Genghis Khan (Manuel Conde & Lou Salvador, 1950)
To describe Manuel Conde as merely a director is a sore misjudgment. Conde was much more than a director, he was an enterprising visionary, a man who stubbornly turned ambitions into grandiose art. Conde's Genghis Khan, the first Filipino film to screen in a prestigious international film festival (the film, re-edited with an English narration written by James Agee, competed in Venice 1952 and screened in Edinburgh in 1953), showcases Conde's intrepid spirit. Armed with only 125,000 pesos, a budget Agee described as "not even enough to open the gates of Hollywood in the morning," Conde transformed the hilly slopes outside Angono, a town just a few kilometers away from Manila, into the vast steppes where Temujin (played charmingly here by Condo) united the several opposing tribes under his rule.
Several stories have been told how Conde was able to turn his meager budget into a well-regarded historical epic. Utility men pulling wheelbarrows replaced dollies. The headlights of jeeps, trucks and other vehicles covered for the kleiglights Conde's production lacked. As wigs were expensive, a barber was hired to fashion the cast's hair into outrageous buns, ponytails, and other shapes, denoting their rank in society. Conde's wife sewed the elaborate costumes, designed by Conde's best friend and frequent collaborator, Botong Francisco, who based his detailed production design from his immensely extensive research. The most famous story behind the film production is when the film got acclaim from different foreign critics for its realism, more specifically with the small horses that supposedly were the same species of horses Temujin rode. These horses weren't the ones Conde originally intended, but because of his meager budget which prevented him from renting imported muscled horses, he was constrained to make do of the horses he gathered from Manila's Chinatown.
The film starts with the several leaders of the opposing tribes agreeing to stage a contest, the winner of which is agreed by all to rule over the land. Temujin, representing his father's tribe, naturally wins the contest, not through brute strength or skill but through intelligence. The contest showcases some of the film's funniest moments, where Conde colors the tale with some preliminary wit. When Temujin, with his lanky frame, is pitted against bigger and stronger opponents in pushing a boulder up the finish line. Instead of stubbornly dragging the boulder as all the other competitors are doing, Temujin takes the short wooden poles that divide the race paths as wheels for his boulder, outracing the rest and finishing first. When Temujin faces the other tribes' champions in a wrestling competition, he cunningly pits the other wrestlers against each other, dodging every blow until he is left with one opponent, whom he defeats by tickling him to death. Temujin wins the contest, assuring his tribe supremacy over Mongolia.
However, Birchou (Lou Salvador), leader of one of the competing tribes, follows the advices of his ambitious assistant, reneges on his promise and orders his army to attack Temujin's tribe one night, massacring many, including Temujin's father. The mood of Conde's film drastically changes, from whimsical to dark and foreboding. As Birchou's soldiers chase Temujin to the wilderness, Conde stretches his reach, staging the chase against a backdrop of treacherous mountains, where Temujin, starved, thirsty and trapped, defends himself. Conde also enlarges Temujin's personality and capabilities. From sly and cunning competitor, Temujin reveals himself an intelligent soldier and worthy leader, holding his own against Birchou's hordes, pushing boulders or shooting improvised arrows against his enemies. He is eventually captured, although he is later on released by one of Birchou's soldiers and returns to his tribe to claim his throne, defeat Birchou, and finally unite the Mongolian tribes.
More than half a century after its release, Genghis Khan still enchants. While the budgetary constraints are evident, like the fake boulders rolling and bouncing down the mountains as if they were weightless or the painted, although marvelous backdrops, the film has a timeless energy that still excites and amuses. The battle scenes have depth, with Conde's camera capturing the grassy landscape populated by sword fighters engaged in bloody combat. The romance is playful yet unobtrusive. Princess Lei Hai (Elvira Reyes), Birchou's beautiful daughter, mixes servile femininity with characteristic courage and spunk, keeping Temujin's serious loyalty to his fated directive easefully at bay. Inspired by the sweeping adventure films of Hollywood, Conde approximates the same formula by liberally adapting a portion of history, infusing it with gleeful romance and ribald but engaging action. Conde comes up with something better, a great film borne out of undisputed talent and miraculously good fortune.