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.      

Assignment K (1968) ****

By the mid-1960s the screen was awash with spies so other than trying to invent a new hero in the Matt Helm/Derek Flint vein or revamping older characters such as Bulldog Drummond  or sending up the entire genre in the style of Casino Royale (1967), it was difficult to find a fresh angle.

Assignment K does in some measure succeed, in part by going down the grimy  route of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), in part by stuffing the picture full of glorious scenery – the Austrian Alps – and in part by turning Stephen Boyd into the kind of spy who has begun to question the entire business. For reasons unspecified, former racing driver turned toy salesman Boyd is running his own spy operation loosely linked into British intelligence but when the network is compromised his life and that of new love interest Camilla Sparv is endangered. Things get trickier when she is kidnapped and HE has to save her while not compromising his own agents.

There is enough mystery to keep the plot, uncoiling like Russian dolls, ticking along and the entire effort is underwritten by some decent tradecraft, dead letter drops, microfilm hidden inside cigarette filters and so on. tension is surprisingly high. And Boyd is surprisingly human, falling properly in love for one thing, not just treating women in the James Bond/Matt Helm fashion as notches on a bedpost, not ice-cool under pressure either, face knotting in fury on occasion, and not so accomplished in the old fisticuffs department.

Michael Redgrave, Leo McKern and a pre-Please, Sir John Alderton provide decent support though Jeremy Kemp is somewhat subdued. But Boyd is a revelation, given a lot more to do than stick out his chin and growl. Here, his screen charm and charisma is at its best and while he was never going to attract the attention of the Oscar fraternity is entirely believable as a spy coming to wonder at decisions taken.

Sparv, too, is much better than I have ever seen her. Unlike her turn in Murderers Row (1966), her role is not merely decorative and the unfolding romance would work perfectly well just as a love story never mind tucked away in the guise of a spy thriller. There is a lovely demonstration of her acting skill, although an odd one to describe, as she pulls on a bathrobe and shimmies out of the towel underneath; I can’t believe that was ever scripted, but if you watch it you will see what I mean.  

Director Val Guest was usually labelled a “journeyman” despite a repertoire that included The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and its sequel, Yesterday’s Enemy (1959) and sci-fi The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) and he had previous form in this genre with Where the Spies Are (1966) which played more to the comedy gallery and did some work on Casino Royale to boot. His work here falls into the efficient category, but it does zip along at the same time as allowing Boyd and Sparv to develop their characters and make their relationship believable. All in all quite enjoyable.

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 Big Gamble (1961) ***

If only there had been some serious money put behind this picture it would have been an absolute cracker, custom-made for the likes of Cinerama which didn’t go down the dramatic route until a few years later. It’s a bit “Hell Drivers Goes to Africa” but with some really quite stunning sequences.

Whatever French chanteuse Juliette Greco had to offer on stage and in a personal capacity – lovers included Miles Davis and this film’s producer Darryl F. Zanuck – never seemed to translate to the screen and the most we get is a kind of tomboyish perkiness.

It’s a medium-grade cast, the lead taken by Northern Irishman Stephen Boyd (here playing a Dubliner) hot at that time from coming straight off a supporting role in Ben-Hur and who would be hot at various times during his short-lived career (he died at 45) while equally never making the transition to major star. David Wayne (The Three Faces of Eve, 1957) is the sad sack brother who joins the other two in a bold plan to set up a haulage business on the Ivory Coast in Africa.

The opening sequence demonstrates the dreary Irish life Boyd is trying to escape with a sparkling cameo from Sybil Thorndike as the family matriarch before the African sequences kick in. Apart from scenes shot at Ardmore Studios in Bray, Ireland, the rest is clearly filmed on pretty dangerous locations if the unloading of a lorry onto what looks like little more than a large canoe is anything to go by.

After an unpromising start, the intrepid trio (well, two are bold, Wayne is not) set off into the wilderness. There are two edge-of-the-cliff sequences that would have The Italian Job fans frothing at the mouth, a runaway lorry in the best Cinerama tradition and an astonishing section crossing a swollen river where clearly the actors did their own stunts. In between we have snippets of genuine Africa, especially canoeists braving the surf and an African funeral party.

Emotionally, beyond Boyd sticking out his chin as much as possible, the main drama focuses on fraternal rivalry with Wayne trying to pull himself together in the face of a mission he believes doomed to failure. Directed by the underrated Richard Fleischer, best known for 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954), Compulsion (1959) and later The Boston Strangler (1968) and here with some help from Elmo Williams, it has a decent enough script from novelist Irwin Shaw (The Young Lions).

All-in-all this tight little film more than does justice to its miserable budget with some genuinely exciting sequences.   As a wee bonus, if you listen hard to Maurice Jarre’s score you will hear strains of some themes that turned up in Lawrence of Arabia.