Saturday, 26 March 2011

AFED #85: Potomok Chingis-khanа [The Heir to Genghis Khan, aka Storm Over Asia] (USSR, 1928); Dir. Vsevolod Pudovkin

Let's start with the facts: western imperialism may have been responsible for many injustices, but despite the scenario depicted here British (or 'European') colonialism in Asia never extended as far as Mongolia. While Vsevolod Pudovkin may have intended his story to be a fable one suspects this point might have been lost on a the Russian audience, although perhaps it was all grist to the mill for the communist cause as Stalin began to flex his muscles.

That aside, I'll have to confess my ignorance about the work of Pudovkin, who lives somewhat in the shadow of his contemporary Eisenstein, but also played an important role in expanding Soviet montage theory. This film, the final part of a loose trilogy of Bolshevik propaganda works that included Mother (1926) and The End of St. Petersburg (1927).



Compared with Eisenstein it's surprisingly western, in both the broader and thematic sense of the word, utilising the barren Mongolian tundra in a way John Ford would have admired. Bair (Valéry Inkijinoff), a Mongol herdsman, is tricked out of his rightful recompense for a beautiful fox pelt by dastardly fur traders and after a violent confrontation is forced to go on the run. After meeting up with some Soviet partisans he joins their guerrilla campaign against the British but gets captured.

The herdsman is led for execution but just as he's being shot the officers looking through his belongings discover a silk amulet that states he's a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. Cynically one might suggest such claims were probably fairly common amongst Mongols, but the British decide he could be the ideal candidate to install as a puppet ruler and - having discovered him clinging to life after his shooting - set about patching him up.

However, for all the finery our hero is less than comfortable with his new role and when he witnesses a fellow Mongol shot dead before his eyes he turns with fury on his captors, triggering a somewhat bizarre fantasy ending as escapes and leads an uprising. This climax is so abrupt and curtailed you do wonder if Pudovkin had intended for there to be a third act, only to realise he'd already reached a running time in excess of two hours and deciding to call it a wrap.

It's certainly long enough and drags in places, particularly the first hour or so. But Valéry Inkijinoff (who would later emigrate to France and have a long career) is an attractive and charismatic lead; admittedly not difficult when his antagonists are such sneering stereotypes.

The film also benefits from some fascinating period detail about Mongol customs; such as the trip by the British commandant to a lamasery in Tomchinsk. Apparently, although there was some dissent amongst a faction of the Buddhist monks, Pudovkin's Mongolian advisor eventually convinced the Grand Lama to assist with the filming, and even managed to get the date changed of a religious ceremony to accommodate the production.

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