Thursday, 23 August 2012

Potomok Chingis-Khana (1928)

Storm over Asien
”Storm over Asia” or “Potomok Chingis-Khana” as it is called in Russian is an epic drama taking place on the Mongolian steppes in the years following the Russian revolution. It is grand in format with a lengthy storyline, big sweeps over the endless plains and drawing on the historical legacy of Mongolia’s legendary Genghis Khan. In fact it is too big. As it is in no rush to tell the story it feels drawn out and I twice had to stop because I was falling asleep.

It does not change that “Storm over Asia” is an achievement and that is does have a lot of interesting features.

First of all unlike contemporary Russian films this one actually does have a lead and a rather unusual one. He is listed as Bair, the Mongol, but I actually do not remember his name mentioned throughout the movie. In any case Bair is a herdsman on the Mongolian steppes, living a traditional life in his family ger. His life is about to change when he instead of his sick father has to go to the trade station to sell fur.

This is a silent movie so I am not sure where the music actually comes from but it is well suited. For all the scenes on the steppes we get traditional Mongolian music. How often is it we get to see a movie (not documentary) featuring Mongolians? For this reason I find the opening part quite interesting. Not that I know anything about Mongolian lifestyle, but it looks quite right to me.

When Bair gets to the trade station another important feature of the movie is revealed. It is a highly political movie. Duh, of course. Any movie made in the Soviet Union at this time had to be political. That was the only way you could make movies. So, the theme in this story is the bad imperialists exploiting the native population of Mongolia and that the Mongols need to follow Moscow and take charge of their future. In a sense this is not so different from any similar western movie, except that the roles are turned upside down and, to clarify the message, the themes are highly exaggerated. Not as much as Eisenstein would do, but still plenty.

And the imperialist enemy is the English.

First time I saw this I was caught by surprise. What on Earth is the English army doing in Mongolia? I have searched the net for information on this but nowhere have I found anything about an English expeditionary force in Mongolia. In any case the reason the English are there in force in the movie is not because they really were there but because for the purpose they represent the perfect imperialist bad guys.  The director has taken all the worst elements of English colonialism as it played out in other parts of the third world and transplanted it to Mongolia. So, we have English fur traders who under the protection of English troops cheat the natives, kill summarily, make friends with the religious leaders to control the population (according to communist thinking religion was keeping the people in bondage) and setup a puppet ruler to rule through him.

Bair, our Mongol proletarian hero, is first cheated by the English, then escapes to fight with the communist rebels. When the English in their endless greed attempt to steal a large amount of life stock Bair is fighting it and captured as a rebel. He is taken to be shot in an excellent scene where the English solider is clearly not happy about his orders, but go through with it nonetheless, indicating that it is not the English people but the imperialist system that is criminal.

At that moment the English find a document among Bairs belongings that marks him as direct descendent from the great Genghis Khan. Actually it was a note he got from a monk and not his at all. This changes everything. Now they want to make him a dupe that they can use to rule Mongolia through. Only, they just shot him. Fortunately he was only shot through the shoulder so he lives, but with enough bandages to fix up a small army, including the obligatory head bandage.

This part of the movie I find most entertaining. The English trying to “civilize” the barbarian with suits, fancy drinks and socializing with English women. All these representatives of Western decadence. You would almost think they found real English actors for these parts and I am amazed how inside the Soviet Union it was possible to dress up these people according to the latest fashion.

It is quite amazing how the English manipulators could think that they could tale this guy that they had cheated and fought and played for a fool and think they can sway him and play him as a marionette. Of course it explodes and that last Storm over Asia is indeed a grand finale.
You have to stomach a number of difficult assumptions to accept this movie and arm yourself with a lot of patience. If you do that you get some glorious moments, both of Mongol life, clash of cultures and bitter struggle plus of course the final fury. In between however this is a sleeping pillow and really from a modern point of view the political statements are so exaggerated that they seem more like a mockery than in any way convincing. But then we are not Russians of the twenties.           


  1. The cinematography is the most impressive thing about Storm Over Asia. It has the honor of being the first movie ever filmed in Mongolia.

    1. Yes, that is indeed the best part of it. It also has the honor of being the most accessible Soviet contribution on the list. Certainly a lot easier watch than the other entries.