Genghis Khan (1965) ****

Hollywood was never reined in by the strictures of history, much preferring fiction to fact for dramatic effect, and that’s largely the case here, although the titular hero’s real life remains shrouded in myth.

If you do catch this surprisingly good feature, make sure it’s not one of the many pan-and-scan atrocities on the market. I watched this in the proper Panavision ratio which meant it occupied only one-third of my television screen, but in that format it’s terrific. It’s a bit of an anomaly for a decade that churned out high-class historical epics like El Cid (1961) because this clocks in about a hour short of other films in the genre and there’s no star actor or director to speak of and no Yakima Canutt to handle the second unit action scenes.

Omar Sharif’s marquee value at this point was so low that if you check out any of the original posters you’ll note that his name hardly rates a mention and he also comes at the very end of the opening screen credits. Although this is post-Lawrence of Arabia (1962), it’s pre-Doctor Zhivago (1965), suggesting nobody had a clue how to market his talents.

Director Henry Levin was a journeyman, fifty films under his belt, best known for not a great deal except for, following this, the second and third in the Matt Helm spy series. Given this film was critically ignored on release and since, and a flop to boot, it definitely falls into the “Worth a Look” category. Although there are few stand-out scenes of the artistic variety such as pepper Lawrence of Arabia or El Cid, this is still well put together and Levin shows an aptitude for the widescreen.

The narrative breaks down into three parts – the first section describing Sharif’s enslavement by nemesis Stephen Boyd (the picture’s star according to poster and screen credits) before banding together rival tribes in revolt, the second part a long trek to China, and the third encompassing a final battle and hand-to-hand combat with Boyd. For a two-hour picture it has tremendous sweep, not just the scenery and the battle scenes, but political intrigue, romance, a rape scene and even clever comedy. Sharif is excellent as a leader who believes his glory is predestined, but who has very modern ideas about the role of women.

The best section, oddly enough, is set in China where Sharif engages in a duel of wits with Robert Morley’s distinctively contradictory emperor, but that’s not to detract from the film’s other qualities, the action brilliantly handled, especially the chaos of battle, the romance touching, and the dialogue intelligent and often epigrammatic. Unlike James Mason who makes a calamitous attempt at a Chinese accent, Morley, costume apart, looks as if he has just walked out of an English country house, but his plummy tones belie a very believable character. Telly Savalas and Woody Strode have decent parts as Sharif’s sidekicks, the former unexpectedly bearing the brunt of the film’s comedy. French actress Francoise Dorleac is effective as Sharif’s wife.

Hitchcock stole one of his most famous ideas from Genghis Khan. About the only scene in Torn Curtain (1966) to receive universal praise was a killing carried out to a soundtrack of nothing more than the grunts of assailant and victim. But, here, where the score by Yugoslavian composer Dusan Radic was extensively employed, the rape scene is silent and just as stunning. If the only prints widely available are of the pan-and-scan variety I’m not surprised the film has been for so long overlooked, but if you can get hold of one in the preferred format you will be in for a surprise.      

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

4 thoughts on “Genghis Khan (1965) ****”

  1. From everything I’ve been able to research (including the Motion Picture Academy’s Library),
    the nudity never existed on motion picture film. It was done for German Playboy as a promotional concession for CCC in that market. Hefner liked it enough to run the nude photos
    as a “Saturday Night with Genghis Khan” pictorial in US Playboy, which reached most US news stands the week the picture opened in June 1965. Many viewers acknowledge the UK version was trimmed in the Dorleac-Boyd rape scene and for a number of film frames during the Chinese princess’ bath. There never was any outright nudity and the princess was wearing a full-length body stocking.

    Also, that budget figure is way to high. It’s just the promotional figure. Research in studio records before 1962 shows the genesis of the real figure to be considerably less, even when a 25% studio overhead figure is added to the negative cost. I’m not going to footnote my facts here. I’ll just tell you the rest off the top of my head, so this only wastes one evening of my life.

    About 1951, the Warick arm of British Columbia was formed, basically through the partners’ US connections at the parent US company. Cubby Broccoli and Irving Allen were the principals in this deal.

    Late in 1956, the company announced a package bankrolled by US Columbia for two pictures totaling 2.5 million GPB, when the pound was valued at USD 1.72 (and involved in a rapid descent following the Suez crisis). The number was based on production in Yugoslavia that remained untapped for western filmmaking up until that time. Tito promised all kinds of incentives if 20% of the budgets could be spent in the country.

    At the time, Warick only had the ability to shoot budgets of a half-million GBP without US Columbia’s direct involvement The two announced films were “The Long Ships” and “Genghis Khan”. Warick-Avala had secured the film rights to “The Long Ships” a couple of years earlier, and “The Conquerer” (John Wayne as Genghis Khan) had done good box-office numbers for what Hollywood felt was a laughable piece of dreck that begged to be redone as more than an unintended comedy. But then came a great budget overrun on one of W-A’s 1957 productions, and the company lost their Columbia production deal in the UK. This, plus Tito’s cautionary approach to movie production following the 1956 Soviet crackdown in Hungary, and UA’s green light for “The Vikings”, held up the two Warick films.

    Dino Delaurentiis’ successful execution of “The Tempest” in Yugoslavia, and the good box office receipts for “The Vikings” helped to move the pair of shows back into active consideration. However, before things could get up and running, Allen and Broccoli fell on very hard times when a 1960 production was held up by British censors due to the homosexuality inherent in its subject matter. This led to both men going into debt, and finally a break-up of their partnership, when Allen refused to be involved with the James Bond character as a way to dig themselves out of financial trouble. In 1962, after the partnership dissolved, Allen raised some personal funds to send an art director to Yugoslavia for a very necessary production junket, but then shooting fell through, with some half-built sets already constructed for the deal by a hopeful Avala.

    Irving Allen finally got the picture going after Richard Widmark agreed to star, having turning it down three previous times. Tito loved John Ford films and “The Alamo” was a favorite. Allen would eventually signed one of Ford’s second unit directors (Cliff Lyons) for both “The Long Ships” and “Genghis Khan”. Woody Stroud (who had starred in a recent Ford film) was used
    in the latter. Allen felt they were people with whom the dictator would love to discuss John Ford.

    “The Long Ships” was a budget-overrun disaster, which kept Widmark in Yugoslavia two
    months longer than planned. Allen blamed many of the problems (and their resulting cost
    overruns) on Avala. These ate up about 20% of the pending “Genghis Khan’s” production
    budget, and he could not go forward with the next co-production, scheduled to follow,

    Fortunately, he was able to get some extra talent money from Columbia, when his assistant
    (a young Euan Lloyd), was able to beg Boyd and Mason into joining the cast to help Allen stay
    solvent. The later actor stipulated that he wished to play Kam Ling, however he chose to
    amuse himself. Allen had no choice but to agree. As things began to gel, Columbia committed Omar Sharif for $25K, to complete the last of his multi-picture deal signed back in 1961. This brought about the CCC partnership for a percentage of Allen’s 51% ownership (and film copyright) in the UK. Columbia also agreement to give CCC the German-language distribution.

    Now, Allen had another $500,000 USD to play with and he completed the film for under $3 million. It included leaving behind an unpaid Avala bill for $85,000, which wasn’t settled (with US Columbia) until 1968 negotiations to shoot “Castle Keep” in the country. Allen first refused to pay this food-and-hotel bill because of Avala’s many costly production delays, and then added the use of parts of his re-dressed Chinese city set by the producers of “Marco the Magnificent”, before the release of “Genghis Khan”. Avala said they needed the money, Allen had refused to pay. What a mess!

    Even with a US studio overhead at 25%, the actual budget for Genghis Khan would have been
    about a million USD less than your promotional figure of $4,500,000. The true negative cost was in the $2.9 million range. Remember, this was the year when “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” was lensed for $1.2 million.

    P.S. According to court papers, “El Cid” cost Bronson and DuPont $6,200,00. Not $12,000,000 like “Spartacus”. “El Cid” only looked like $12 million. Suggestion: Never construction a film’s history based on the wishful thinking of numerous trade publication lies. Compare the differences here.


    1. Brilliant, Bill. Many thanks for your extensive work in dissecting the circumstances surrounding the shooting and for correcting my errors regarding the budget. Your wasted evening is my blog’s gain. The Warwick business is fascinating on its own, showing the difficulties facing independent producers. I stand happily corrected.


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