Review: Genghis Khan

Omar Sharif plays the title Mongol chief who attempts to unite all the varying factions and regions of Asia, whilst also squaring off against Jamuga (Stephen Boyd- thankfully a bit better than he was in “Ben-Hur”), his sworn enemy and the man who once enslaved him. Francoise Dorleac plays Boyd’s intended wife whom Sharif snatches away from him, and eventually they come to love one another. Telly Savalas and Woody Strode play a couple of Genghis Khan’s followers (the former has much different views on the treatment of women than his leader), whilst James Mason is Kam Ling, Mandarin advisor to Chinese Emperor Robert Morley, both of whom seem to have some affection for Sharif. Eli Wallach has a small role as a shifty Persian Shah.

Despite not being Mongolian, a perfectly cast Sharif (who is Egyptian) nearly saves this otherwise badly cast, occasionally embarrassingly trivial (read: borderline racist-as-hell) 1965 historical mini-epic from Henry Levin (“The Flying Missile”, “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”). Sharif, like Christopher Lee and Herbert Lom (and to a lesser extent Telly Savalas, who also appears here), was able to play characters of wildly varying ethnic backgrounds with mostly success. If there is any sense of authenticity or believability in this superficial picture, it is to Sharif’s credit. Besides, name me one actor who was active in mainstream Hollywood/British cinema in the 60s who could’ve played the part. Yul Brynner is the only name I can come up with and even he wasn’t close to Mongolian (Hell, sources vary as to just what ethnicity Brynner actually was). Certainly Sharif has the fire, passion, and charisma to pull the part off.

On the other end of the scale is the usually dignified James Mason, in easily the worst performance of his career. Adopting clichéd Fu Manchu makeup, a goofy smile, a slightly mincy demeanour, and an excruciatingly nasal vocal intonation, Mason is just appalling and brings the film down almost single-handedly with his unconvincing work. Someone should’ve told Mason that he’s not Tony Randall and he was not making “The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao” (the only circumstance in which such a comic caricature could be made palatable). Or at the very least he should’ve viewed Robert Donat’s final performance in “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness”, wherein the ailing actor managed to add some genuine pathos and dignity to his potentially offensive stereotype. Mason’s basically yukking it up in Charlie Chan mode. He’s indicative of what is wrong with the entire film. It’s insultingly superficial at times, completely two dimensional. Faring better, but not ethnically suitable for the role is Morley, who unlike Mason, is pretty much giving us the standard pompous Robert Morley performance, is all the better for sticking to his strong suits. He’s really quite amusing and never embarrassing. Hordern, Savalas, Strode, and Wallach are all perfectly solid but completely underused in a film that is clearly not interested in any character not named Genghis Khan. And even Genghis Khan’s character is a little sanitised for 1965 audience consumption, with Savalas’ more uncouth character probably being of closer accuracy in terms of temperament and behaviour.

The film has its moments (despite not being a huge epic, the final battle is surprisingly brutal and effective) and a commendable lead performance by Sharif, but this is nowhere near what it could’ve and should’ve been. The screenplay is by Clarke Reynolds (“Operation Thunderbolt”) and perhaps not surprisingly, Beverly Cross (who wrote the juvenile but enjoyable “Jason and the Argonauts”, and “Clash of the Titans”), from a story by Berkely Mather (who co-wrote the screenplay for “Dr. No”). Lots of interesting credits, but disappointing results, I’m afraid.

Rating: C+


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