Friday, December 16, 2011

Mongol Horde

Film: Potomok Chingis-Khana (Storm Over Asia)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

To me, there is something particularly Soviet about silent film, particularly silent epics like Potomok Chingis-Khana. I’m not sure why this is, but it’s true of all silent epics in my mind, not merely those that are actually Russian. These’s something about the behind-the-times feel of silent films that strike me as being like a lower end version of Hollywood that they feel sort of like Soviet attempts to mimic the West and simultaneously demonize it.

A young Mongolian trapper (Valery Inkijinoff) is entrusted by his father with a rare and valuable silver fox pelt. As the son is going to marker, he is entrusted with the pelt and told specifically not to take less than 500 marks for it. Sadly, the evil British capitalists cheat him out of his prize. A fight ensues and the young man is forced into the hills where he joins the Soviet partisans. All is well for a bit. A new Lama is discovered and crowned. Oddly, the British Army appears to be occupying Mongolia at this point.

But things change. Our hero is captured by the British, and it is discovered that he is a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. This inspires his captors to place him in charge of a puppet government, giving the local populace the semblance of being governed by one of their own (and one with a significant lineage), but in reality still being controlled by a foreign government. And this works well for a little bit until the newly crowned “ruler” decides to rebel, since his heart is with the glorious Soviet revolution.

Okay, so it’s a propaganda film. It’s mildly amusing to me that the bad guys here are the British, who were never anywhere in Mongolia, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the glorious Soviet state was doing to these peasants the very thing they accuse the British of doing. This, of course is not surprising. The art of propaganda is convincing the populace that your enemies are doing precisely the despicable acts that you are currently engaged in yourself. But it is pretty amusing that the Brits got tagged for this. Or maybe not—Hollywood seems to like British guys as the villainous foil quite often.

There’s a lot going on here that doesn’t deal directly with the plot. For instance, there’s a huge build-up to the new Lama, and I suppose it’s funny that after all of the noise and confusion and pomp that the Lama is a little kid. But really, it’s a long way to go for a fairly minor joke. In fact, the entire section with the Lama is simply to force the British to go rustle some cattle and thereby encounter, wound, and capture the hero of the film. It’s far too long of a sequence for its purpose, and the payoff isn’t close to worth it.

My guess is that this is a function of the version I got. The Book lists this as a film just a touch over 90 minutes, while the version I watched is a good half hour more than this; my guess is that this extended middle section is a big part of what was added back in, and it’s not a very good addition. It makes the film drag, and the brutal soundtrack that accompanies much of this is better left unmentioned. It’s essentially the equivalent of giving two dozen kindergarteners some pots, pans, wooden spoons, and a couple of vuvuzelas and letting them go to town.

These two things are my biggest issue with this film. The first seems like a bad decision by someone deciding that adding in any cut footage could only improve the film, and missing the mark on that badly. The second is a decision by whomever created this version of the film, and that was equally a misfire.

The rest of this is pretty interesting, and it’s also beautifully filmed. Pudovkin does some interesting things with the camera and uses some innovative (for the time) camera tricks to heighten the action and in some cases add a surreal edge to it.

All in all, this is a great example of the montage style of filmmaking and a worthy addition to the pantheon of silent classics. But be warned that you’ll want the sound down for part of it due to the cacophonous “music.” And if there’s an option to pick the long version or the short one, go with the short one; you’ll be a lot happier in the end.

As a final note, a big deal is made of the fact that our hero is a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. Evidently, this isn't that remarkable of a feat. According to the Smithsonian, one person in every 200 in the modern world is a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. So really, they could have gone through with their plan to shoot this guy and just found another one.

Why to watch Potomok Chingis-Khana: Soviet montage style on a Mongol horde scale.
Why not to watch: It’s roughly as historically accurate as the Twilight series.


  1. I really liked this one. It is a laugh with the British garrison in Mongolia, but really, how often do you see a movie about Mongolians where they are not a barbarious horde attacking China? With a soundtrack that sound authentic (mine is not the extended version) and lots of footage of mongolian scenery it felt very real in an etnographic way.
    Only problem: on the second showing my two guest and myself all fell asleep half way through. Good food, good wine and lengthy silent dramas do not mix well.

    1. That's a good point. For a lot of years, anything that wasn't white was a savage, so in that respect, this film is really ahead of its time.

      I can see falling asleep in this one after a good meal and a few drinks. Next time, maybe go with a comedy.

  2. I saw Storm over Asia and enjoyed it quite a bit. I watched the two-hour version available on YouTube. I watched in segments because I can't watch anything for two hours nonstop on a laptop screen.

    It was a little rough at first but I found it very entertaining after the first 10 or 15 minutes had passed.

    And I loved the seemingly neverending footage of the coronation ritual of the lama! So much detail! So many weird flag-headed pig-monsters to welcome the new lama!

    And that little kid was hilarious. Some bald two-year-old on the throne looking rather perplexed and even disapproving of all this pageantry! An hour ago he was in his crib chewing on a teddy bear's ear and now he's the high lama of Mongolia! I love the look on his face!

    This is another one I'd like to see on a big screen.

    I was looking at the Wikipedia page for this film and I noticed the director's filmography. Pudovkin directed Chess Fever, the short film I've mentioned a few times. It's like something Harold Lloyd would make if he was Russian. Chess Fever is on YouTube and there seems to be a 20-minute version and a 30-minute version but I don't know which one is better. But I recommend it highly.

    1. I liked this as an example of the montage style of filmmaking. I'm not sure I'd watch it again, or at least not the 2-hour version.