I remembered enjoying this film when I saw it as a pre-teen on television in the '60's. I have remained an avid fan of adventure films and epics. So, when it was aired yesterday on TCM, I tuned in with anticipation. It had not aged well. Perhaps all of the anomalies are more difficult for a mature movie fan to accept.
The best parts of this film are the locations, the sets, the costumes and the props. Even so, the sets are never quite convincingly grand enough. They retain the flavor of sets. The photography never captures the locations in a way that conveys the vastness of Central Asia. And the impact of the costumes and props is diminished by the fact that they are at the service of a predominantly Caucasian cast attempting to portray the tribes of Mongolia.
Blonde Francoise Dorleac, who portrays Genghis Khan's wife is the most glaring racial anomaly. But the entire cast is similarly anomalous. At least Stephen Boyd and Omar Shariff aren't blond. But Englishmen, James Mason and Robert Morley look hopelessly out of place. (I personally wondered how people of Oriental heritage reacted to Mason's stereotypical pronunciation of the letter "L" as an "R!") I don't really find a lot of fault with the portrayals offered by Mason and Morley, although I do agree with the suggestion of several reviewers that they seem like they wandered in from a production of the Mikado.
Lastly, I cringed at the soundtrack - typically Occidental-sounding pseudo-epic orchestrations with grandiose flourishes. The heroic-sounding 4/4 marches were typical of the Sword and Sandal epics of the day. Only a stray chord here and there suggested an Oriental setting.
In that era, it was inconceivable to cast Orientals in the principal roles of a film of this one's pretensions. Under the circumstances Hollywood would have done better to simply avoid attempts to depict tales of Asian peoples.
In the end, bizarre casting and completely Occidental-sounding music render this film difficult to swallow for a film-goer looking for anything beyond a shallow adventure story. With the number of Oriental actors in Hollywood films today, a GOOD portrayal of the life of Genghis Khan is ripe for filming!
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