing a yoke around his neck, fueled by hate and revenge that finally causes his now-adult body to rebel once he gets a gander at Jamukha’s purchased bride, the ga-ga gorgeous Bortei (real spelling “Borte”). Temujin instantly decides to steal both his freedom and the bride (as they say, behind every great man is a woman; more so, when it’s Francoise Dorleac).
Temujin forms a band of bad boys and girls made up of persecuted villagers, tiny militia, and freed prisoners that grow into the leader’s infamous Mongol horde. This doesn’t sit well with Jamukha, who relentlessly pursues his nemesis – a journey that leads all the way to the Great Wall of China (Yugoslavian locations ably filling in for Asia); here, Temujin gains the favor of the Emperor, who, nevertheless, forcibly acquires the horde’s protection by imprisoning (albeit luxuriously) the people’s army for years.
Before the internet, curious history geeks like myself raided the local libraries to get the skinny on real-life movie characters (ergo, the above correct spelling of characters). Truth be told, Genghis Khan wasn’t exactly a nice guy. He totally was into killing, torturing, raping, pillaging and cheating his way across the Asian landscape, dreaming all the while of conquering the world. Although much of this aberrant behavior isn’t enacted in this movie, remarkably some of it is. Women are “taken” and jokingly so (and, in both 1190 and 1965, they uncomfortably seem to love it); later, the Emperor is brutally murdered as the horde votes to leave the palace (the Khan is the first human to see the possibilities of fire power derived from its original entertainment creation: fireworks). Crazier is the slut-shaming of the beauteous aforementioned Borte, who is raped by Jamukha after being momentarily captured (it’s implied that her and Temujin’s first born is actually Jamukha’s). As she tearfully tells her hubby what transpired in his enemy’s tent, a conflicted Khan essentially sighs “que sera, sera,” minus the Doris Day vocalizing. Equally astounding is that Columbia geared this movie as a summer family pic. What were they thinking? Borte was never raped by Jamukha; most of Temujin-Jamukha revenge antagonism was made up by screenwriters Clarke Reynolds and Beverley Cross (from an original story by Berkely Mather), who should have known better. In fact, Temujin and Jumukha grew up together as childhood friends (they were even blood brothers), but their equal desires for power drove them apart, making them mortal foes (in actuality, Borte was briefly kidnapped by renegade Tartar bands, but was rescued by the combined forces of Temujin and Jamukha’s troops). Perhaps the pic’s writers didn’t want to repeat a relationship so similar to that of Masala and Ben-Hur. That said, for Jamukha, producer Irving Allen cast Stephen Boyd, who excels at seething chest heaving in ways that would terrify the Marquis de Sade. Ditto, the ads for KHAN, which replicated the Ben-Hur title carved out of a mountain (or of gold, or here, from a massive pagoda), likewise indicative of other1960’s epics (El Cid, King of Kings, etc.). Another anomaly of the movie is that the storyline that doesn’t allow many of the characters to age. Dorleac, for example, seems to still be in her late twenties at the climax, making her minus-12 when first seen. In truth, Jumukha, captured by Khan, was offered a sweetheart deal: combine their armies into one invincible killing machine. Jamukha, refusing to share the scepter of power, opted instead to be allowed to commit suicide; Khan, gregariously ageed.
The mostly Caucasian cast is star-gazing outstanding, although often embarrassing, wearing Chinese stretched eye gear, and includes Robert Morley (as the Emperor), Telly Savalas, James Mason, Eli Wallach, Michael Hordern and Woody Strode. Temujin/Genghis is portrayed by none other than the decade’s Egyptian go-to guy for exotic validation, Omar Sharif. Sharif, the client of the worst agent ever, doesn’t get top billing (Boyd does); he, instead, holds fast to his standard last but not least, “and with Omar Sharif as…” WTF!? Of special interest for contemporary TV fans is the appearance of Lucille Soong as one of the ravishing half-naked concubines. Soong currently plays Granny on the hit series Fresh off the Boat. It’s important to note her participation, as she’s one of the few authentic Asians in the movie.
GENGHIS KHAN more or less follows the template of The Vikings: a dash of history, but wall-to-wall action and sex from fade-in to fade-out. Henry Levin, who guided picture-goers through such thoroughly enjoyable fare as The Bandit of Sherwood Forest, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm does a splendid job keeping the proceedings moving. He is greatly aided by some spectacular Technicolor and Panavision photography by the terrific d.p. Geoffrey Unsworth (2001 – A Space Odyssey). For me, a major aspect of GENGHIS KHAN’s appeal was the rousing score by Yugoslavian composer Dusan Radic (available as an IST on this platter); to my knowledge he only did two widely seen international movies (this and The Long Ships, which also boasts fantastic music).
GENGHIS KHAN ruled my summer back in 1965. My friends and I went back to see it three more times; we even engaged in Jumukha/Temujin antics, with tied up long branches through our arms subbing for a yoke. What a reprehensible little band of savages we were!
GENGHIS KHAN. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries. CAT # TWILIGHT 339-BR. SRP: $29.95.