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In 1918 a simple Mongolian herdsman escapes to the hills after brawling with a western capitalist fur trader who cheats him. In 1920 he helps the partisans fight for the Soviets against the occupying army. However he is captured when the army tries to requisition cattle from the herdsmen at the same time as the commandant meets with the reincarnated Grand Lama. After being shot, the army discovers an amulet that suggests he was a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. They find him still alive, so the army restores his health and plans to use him as the head of a Mongolian puppet regime. Written by
This is an unusual project, deeply polemic like all Soviet cinema of the period but with the entire 'tyrants and proles' puppet play relocated to the far eastern steppe; so standing in for the exploited but spirited with fight peoples are now the indigenous Mongols, but again trapped between antiquated, superstitious religion and a cruel ruling elite financed by unethical capitalism. Workers back in Moscow and Lenigrand were supposed to relate.
Pudovkin is talented in making the equivalence, he intercuts the military aristocrats being pampered and groomed for an occasion with the Buddhist priests being helped in their ceremonial attire to receive them. The meeting of these two oppressors is marked with secret dances made to look chaotic, and Buddhist music made to sound intentionally grating and dissonant.
The mockery continues inside the temple, with the all-knowing, wise high lama revealed to be only a child; he looks apprehensive as everyone accords him the utmost respect. The insidious comments are particularly egregious when viewed in context of what the Buddhist were about to suffer in the hands of the Chinese comrades and how much of that elaborate spiritual culture was trampled under the mass-suicide of Mao's agricultural reforms.
Most of it flows by without much incident; vast dusty landscapes, petty human cruelties. Wars, and counterwars. The plot is eventually about a humble Mongol fur trapper being mistaken for the heir of Genghis Khan and groomed by the military to be the puppet ruler of a new nation.
Pudovkin was never quite an Eisenstein or Dovzhenko; he could concentrate his films into a motion as pervasive as they did, but couldn't sustain for as long. So we get bumpy stretches across otherwise pleasant vistas.
But then we have the ending, absolutely one of the finest pieces of silent cinema. It is a karmic hurricane of splintered image; motion that begins indoors with a fight is eventually transferred outside and escalates in a revolutionary apocalypse of stunning violence that scatters an entire army across the steppe like dead leaves. Trees, dust, crops, dirt - all rushing before the camera like Pudovkin's montage is so frenzied and powerful it threatens to rip apart the very fabric of the world.
Watch the film just so you get to this part, then watch side by side with Kuleshov's By the Law for the haunting aftermath of the apocalypse that begins here, and Zemlya for how it's endured. The call is, as usual, for revolution, but we can use it now in all three films as a broader metaphor about the effort to release the energies of the soul, about a metaphysical breakthrough.
Watch like you were having your soul trained for this breakthrough.
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