Genghis Khan inspires big cinema. In the fifties there was the infamous Howard Hughes production that combined John Wayne in dubious make-up and CinemaScope to little success. The Conqueror, as the film was known, famously flopped and is now better known nowadays for the cancer controversy which surrounds it (filming having taken place downwind from a nuclear test site), but that never prevented it from being truly epic. Ten years later and Omar Sharif was portraying the Mongol emperor for the more obviously titled Genghis Khan. Backed up by an all-star cast that encompassed everyone from Telly Savalas to Eli Wallach and filmed entirely in Yugoslavia, this version once more did full justice to the phrase epic. Much more recently we’ve also seen Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol, at the time of its production the most expensive Russian film ever made. That claim has since been snatched away by Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt By the Sun 2, but again the epic-ness of it all is not to be denied. When it comes to Genghis, cinema goes large.
Much the same would appear to be true for his descendants, at least if The Heir to Genghis Khan is anything to go by. Better known in the UK under the title of Storm Over Asia, this is Vsevolod Pudovkin’s classic piece of Soviet silent cinema that deftly combines action, propaganda, ethnographic documentary and stunning visual technique. The eponymous heir is a fur trader who, throughout the picture, finds himself up against the occupying British forces. The corrupt traders wish to exploit him, the army wants to kill him and, once they’ve got their hands on him, the top politicians try to use him as a tool for their own purposes: a puppet dictator with which to exert their control and influence. Of course, he resists all of them which also positions him as the perfect metaphor. Here is the revolutionary Russian versus the decadent, capitalist West.
So as not to upset British sensibilities, The Heir to Genghis Khan had its intertitles altered for overseas audiences. The villains were no longer cartoon-ish Brits but instead white Russians, a situation which was also far closer to the truth. Dubious politics aside, Pudovkin’s feature nonetheless makes for remarkable cinema. The propagandist elements are swamped by the technique to the point where their simplicity and lack of authenticity barely even registers. Our attention is constantly swerved towards the more striking elements, whether it be the hyperkinetic editing rhythms, the location shooting or the non-fiction aspects which occasionally intrude. It is here where The Heir to Genghis Khan makes its mark as great cinema.
In terms of style alone the results are often breathtaking. Pudovkin’s montage almost predicts the fidgety nature of today’s post-MTV action movies such is its rapid fire approach. He would remove frames from a particular sequence to give it a more staccato feel; the method nowadays resembles stop motion but the intention at the time was to find the same visual sting as a close-up, something with which to make the audience pay that little bit more attention. In combination with the snatches of classical music which make up the score (interwoven with newly composed passages and examples of authentic Mongolian folk music) it undoubtedly succeeds. The action set pieces - particularly the “a white man’s blood has been shed” scene - are full of tremendous energy.
The location photography is just as important. The Heir to Genghis Khan was captured on the harsh plains and hillsides of the Soviet’s outskirts. Filming in such a landscape - and among actual Mongolians - led Pudovkin to pursue an added documentary-like dimension. Amidst the action and the propaganda we also find more straightforward ethnographic scenes of Mongolian culture, its rituals and its traditions. Non-professional actors were employed as too where their habitats. Moreover, they were accorded the utmost respect making their scenes stand out against the more caricatured portrayal of the various evil, corrupt, spoilt, despicable Brits. Such context may be a little obvious, but the documentary elements shine through and it’s fascinating to see such images almost 85 years later.
The mixture of action-adventure, propaganda and such ethnography met with criticism upon The Heir to Genghis Khan’s original release. Pudovkin was accused to doing too much and as such creating a film whose tone veered wildly from scene to scene. Such complaints are understandable but they ignore just how remarkable many of the component parts are. When faced with a film this dazzling it doesn’t necessarily matter how well they fit together. The end result consistently amazes and astounds and that’s a rarity in itself. Such qualities should never be underestimated.
The Heir to Genghis Khan is part of Ruscico’s Hyperkino range: one disc containing the film itself and a choice of international subtitles; another containing various annotations and illustrations to aid our understanding and appreciation. The film itself runs to 104 minutes though I’m unsure as to whether this is the definitive edition - the IMDb (not the most reliable of sources) gives a whole host of running times from just over an hour to more than two though none of these account for frame rates. What we do have is a fine presentation of a print with the original Russian subtitles. There is some damage, not to mention frame wobble and other expected signs of age. But for the most part this is a pleasing transfer with more than acceptable contrast and clarity. The soundtrack opts to follow Pudovkin’s intentions - authentic Mongolian music, excerpts from the classics and some new passages - rather than go for one of the newer compositions. (The Eureka! disc currently available in the UK has a score by Timothy Brock, whilst more recent theatrical screenings have been accompanied by Yat-Kha, a throat-singing rock outfit. Further back there was also a 1949 score by Soviet composer Nikolai Kryukov.)
The Hyperkino additions are excellent and provide an absolute wealth of information. The various mini-essays take us behind the scenes, provide analysis and historical context, and reveal the contemporary reaction. Each is also backed up with a host of posters, paintings, production stills, promotional materials, film clips, even a caricature. Any questions you may have about The Heir to Genghis Khan are more than likely to be answered.
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