BR: Genghis Khan (1965)

October 5, 2018 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  July 17, 2018

Genre:  Action / Romance / Historical / Epic

Synopsis: After losing his family and being enslaved by Tartars, young Temujin escapes and launches a savvy conquest strategy, during which he becomes the infamous & influential Genghis Khan.

Special Features: Isolated Mono Music & Effects Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and




Between 1944-1980, Henry Levin directed a multitude of B and A-level films in various genres, and yet he’s among the least-known if not least appreciated filmmakers whose work was solid and highly entertaining. Where the Boys Are (1960) was a hit with the youth market, Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) remains a family-friendly, fantasy-adventure classic, and Genghis Khan shows he could transcend a completely workmanlike script by focusing on visual spectacle, mine the strong charisma of his cast, and deliver kinetic action sequences – all mandatory elements for a good historical epic.

The 1960s was the decade where epics bloomed and ballooned, as increasingly costly super-productions were cranked out by studios. As another widescreen production with a pack of internationally recognized actors, Khan was designed to ride the wave furthered by maverick indie producer Samuel Bronston during the first half of the decade.

The casting alone is especially clever: Stephen Boyd (Ben-Hur, Bronston’s The Fall of the Roman Empire) as the villain, and Omar Sharif (Lawrence of Arabia, Fall of the Roman Empire) as the brutal but visionary hero. Genghis Khan was sold using an art campaign blatantly mimicing Sam Zimbalist’s Ben-Hur and Bronston’s El Cid (1961).


BEN-HUR (1959) – the original title-as-logo-behemoth!


KING OF KINGS (1961) French poster.


EL CID (1961) – the mighty title continues!


And GENGHIS KHAN (1965), carrying on the tradition of Sam Zimbalist’s production of BEN-HUR, and the standard for virtually all of Samuel Bronston’s KING OF KINGS and EL CID super-productions.


The straightforward script chronicles young Temujin as a boy who witnesses his father’s quartering after an unsuccessful battle against rival Mongol tribe leader Jamuga (Boyd). He’s forced to wear a wooden chang (stock) necklace throughout his teens until a chance encounter with Jamuga’s young bride-to-be Bortei (Francoise Dorleac) enables an escape.

Roaming the hills with loyal lieutenants Shan (Telly Savalas) and Sengal (Spartacus’s Woody Strode), plus sage mentor Geen (Michael Hordern), and roughly 200 men, the group free several concubines headed for the Persian Shah of Khwarezm (Eli Wallach), and make camp close to Jamuga, allowing Khan to abduct Bortai one evening.

There’s a back & forth nature to the rivalry between Khan and Jamuga – after the former consummates his love with Bortai, she’s re-snatched by the latter, brutally raped & branded, and rescued again by the former – but once Khan and his tribe head south and reach China, things become more interesting.

After aiding a stranded trio of dignitaries led by Kam Ling (James Mason) and taking them to the edge of the Great Wall, Khan & Co. are welcomed by the Emperor (Robert Morley) but prevented from leaving. Sealed behind a velvet royal wall, the group design a clever escape plot, exact revenge on Jamuga, and establish the beginnings of a massive empire that stretched from Russia to China, India, and Persia.

Khan shouldn’t work as well as it does – the script by its mostly TV-based writers is flat, and the jealousy between Khan and Jamuga takes away from any deep political examinations and culture clashes – but Boyd delivers one of his best performances as a mean, savvy, vengeful, frank brute, and Sharif and his glassy eyes channel a special intensity that almost allows us to forget some preposterous prose (“A wise man doesn’t judge its horse by its saddle markings,” and lest we forget “Overfed bear be no match for wolves. Remember that!”).

Alas, Dorleac, sporting a very fashionable 60s hairstyle, has few scenes where she isn’t dragged, bedded, or stands poised; Savalas’ few lines likely disappeared in the cutting room to keep the film lean at 125 mins.; Strode’s character is a mute; and Yvonne Mitchell as Khan’s childhood friend seems to have befallen the same whittled status as Savalas. As for upper-billed Wallach, the actor has two scenes at the very end; perhaps he too appeared in an early deleted scene where his ministers return sans concubines, and he learns of Khan as a potential threat in the film’s first half.

The convention of the era in casting non-Asians in lead Asian roles really affects the scenes in China. Morley is fine, drawing on his screen persona of fussy, pouty do-nothings, but Mason tried to deepen his character with obvious eye makeup and a wide toothy grin. He also attempts an accent which makes his effort even more painful to watch. Playing a tartar, Dorleac’s fettered French accent often escapes whenever Bortai’s temperament shifts into the red zone.

Producer Irving Allen had just made The Long Ships (1964), a sister epic similarly shot in the former Yugoslavia, and scored by composer Dusan Radic. Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth did a letter-perfect job in conveying the story’s geography with beautifully composed Panavision shots of mountains, streams, steppes, and battle scenes. Perhaps due to Allen’s own background as an editor, the battles are very in your face, with sharper cuts to intimate combat, and brief doses of slight gore. The finale in which Jamuga and Khan partake in a Mongol duel is especially thrilling and bloody.

In the late 1960s, Yugoslavia’s film industry had become especially adept in crafting epic war films; Khan isn’t as big as the Oscar nominated The Battle of Neretva (1969), but there’s a shared standard in high production value with massing armies, and arduous journeys through barren, rocky terrains, and snaking rivers.

After a weird and jarringly contemporary Main Title sequence, Khan’s opening in which the boy / hero witnesses a family slaughter oddly echoes the epic intro of John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian 1982). The connection seems especially strong in Temuhin’s tormented childhood that’s a mix of physical & emotional torture; also of note is the young boy learning combat from mentor and friends which will enable him to not only escape, but win battles against challenging odds.

The screenwriters have the adult Khan remain a cautious and savvy figure. He’s well aware any stay behind the Great Wall will make his group fat, weak, and useless for the great goal of empire building; he’s the intractable disciplinarian whose words are harsh but true, and respected by all, including Bortai’s three brothers, one of whom seems poised for rebellion.

Perhaps the sole glaring flaw is the aforementioned convention of having Bortai and Jamuga go back & forth between locations to push the story forward; most of the time it works, but Jamuga’s escape from behind the Great Wall is awfully contrived.

As for accuracy, Khan is no more faithful to history than John Wayne’s serious career misstep, The Conqueror (1956), the Howard Hughes-produced idiocy. Historically, Temujin’s father was poisoned by the Tartars instead of being equine quadra-sected; he did wed Bortai who was abducted by another tribe, but ’twas Temujin who had three brothers, not Bortai.

Jamukha becomes Jamuga, and is the slimy overlord who orders his father killed and torments Temujin until the finale; the real Jamukha was Temujin’s friend, but became a rival in later years. Perhaps this narrative was altered because it resembled the Ben Hur-Messala friendship-betrayal in Ben-Hur too closely?

Somewhat factually retained is the paternity of the prodigal son – he’s either Khan’s kid or the product of Jamuka’s rape – and lastly, unlike the real Genghis Khan who lived into his 60s, in the film a supposedly thirtysomething Temujin is wounded from his duel with Jamuga and dies eloquently, but lives long enough to witness his unified people migrating en mass to lands conquered and soon to be absorbed into his massive Mongol empire. Just as in The Conqueror, Genghis Khan is transformed into a benevolent and insightful disciplinarian.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features a crisp HD transfer from a decent print. The sound mix is rather pinched, but the isolated music & effects track – a nice special feature that improves upon the repetitive soundtrack album – has better fidelity.

Boyd’s career would take a dip the following year with the laughable The Oscar, and Shalako (1968) signaled the end of further blockbuster productions. Sharif would achieve special silver screen immortality playing the eponymous Doctor Zhivago (1965) and drift quite successfully between traditional genres, including war (The Night of the Generals), musicals (Funny Girl), and westerns (Mackenna’s Gold). Mason (another Fall of the Roman Empire alumnus) would recover his dignity in the grim but engaging The Blue Max (1966), and co-star with Sharif in Mayerling (1968).

Dorleac’s career would continue to ascend via Roman Polanski’s Cul-De-Sac (1966) and Les demoiselles de Rochfort (1967), and she’d make her last appearance in Billion Dollar Brain (1967) before dying in a car accident at the age of 25. Strode returned to speaking roles in The Professionals (1966), and would co-star with Boyd in Shalako and later with Sharif in Che! (1969).

Producer Allen would shift to the spy and espionage genres via the Matt Helm series and more budget-conscious Hammerhead (1968), and his final epic was the period biopic Cromwell (1970).



© 2018 Mark R. Hasan





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