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.      

Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) ****

There could not be a more contemporary picture. As an examination of the problems of assimilating different cultures it is hard to beat. As an assessment of the difficulties of the transition of power it is faultless.

In Gladiator Ridley Scott, taking a few liberties with the known facts, re-imagined the circumstances discussed here of the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the ascension to power of his son Commodus. Along the way, Scott stole a few of Anthony Mann’s visual ideas, snow falling on the battlefield, for example, and at the end the phalanx of guards, shields up, blocking in Commodus and the dethroned military chieftain (Stephen Boyd here, Russell Crowe in Gladiator) for their gladiatorial climax.

The title does not refer to an invasion of Rome by vast armies of barbarians but the internal corruption which signals the end of the empire. Audiences, taught Latin and Roman history as a matter of course at school around the time the film was released, would be more familiar with the subject matter, but hardly prepared for the spectacle.

Every extra in the known world must have been employed for several scenes, cities bursting with inhabitants, armies sprawling over vast tracts of land. One standout is the extraordinary chariot clash between the two protagonists, not in the confines of an amphitheatre a la Ben Hur, but on wild terrain, along narrow cliff roads, wheels tipping over the edge, down ravines and forest. The other is the soundless gladiatorial fight, not a whisper of music until there is a victor.

And there should be mention of the torture of James Mason, very well done. There is political intrigue, quite a clever way of poisoning an enemy, and plenty argument over the issue of accommodating different cultures, traditional punishment versus the novel notion of extending the hand of friendship and granting automatic citizenship.

Loyalty is also tested – is treason a form of loyalty? And how much does loyalty depend solely on payment? Proof is given of how integrating cultures can work, an idea that seems alien to Romans accustomed to beating subjects into submission. In some respects the drama takes second place to the discussion.

Christopher Plummer is the deranged Commodus who embraces and disdains in turn his friend Livius (Stephen Boyd). Sophia Loren, as Commodus’ sister (no incestuous suggestions here), is in love with Boyd and though married off to Armenian king Omar Sharif she manages to spend little time with her husband.

If approached as a political film rather than a traditional epic it has a lot to offer. If you want just battles and thwarted romance then a lot less. The mixture of both strikes a good balance. While there are arguments that it is too long, it could actually do with another twenty minutes or so to iron out narrative inconsistencies.  

Behind the Scenes: Genghis Khan (1965)

Genghis Khan began life in the early 1960s as the main plank of a reboot for American International, the low-budget production company best known for churning out B-features in the horror, motorcycle and generally exploitation vein.

Greenlit in 1962 with a $4.5 million budget it was intended to be a Xmas 1963 release. American International planned to partner with British company Anglo-Amalgamated. As late as 1964 it was still seen as a launchpad for the mini-major’s leap into the bigger leagues with a starring role for company protégé Susan Hart (Ride the Wild Surf, 1964) but when production stumbled it was picked up by independent American producer Irving Allen who used Britain as a production base.

Allen had set up Warwick Films in conjunction with Albert Broccoli making films like Hell Below Zero (1954) with Alan Ladd and Fire Down Below (1957) with Rita Hayworth and Robert Mitchum. When Broccoli moved into the James Bond business, Allen ventured out on his own with Viking adventure The Long Ships (1964) starring Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier. Although European co-productions had been all the rage for some time, this was an unusual venture in that a large chunk of the funding came from Yugoslavian operation Avala.

For Genghis Khan, Allen drew on Avala again, plus $1.5 million from German company CCC and $2.5 million from Columbia Pictures. Avala was a mainstream coproduction outfit with a couple of dozen projects in the works including The Fabulous Adventures of Marco Polo with Horst Buchholz and Omar Sharif, western Buffalo Bill – Hero of the West with Gordon Scott and Uncle Tom’s Cabin headlining Herbert Lom after James Mason pulled out. The final budget topped out at $5 million, small potatoes for an ambitious historical epic, less than half the sums allocated  El Cid (1961) or Spartacus (1961) for example.

Yul  Brynner had been approached for the leading role but his $400,000 fee ruled him out given the total spend on the principals was around that sum. Reportedly, Stephen Boyd earned $250,000, but Sharif was on a pittance. Exteriors were shot in Yugoslavia and interiors in Berlin. It was made in Panavision on the 2.35:1 widescreen format and although lensed with 35mm cameras was blown up to 70mm for roadshow release in Germany and Australia. The world premiere was scheduled, unusually, for Germany, for the new Royal Palast in Berlin but when that was not ready in time shifted to  the Cinerama Grindel cinema in Hamburg at the end of April, 1965.

It opened in simultaneous roadshow in Berlin, Dusseldorf, Munich and Stuttgart. It proved a strong draw in Germany, pulling in $1 million in rentals, a quarter of the total European business, and one-sixth of the global total. After a dual premiere in Dallas and Houston in June, it rolled out in general release in America.

There was some controversial publicity after Playboy magazine ran a photographic spread of Telly Savalas in a bath with some topless women, a scene edited out of the picture. A couple of five-minute featurettes – Instant People focusing on actors being made up for their roles and The Director Is a General featuring Henry Levin marshalling the battle scenes – went out on local television.

It opened in Los Angeles the same week as newcomers What’s New, Pussycat, roadshow The Great Race, war picture Operation Crossbow and comedy The Art of Love starring James Garner. Response was muted, and total rentals hardly exceeded $2.25 million, leaving it in 60th position in the annual U.S. box office race. The extent of Columbia’s disappointment could be measured by the speed with which it was sold to television, appearing on CBS the year after launch.  

Sources: “Genghis Khan Invasion of Big Budget Market by American International,” Variety, Jul 18, 1962, 4; “American Int’n’l Setting 3-Film Deal with Anglo-Amalg.,” Variety, Aug 1, 1962, 13; “10 Years Ago Nicholson and Arkoff…,” Variety, Jul 22, 1964, 7; “American International’s Susan Hart, Bobbi Shaw First on Exclusive,” Variety, Aug 5, 1964, 24; “Genghis at $4,250,000 a New German High,” Variety, Oct 14, 1964, 3; “Upcoming Product of American Int’n’l,” Variety, Oct 14, 1964, 6; “World Preem for Khan in Berlin,” Variety, Apr 28, 1965, 24; “Khan May Launch New Berlin House,” Variety, May 17, 1965, 31; “Yugoslavia’s Stake in Yank Films, Avala Owns 51% of Genghis Khan,” Variety, Jun 16, 1965,3 ; “Playboy: Code’s Last Stand,” Variety, Oct 27, 1965, 7; “Big Rental Pictures of 1965,” Variety, Jan 5, 1966, 6.

The Blue Max (1965) ****

Quite how working-class George Peppard makes the transition from grunt in the trenches to Germany’s elite flying corps is never made clear in John Guillermin’s glorious World War One aerial adventure.

But he certainly brings with him an arsenal of attitude, clashing  immediately with upper-class colleagues who retain fanciful notions of chivalry in a conflict notorious for mass slaughter. He climbs the society ladder on the back of a publicity campaign designed by James Mason intent on creating a new public hero.

On the way to ruthlessly gaining the medal of the title, awarded for downing twenty enemy aircraft, he beds Mason’s playful – although ultimately treacherous – mistress Ursula Andress, for once given the chance to act. Mason’s aristocratic German somewhat redeems the actor after his appalling turn the same year as a Chinaman in Genghis Khan.

While the human element is skillfully drawn, it is the aerial element that captures the attention. The planes are both balletic and deadly. Because biplanes fly so much more slowly than World War Two fighters, the aerial scenes are far more intense than, say, The Battle of Britain (1969) and the dogfights, where you can see your opposite number’s face, just riveting. Recognition of the peril involved in taking to the sky in planes that seem to be held together with straw is on a par with Midway.

I was astonishing to discover not only was this a flop – in part due to an attempt to sell it as a roadshow (blown up to 70mm for its New York premiere) – but critically disdained since it is an astonishing piece of work.

Guillermin makes the shift from small British films (The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, 1960; Guns at Batasi, 1964) to a full-blown Hollywood epic with ease. His camera tracks and pans and zooms to capture emotion and other times is perfectly still. (Films and Filming magazine complained he moved the camera too much!).

The action sequences are brilliantly constructed, far better than, for example 1917, and one battle involving planes and the military is a masterpiece of cinematic orchestration, contrasting raw hand-to-hand combat on the ground with aerial skirmish. Guillermin takes a classical approach to widescreen with action often taking place in long shot with the compositional clarity of a John Ford western. Equally, he uses faces to express emotional response to imminent or ongoing action.

Peppard is both the best thing and the worst thing about the picture. He certainly hits the bull’s eye as a man whose chip on one shoulder is neatly balanced by arrogance on the other. But it is too much of a one-note performance and the stiff chin and blazing eyes are not tempered enough with other emotion. It would have been a five-star picture had he brought a bit more savvy to the screen, but otherwise it is at the top of the four-star brigade. Mason is at his suave best, Jeremy Kemp surprisingly good as the equally ruthless but distinctly more humane superior officer and, as previously noted, Andress does more than just swan around.

One scene in particular showed Guillermin had complete command over his material. Peppard has been invited to dinner with Andress. We start off with a close up of Pepperd, cut to a close up of Andress, suggesting an intimate meeting, but the next shot reveals the reality, Peppard seated at the opposite end of a long table miles away from his host.

The best scene, packing an action and emotional wallop, will knock your socks off. Having eliminated any threat from an enemy plane, rather than shoot down the pilot, Peppard escorts it back to base, but just as he arrives the tail-gunner suddenly rouses himself and Peppard finishes the plane off  over the home airfield, the awe his maneuver originally inspired from his watching colleagues turning to disgust.  

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