Mongol was nominated for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and it certainly fits the stereotype of what an Oscar-nominated film should be.
A historical biopic with a literary source, Mongol has more stunning mountain panoramas than a tourism brochure, and the sort of exquisite costumes and props that quite often win Academy Awards of their own. But this tale of Genghis Khan's formative years is an epic in almost every respect except the most crucial one: the story. Like Oliver Stone's Alexander, it's a biopic that has edited out all the best bits of the bio.
The film begins with Genghis Khan in chains – a sight, believe me, that soon becomes familiar. It then flashes back to the late 1100s, when the tyro-tyrant was a nine-year-old named Temudgin. He and his father and a handful of retainers ride across the Mongolian steppe to visit another tribe, so that Temudgin can choose the future Mrs Khan. But, on the return journey, his father is fatally poisoned. Temudgin may still be a child – and a cute, cuddly child at that – but the title of Khan is already his. So far, so epic.
About now, we might expect the film to jump ahead a decade or so. But no. First we have several repetitive sequences of Temudgin escaping from his enemies before being recaptured. Again and again, there are more escapes and more captures until, woolly liberal that I am, I was aching for him to stop being such a wimp and start chopping some heads off.
By the time the adult Temudgin (Tadanobu Asano) is sold into slavery, and left to rot in jail for a year before he's rescued by his wife (Khulan Chuluun), he's lucky he isn't nicknamed Genghis Khan't.
Eventually, Mongol does get on to some blood-spraying combat, but even then it doesn't explain how its wussy hero went on to become an unassailable emperor. The first time he leads an army into battle, he's hailed as a master tactician because, well, he stands behind a chest-high barricade. In the next battle, he comes out on top only because a CGI thunderstorm obligingly turns up to frighten his opponents. It's all a bit Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Even when the film is nearly over, Temudgin has no allies except his wife and children. But then, a minute later, he's recruited hundreds of troops. There's no clue as to how he might have achieved this, although presumably some captures and escapes were involved.
Mongol is the first part of a planned trilogy, which might be why it misses out so much of the story, but that old excuse doesn't hold water unless audiences are only charged a third of the normal ticket price.
Anyone who pays the full fee to see a Genghis Khan film, only to have his continent-conquering adventures consigned to a caption just before the end credits, is entitled to think of it as a Genghis con.