As is the case with most people from antiquity, the whole truth of who the historical Tomiris is somewhat lost to time. The most famous recording of her life is from Greek historian Herodotus, where he recounts how she led a force of nomadic tribes known as the Massagetae who defeated and killed Cyrus the Great, the King of Babylon. He was far from the only one to write of her legacy however, nor to recount the tales of her famously vicious battalion of women warriors who are believed to have inspired the myth of the Amazons.
But as is the case with legends, the details get muddy over time. So with the distance of nearly 2500 years later we have The Legend of Tomiris, a film version of her story that came out last year from director Akan Sataev with association with the Kazakhstani government, and now is coming to American audiences. The story here is mostly a collection of various legends that have been combined to create a coherent narrative that covers the very start of Tomiris’ life to her defeat of Cyrus. The historical “truth” of these moments is anyone’s guess, and there has already been some criticism of how the filmmakers have separated Tomiris and her people from her traditionally understood Iranian heritage, instead transitioning them to speaking Turkic language. But taken as a piece of epic storytelling rather than documentary, Tomiris is a sweeping tale of determination and bravery.
The narrative scope of this film, which clocks in at a hair over two and a half hours, is massive, depicting essentially two wars in Tomiris’ life, as well as her tumultuous childhood. The film opens with Tomiris’ birth, the first born of the Chief of a nomadic tribe, before depicting her father’s being assassinated as part of a complicated coup amongst nomadic tribes. Cast into exile, she becomes an accomplished warrior and in turn plans a drawn out reclaiming of her rightful reign as the Queen of the Massagetae.
All of this takes up the first half of the film, which then transitions into the conflicts between the reformed and united Messagetae tribes and the expansive Persian empire. Both of these stories exist somewhat in isolation, but seeing the whole scope of Tomiris’ life provides context. She encounters hardship after hardship, hardened by circumstances and being part of a rootless people who she helps form their own unified nation, to then take on the greatest power within her known word. Potential historical inaccuracies aside, Legend of Tomiris paints an epic tale of a woman who never backed down from adversity.
The film hinges on the performance on Almira Tursyn, who won the role of Tomiris against nearly 15 thousand considered actresses. She holds remarkable strength in the film, depicting both the deep pain and the resilience of a woman who is precisely the kind of person who would generate legends of her life. She is a fearless leader who balances the harsh realities of her world with a sense of honor and decency. Tursyn’s performance is electrifying, which makes it all the more shocking when you learn this is her acting debut.
The rest of the cast is filled out with phenomenal performances, most notably Adil Akhmetov as Argun, Tomiris’ fellow steppes warrior and eventual husband. He is charming and sensual, providing a captivating love interest in the midst of an expansive love story.
The brutalism of the setting is certainly not shied away from. Raiding for survival is a way of life for the Massagetae people, struggling to survive in the harsh central asian steppes. This is not a film that sugar coats the realities of these people’s lives, nor does it try to make excuses. Tomiris is not presented as an idealist, but rather someone who was wronged by circumstances and tries to make things right for both her and her people. She is driven and hardened by a sense of personal trauma and need for revenge. But she also exhibits moments of circumstantial mercy throughout. She is a complicated character cast against a setting novel to American audiences.
That is perhaps the most striking aspect of the film. It is a massive historical drama that is set against a background that is mostly unexplored by American film outside of Biblical retellings. Expansive, breathtaking shots of the great steppes recall John Ford westerns, but feel like a window into a whole other world. Similarly, the giant battle scenes recall war epics like Braveheart, just with a new perspective and historical relevance. It has a lot to appeal to Western audiences, but is also unapologetically tied to its culture and location.
Despite the film coming out last year in its native country, watching it in close proximity to Disney’s Mulan feels informative. Mulan is perhaps more masterfully made in terms of production design (though other than some lower budget CGI moments, Tomiris looks like many American blockbuster films), but the narrative perspective at great odds. One tells the tale of a woman working to protect an entrenched empire against the influence of nomadic raiders; while Tomiris tells the tale from the perspective of the nomads, who refuse to be subjugated by an imperial force. Both women overcome social inequality to save their cultures, but in Tomiris we see a heroine who unites and inspires her people to overcome and defeat a greater power. If the viewer can allow themselves to exist outside the historical inaccuracies and guesswork of the film, it stands as an inspiring epic that tells the tale of an incredible life and leader.
The Legend of Tomiris was included as part of the digital New York Asian Film Festival. It will be released on Blu-Ray in America on September 29th.