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 aptness for the widescreen.

The narrative breaks down into three parts – the first section describing enslavement of Genghis Khan (Omar Sharif) by nemesis Jamuga (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 Jamuga. 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. Genghis Khan  believes his glory is predestined, but he has very modern ideas about the role of women.

The best section, oddly enough, is set in China where Genghis engages in a duel of wits with the distinctively contradictory Emperor (Robert Morley), 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 dialog intelligent and often epigrammatic.

Unlike James Mason (Age of Consent, 1969) who makes a calamitous attempt at a Chinese accent, Robert Morley (Some Girls Do, 1969), costume apart and looking as if he has just walked out of an English country house, but his plummy tones belie a very believable character. Stephen Boyd (Assignment K, 1968) shines as the villain of the piece. Telly Savalas (Battle of the Bulge, 1965) and Woody Strode (The Professionals, 1966) have decent parts as Khan’s s sidekicks, the former unexpectedly bearing the brunt of the film’s comedy. French actress Francoise Dorleac (Billion Dollar Brain, 1967) 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.

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

  1. Very fair review of a fast paced and entertaining and feel good movie. The cast was surprisingly effective, except for James Mason. Saw this on release on the big screen and was a hit in the Far East.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. One day I’m going to write a piece about how pan and scan tv showings ruined the reputations of many wide-screen epics. Like you, I’ll watch a ribbon of film if it’s in the right ratio, can’t see how anyone can read a film when its mutilated for a square tv.

    Liked by 1 person

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