Where Did You First Hear About Genghis Khan?

Genghis Khan in the Cultural Imagination by Madison Mae Williams

Who was Genghis Khan, emperor of the Mongol Empire, exactly? This is a central question in the play The Great Khan. Many terms have been used to describe the man born as Temüjin, such as: historic leader, larger than life mythic figure, monster, military genius, boogie man, even “baddest of the badasses,” as Mr. Adams puts it to Jayden in the play. Given the complexities of Genghis Khan’s legacies, it comes as no surprise that creatives from across the centuries have used art as a ways of seeking to understand and explore the story of who Temüjin was.

One of the earliest western texts set in the court of Genghis Khan is “The Squire's Tale,” one of the stories included in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The tale was written around 170 years after Genghis Khan’s death. Called Cambinskan in the story, Khan is described as “a noble king” and it is touted that “in his time was of so great renown that there was nowhere in any land so excellent a lord” (Chaucer). Plays were being produced in the western world about Genghis Khan as far back as the Elizabethan stage. The 1590s lost two-part Tamar Cam play is one of the earliest stories about Mongol-China and Genghis Khan performed for an English audience (Tavares 2019).

Then, depictions of Khan in cinema took off in the 1950s, with Manuel Conde’s 1950 bio-epic Genghis Khan being the first film to depict his life. The film was contemporarily praised for its attention to detail and was considered to be an accurate depiction of Khan’s life. In contrast, the 1956 film The Conqueror—directed by Dick Powell and starring John Wayne as Genghis Khan—is widely considered one of the worst movies of all time. Posters for the almost universally panned film featured the reductive tag line, ​“I am Temujin…Barbarian…I fight! I love! I conquer…like a Barbarian!” Henry Levin’s 1965 film Genghis Khan, starring Omar Sharif as Temüjin, received more favorable reviews than The Conqueror, but like the previous film, is plagued by excessive whitewashing that ultimately distracts from the attempts to depict the nuances of Temüjin’s life.

For many Americans—myself included—the first introduction to Genghis Khan is the 1989 film Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Like the character Jayden, Bill and Ted are tasked with completing a difficult history report and end up enlisting the help of Genghis Khan to aid in their class presentation. The depiction of Khan as “a dude who, 700 years ago, totally ravaged China” is somewhat limited, and for may be where any understanding of who Genghis Khan was begins and ends. In more recent media, Sergei Bodrov’s 2007 Oscar-nominated film Mongol focuses on the early life of Temüjin. Though the film was acclaimed outside of Mongolia, many critics were disappointed by historical inaccuracies. On the other hand, the Chinese-Mongolian co-produced 2004 series Genghis Khan has been noted for its portrayal of Temüjin as one that is multifaceted in its approach to depicting the good, the bad, and the ugly that comes with his legacies.

Just like Genghis Khan’s grave, which has never been located, we may never find one term to describe the man who was ruler, conqueror, leader, hero, monster, and legend to different groups of people across the centuries.

Sources: Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales
Tavares, Elizabeth. “Genghis Khan on the Elizabethan Stage.” Society for Theatre Research, 12 Nov. 2019, https://www.str.org.uk/genghis-khan-on-the-elizabethan-stage/.

This article is excerpted from The Curious Report, a magazine-style guide created for all our productions. Enhance your enjoyment of the work by diving into the themes and context surrounding each play. Read The Curious Report here.