The Secret History of Genghis Khan

Andrei Borisov’s epic film By the Will of Genghis Khan presents the historical figure Temujin not as the terrifying bogeyman of European lore, but as he is remembered across much of the East, as a just ruler, a lawgiver, and a man of honour. It places the lifestyle of the steppe peoples front and centre, presenting the ever moving, herd-following Mongols, Naimans and Buryats as the norm, and questioning the “civilised” notion of putting down roots in one place. The history of Central Asia has long been a story of tension between nomads and farmers; By the Will of Genghis Khan deliberately pushes a nomad’s eye view of the beauty and wonder of life on the steppes.

“In the province of Yeka Mongol, there was a certain man called Chinghis. This man became a mighty hunter. He learned to steal men, and to take them for prey. He ranged into other countries taking as many captives as he could, and joining them unto himself. Also, he allured the men of his own country unto him, who followed him as their captain and ringleader to do mischief.”

— Friar John of Pian de Carpini, 13th century AD

“Not long ago, Genghis Khan evoked only unpleasant memories; he was thought of as a tyrant,” producer Vladimir Ivanov told Variety. “The film will strike a wide audience with its honesty about complex historical facts.”

Temujin (played here by three actors at different stages of his life) might have been a famous Mongol, but the extent of his empire from the edges of Europe to the Pacific coast ensured that his memory had a much larger footprint. The activities of his grandsons, who conquered Hungary, Persia and China, ensure that the name Genghis Khan is a bankable movie idea across the whole of Eurasia. By the Will of Genghis Khan is a truly international production, growing out of a novel and play first performed in the Republic of Yakutia, adapted into cinema form with co-producers in the USA, and a cast including members from China, Germany and a dozen Russian republics. But the bulk of its talent and industry is rooted not in Mongolia as one might expect, but in the vast region of Siberia – once ruled by Genghis Khan, now the Russian Far East.

Throughout the 20th century, Siberia was regarded as little more than a place of unspoken exile, of gulags and disappearing dissidents. By the Will of Genghis Khan restores this region as a crucial, vital part not only of the Russian identity, but of global geography. “Siberia”, i.e. Northern Asia, is an area occupying 13.1 million square kilometres, including not just the modern Russian state of Siberia itself, but also the Republic of Tuva, the Republic of Yakutia, the Republic of Khakassia, the Buryat Republic, the Altai Republic and oblast (district) areas including the Jewish Oblast, Kurgan, Tyumen and the Amur (also known as the Black Dragon River, which forms the border with China to the south). Siberia proper, the area from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific coast, occupies 77% of Russia, and 10% of all the land in the world. It has been inhabited by human beings since 45,000 BC, and was united, along with what is now Mongolia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, as part of the conquests of Temujin, the “Genghis Khan”, before his death in 1227.

Secret Histories

When Temujin’s grandson Khubilai Khan conquered China a generation later, he became the founder of the century-long “Chinese” dynasty of the Yuan. Accordingly, Khubilai’s family was immortalised in a Chinese dynastic history, with grandfather Temujin accorded honorary imperial status many decades after his death. But for a more personal, more dramatic account of the life of Temujin, we need to turn to the Secret History of the Mongols, an anonymous chronicle now lost in the original Mongolian version, but which has survived through the centuries for its use as a textbook for teaching Mongolian to the Chinese. The Secret History was not translated into European languages until the 20th century, and indeed, the best and most complete version of it was not properly published until 2003.

It is the Secret History that we have largely to thank for the rich and varied folklore surrounding all subsequent stories of Temujin, including By the Will of Genghis Khan – his birth in 1162 clutching an ominous blood clot in his fist; his murder of his half-brother Bekhter in an argument over hunting; the kidnapping and eventual rescue of his first love, Borte; his capture and escape from enemies on the steppes, and the many years over which he built a confederation of tribes. Then the years of conquest, as Temujin’s forces leapt in numbers from tens, to hundreds, to thousands, to the largest unit of his operation, the ten-thousand strong divisions known as tuman.

Temujin gained a new title, as “Great Leader” (Mongol: Jinggis Qan), at around the same time that the peoples of the steppes discovered that their way of life was perfectly attuned to constant conquest. Unlike the sedentary farming civilisations at either end of their domain, the Mongols never settled in one place for long. Instead, they followed their herds in a seasonal migration, setting down their wicker-frame huts in mobile communities. Their word for this in their own language was ordo, meaning variously a camp or a herd on the move. An ordo was also the impression left in the ground by a Mongol tent – a sign that they had passed by in the recent past, and would probably return. Thanks to Temujin, the word migrated West with different connotations. In Russian, it became orda. In Polish: horda. In English, horde.

Russia at the Movies

Actors who have formerly played Temujin have included John Wayne (The Conqueror, 1956), Omar Sharif (Genghis Khan, 1965), Alex Man (Genghis Khan, TV, 1987), Ba Sen (Genghis Khan, TV, 2004), Takashi Sorimachi (Genghis Khan: To the Ends of the Earth and Sea, 2007), Tadanobu Asano (Mongol, 2007), and Tsegmedin Tumurbaatar (No Right to Die: Genghis Khan, 2008), Such a list barely scratches the surface, and does not include the great “failed” Genghis Khan epic, featuring Charlton Heston and with a revolving door of directors, that foundered due to lack of money and put Hollywood off the subject for much of the 1990s. Nor does it include many local television and theatrical productions of the story throughout the many countries who claim Genghis Khan as a historical ruler. In fact, some time during production of By the Will of Genghis Khan, someone tried to hunt down every member of the production team who had previously played Temujin in some form or other, and discovered that there were thirteen former Temujins on set, including one of the producers.

When even major Hollywood studios are struggling to finance their projects, the Russian film industry remains buoyant. The credit crunch is all about tertiary industries; the Russian economy is based on oil, gas and mining, the basic materials of everybody else’s economy. As a result, while Warner Bros postpones movies in production and scrabbles for petty cash, the Russian film business goes from strength to strength.

Russians are enthusiastic cinemagoers, and fervent supporters of local talent – 26% of Russian box office takings are for tickets to locally made films. Made for ten million dollars, costing roughly five times as much as an average Russian film, By the Will of Genghis Khan was partly funded with money from the Siberian diamond industry – the forbidding region has some of the richest mineral, oil and gas deposits in the world. It was filmed across a three-year period in locations that would have been familiar to the Mongols themselves, in several of the Russian republics that now dot Temujin’s old empire.

Locations included the sacred “Stone People” of Kisilyakh, where filming began in 2005 – a series of humanoid-form rocks legendarily held to be the petrified soldiers of Temujin. They included Yakutia, home to many of the actors, Buryatia and Tuva. A second phase of filming, incorporating the big-budget battle scenes, was undertaken over a year later in Mongolia, utilising massed hordes of horsemen and a group of international stuntmen. By the Will of Genghis Khan is a veritable travelogue of Siberian scenery, including sacred mountains once visited by Temujin, and the glittering waters of Lake Baikal, repository of almost a quarter of all the fresh water in the world.

Filming locations varied over a hundred degrees in temperature, from the “coldest place in the world”, a mountainside in Yakutia, to the seared edges of the Gobi Desert. Nor were the cast immune to danger. During filming of one shot, actress Elena Rumyantseva dragged actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa out of the path of a runaway horse, inadvertently saving the man who was supposed to be playing her own bodyguard.

Figures from History

The characters in the film are largely drawn directly from the historical record, including Temujin himself and his family, as well as potentates of the steppes such as Toghrul Wang Khan (Dorzhi Sultimov), who was made famous in Europe by his mention in the Travels of Marco Polo. A formidable foe, Toghrul is thought to have been the origin of garbled medieval legends of a Christian king in the East, known in Europe as “Prester John”. Seemingly out of place amid the Asiatic heritage and tradition is the figure of Father John (Gernot Grimm), a devoted European missionary determined to preach the gospel in the East. But even Father John is based on a real historical figure, Friar John of Pian de Carpini (1180-1252), an Italian monk whose book The History of the Mongols, Whom We Call Tartars, became a major source on the Mongols in Europe.

Although he was a contemporary of Temujin, the real Father John did not come to the East until after Temujin’s death, when he witnessed the coronation of Temujin’s grandson Guyuk in 1245. Friar John attempted to persuade the grandson of Genghis Khan to become a Christian, but received a curt refusal, in the form of a letter that he carried back to the Vatican, where it can still be found in the archives. But John was one of many missionaries who risked their lives to carry Christianity eastwards in the face of the hordes, many of whom did not make it back alive.

Temujin was the founder of a regime that, very briefly, would unify Asia. He lives on in his direct descendants, estimated by the American Journal of Human Genetics to number today some 16 million people from Hungary to Korea, all of whom share a recurring DNA sequence that points to a single ancestor some time in the 12th-13th century. Controversially voted as the Man of the Millennium by the Washington Post, Genghis Khan’s European reputation as a bloodthirsty savage is entirely different from the way he is remembered in many Asian regions. It is, then, unsurprising that he should have become the subject of so many books, plays and films, and that their perspectives on him should be so wildly variant. If By the Will of Genghis Khan unquestionably makes Temujin a heroic protagonist, it also makes him a willing co-star, sharing top billing with the incredible scenery of Asia itself.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Khubilai Khan.

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