Omar Sharif played two title roles in mammoth movies of 1965, one of which, David Lean’s popular film of Doctor Zhivago,won him a Golden Globe Best Actor Award and cemented a brief but lustrous reign as an international cinema icon that started with his Oscar®-nominated turn in the same director’s magnificent Lawrence of Arabia three years earlier. The other project of that year – also grandly scaled, geopolitical in scope, interestingly cast with marquee actors, roiling with action and pageantry with a touch of prettified, conflicted romance – somehow ended up on the back shelf of cinematic curios. Opening 53 years ago this week in U.S. cinemas, Genghis Khan (1965), like many location-shot spectaculars of its day, plays fast and loose with history yet still delivers a payload of wonky, brawny, and crazily exotic fun.
To tell the story of the rise and influence of the unifying 13th-century Mongol Empire builder, British producing mogul Irving Allen (fresh from The Long Ships, a Vikings-vs.-Moors adventure whose writing team of Beverley Cross and Berkley Mather would work on Genghis Khan’s script along with Clarke Reynolds) recruited and brought to rugged and beautiful Yugoslavian locations a smorgasbord of American, British, French and, in the case of leading man Sharif, Egyptian actors to play marauding Mongol tribesmen and imperial Chinese aristocrats. (Amusingly, in the same timeframe of the film’s Manhattan premiere, Temujin/Genghis Khan embodier Sharif was also playing a fugitive World War II-era Yugoslavian partisan on the Radio City Music Hall screen in the all-star The Yellow Rolls-Royce.) One might observe that the cast represents a club sandwich “branding” assemblage of historical epic faces. As Temujin’s defiant Merkit tribe head rival Jamuga, there’s Stephen Boyd, already welcomed by audiences as the face of ancient Roman aristocracy in Ben-Hur (1959) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). The latter production also featured James Mason (as a Greek advisor to the Roman emperor) and Sharif (as the King of Armenia) in its starry ensemble. Mason, here playing an “inscrutable” Chinese ambassador sympathetic to Temujin’s dream of tribal unity, and Eli Wallach, as the antagonistic Persian Shah of Khwarzem, had already co-starred in the far-East roadshow epic Lord Jim (1965) a few months earlier. As Mongol warriors who become Temujin’s top lieutenants, we have Spartacus’ (1960) gladiator slave hero Draba, Woody Strode, and Telly Savalas, who began 1965 as Pontius Pilate in The Greatest Story Ever Told and concluded it as a wily G.I. dog robber in The Battle of the Bulge. Michael Hordern, who played Don Diego in El Cid (1961) and Cicero in Cleopatra (1963), portrays Temujin’s holy man/advisor Geen and serves as a memorable narrator here, second only to his invaluable voiceover services 10 years later on Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975).
The cherry on top of this decorous concoction may just be Robert Morley, Oscar®-nominated for his first featured screen role as France’s King Louis XVI in Marie Antoinette (1938) and also merrily featured as the newspaper magnate/race organizer in the star-stuffed cast of the just-opened Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965); with droopy mustache and elongated ceremonial fingernails, he plays the effete, epigrammatic Emperor of China, who tries to seductively domesticate the fiery Temujin but unwittingly educates and arms the future conqueror, courtesy of that nation’s development of explosive powder. The fresh face to this big-budget historical-epic world is that of Françoise Dorléac, the beautiful leading lady of two international French hits of 1964, Philippe de Broca’s That Man from Rio and François Truffaut’s The Soft Skin, playing the spirited woman who extends a helping hand to the underdog captive Temujin and becomes the steadfast wife who will bear the sons destined to continue his legacy. Director Henry Levin (Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm), cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (Becket, 2001: A Space Odyssey) and composer Dušan Radić (The Long Ships) invest this grab bag of diverse elements with swift pace, visual opulence and sonic splendor. For incisive biography and detailed history, don’t count on Genghis Khan for enlightenment. Just dive in for the widescreen Panavision/Technicolor spectacle, the compelling battle action and the polyglot company it keeps: Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray delivers it all in stunning 1080p when its thundering hordes ride your way July 17. Preorders open July 5.