Marco Polo (1982)

The great thing about the story of Marco Polo’s adventures in Asia is that no one knows what really happened, so telling the story can be as fanciful as the imagination allows.  Marco Polo himself had a little trouble with the truth, often altering events, or making them up, in order to make his writing more attractive.  Biographers in the many centuries since his escapades have had only minor success in discovering more about the man since they tend to base their writings on his.

What is undeniably true is that Marco Polo was one of the very first “Westerners” to travel across the vast open spaces of Asia, and one of the first to commit his journey to paper.  He gets credit for opening up trade between East and West, even though in his own book he’s not the first to do so (his father and uncle had already been there and back before taking him along).  What is also undeniably true is that Marco Polo had color and flair, writing so vividly that the reader, even centuries later, cannot help but be captivated.  What better medium than the miniseries to tell this thrilling tale of adventure and discovery?  It has a bigger story than even “Shogun,” which is saying a lot, and it doesn’t need to stick to any actual facts since the subject himself didn’t, meaning we can bring on the gorgeous sets and costumes and not worry at all about historical accuracy.

There are umpteen version of Marco Polo’s story, but only one is an Emmy Winner, for “Best Limited Series” as the miniseries category was still called in 1982.  This is primarily an Italian production with a primarily (sometimes comically) American cast, so it’s hokey at times, for sure, but no expense is spared, that’s for sure.  It’s a riot of color and noise and imagination at its best, talky and a bit giddy in deciding that all men in the Thirteenth Century were created equal (even if they were, no one believed it then) at its worst.

Let’s collectively go back to the thirteen century, about as far back as a miniseries is willing to go if Jesus isn’t involved.  As we would expect, the miniseries starts after the events so we can learn them in flashback.  It’s 1282 and Marco Polo is an aging Venetian fighting in a long war against Genoa.  A better traveler and writer than warrior, Marco (Ken Marshall) is captured during a battle and languishes in prison.  We pick the story back up in 1298 (a year before his release).  I issue a warning: the first part of the miniseries is very slow, but give it time.

Marco’s cell mate is Rustichello (David Warner), who has committed Marco’s adventures to paper, angering the church, because everything back then angered the church.  Priests are accusing Rustichello of “corrupting the minds of the young and innocent” with the stories written.  Rustichello, who fancies himself a writer and wishes the priests would read his other works, defends Marco’s stories as true, even if they are about pagan cultures that so infuriate the church. They force Rustichello to tell repeat everything, not able to make much of his rambling writings.  Periodically, the miniseries will remember that Rustichello exists and return to him and the inquisitive priests for a few moments, none at all necessary.

Rustichello starts with Marco’s birth and early years.  His father and uncle have been gone since before he was born and young Marco waits by the wharf in Venice for any news of his father.  Mom (Anne Bancroft) is dying, so he is taken care of mostly by Aunt Flora (Sada Thompson).  “You’re like your father. A house is too small for you,” Brooklyn-ish Italian matron Mama Polo says, clinging to an out-dated version of her long-gone husband, promising he’ll return and take care of the young lad.  A compulsive crier, Mama Polo has heard nothing of her husband for years.  In the middle of a heaving sobfest, she dies.

“She didn’t leave a penny for any of us,” practical Aunt Flora notes as she and her husband take over Marco’s house.  She’s not thrilled with the situation, but she gets a nice big bedroom out of the deal now that Mama Polo is gone.  She even goes after Marco’s absent father, saying he never sent any money home, “only these, pagan objects that shouldn’t be kept in a Christian home” (referring to some bric-a-brac from Asia).  Believing the objects have not only killed Marco’s mother, but also put a hex on the home, she tosses them into the water outside the bedroom window and delivers a glowering speech about how Marco’s father has cursed them all by consorting with any number of horrible people.  Marco runs off in tears, and Aunt Flora shouts, “Marco, what’s wrong with you?”  Hmm, could it be that you just denigrated both of his parents, one absent his whole life and the other a fresh corpse?

By 1269, our Marco has grown into a strapping lad, waiting every day for his father’s return.  One morning, a “ghost ship” is spotted and Marco hurries over to it, told to stay away because they are in quarantine.  Alas, his father and uncle are not on that ship.  “There’s a whole world out there, beyond the lagoon, vast as the sky,” Marco tells all those around him, still believing in the fanciful notions he’s hobbled together from sailors and others who have traveled outside of Venice.  In fact, Marco is a dreamer so bad that his uncle snarls at him, “where is your head?  I’ll have to nail it back to your shoulders” after Marco gives the fish he’s bought on behalf of his uncle to a pretty young girl he’s just met.

The girl would be Caterina (Georgia Slowe), a wealthier Venetian who may be pretty, but is way too lofty to be at all interesting.  She patiently listens to Marco’s desires and he gives her the only figuring he still has left from his father, made of jade, which she describes as “rock made of water and grass.”  At least she’s an island of sweetness in Marco’s drab life (even if her mother is the town’s most notorious courtesan, as Marco finds out later).  When Marco isn’t at the docks hearing that his uncle and father were probably killed in the nastiest ways by Mongols, Aunt Flora is shouting at him such charming lines as  “this isn’t a tavern!  Dinner was ready for you three hours ago like it was for everyone else,” or “working your fingers to the bone for a lazy dreamer, that’s what life is…what else can I expect from my brother’s son, a man who leaves his family, disappears, wanders off God knows where, is lost out there.”  She’s a completely charmless woman, Aunt Flora.  Even more dour at the priests who hound him for his wayward thinking, at the same time laying on guilt even thicker than Aunt Flora.

Marco decides it’s time to take his boat and Caterina to find his father.  It’s not a particularly good idea since it’s only a tiny boat, hardly capable of making out of Venice, let alone to somewhere beyond imagination.  Bad weather forces him back after just a night, and wouldn’t you know, it’s that VERY night that Marco’s father and uncle return to Venice.  Uncle Matteo (Tony Vogel) and Papa Niccolo (Denholm Elliott) look more Asian than European when first seen, a tribute to the time spent abroad.  “I’m not one for writing letters,” Niccolo tells Marco when the latter says that Mama Polo never stopped hoping for word from him.

More than a little mysterious and unspecific about their travels Uncle Matteo and Papa Niccolo do show the family some gems they have smuggled back, but they did not return with a fortune.  Kublai Khan has seen to that.  He’s kept it as assurance that they will return.  “You see, Marco,” Niccolo says, “we’re not exactly as we seem.  We left as merchants, but we’ve returned as ambassadors from the great Khan to the Doge of Venice.”

That’s a cue line if ever I’ve heard one.

In 1271, Niccolo and Matteo go to visit The Doge (John Gielgud, who else?) and the Patriarch of Aquileia (John Houseman, who else?).  “The days of Genghis Khan are long over, except it seems, in the imagination of Europe.  His successor, Kublai, is a man of peace, cultured and tolerant,” Niccolo says, speaking of Kublai’s desires for trade.  The Patriarch is deeply suspicious.  “Everyone knows that these mongrels are a race of bloodthirsty savages,” he notes, but Niccolo doesn’t let up, saying, “yet it was only when we reached ‘civilization’ that we were robbed.”  That point is clear!  They present the Doge with a gold ticket, Kublai Khan’s get-out-of-my-kingdom-with-your-life treat.  The Patriarch refuses to believe that trade on a scale the Polo brothers describe is possible, and that all of the non-Christians they have met have poisoned their minds.  They try to remind the Patriarch that the Mongol Empire is at least 10 times larger than Europe, with the underlying threat that if Venice disagrees with Kublai Khan, it could be disastrous.

Luckily, The Doge is a bit more realistic.  He’s willing to trade, though he isn’t sure how it could be done.  The Polos show him “paper money,” a concept Europe had not yet grasped, and assure him (and the puffing Patriarch) that there is more than enough in the way of gold and jewels to back it up.  Unfortunately, Europe is in the so-called “Dark Ages” for reason, and one of the town father’s holds a gold coin up to a candle, saying it is indestructible, followed by a piece of Mongol paper money, which goes up in flames.  “You have just burned the equivalent of 20 pounds of silver,” Niccolo says dryly.  The Patriarch returns to the topic of religion.  Niccolo assures him that Kublai Khan is interested in all religions (“the sign of a true barbarian,” the Patriarch sniffs) and asks The Pope to send 100 of the most learned men to him so they can make an argument for Christianity.  There are two problems with that, according to the Patriarch.  The first is that it sounds like a denigration to Christianity, according to the grumpy Patriarch and, oh yeah, there is no Pope.  There hasn’t been one for three years because the Cardinals can’t agree on anyone.

The Polos get a chance with The Doge alone.  He is more than willing to entertain a peace with Kublai Khan if it means great wealth for Venice.  “Return to your Khan and tell him that Venice is willing to shake the hand she extends to us,” The Doge finally tells them, no matter what the Patriarch says.  He has to do what is best for Venice and not wait for a Pope to be elected.  Niccolo is a bit worried about Kublai Khan’s reaction when they return without 100 men from Rome, but The Doge insists they go, eager to start trading, because there is no sign a Papal election will come any time soon.

Off go the Polo brothers, getting together a crew that includes Jacopo (F. Murray Abraham), but not Marco, who argues with his father until the latter is exhausted by fighting.  Uncle Matteo isn’t much help, and Marco reminds them of their words that Venetians are born travelers (even in that one letter he has memorized).  Just as Niccolo is about to say yes, Aunt Flora interrupts to tell him that Caterina’s father shows up to pressure the Polos.  He’s convinced that Marco and Caterina had sex that one night at sea, so now she’s “ruined.”  It all comes down to money.  He takes money, but only for now.  “If it were me, I’d have his guts on a plate,” the father says, but he gives them three days to come up with a more satisfactory amount.  Papa Niccolo refuses to let Marco marry the girl, since she’s the daughter of a whore, so there is only way out of it: let Marco travel with them.  “Only as far as Acre,” Niccolo says, but we know something will cause that to change.

Marco has one last conversation with Caterina.  He tries to convince her to join him, but she can’t go.  She gets long winded, as usual, but has to stay, in order to marry a man of position in Venice as her parents have decided.

With Caterina out of the way, off the Polos go on what will surely be the adventure of Marco’s lifetime.  The first stop is indeed Palestine.  “Will we get to see the Crusaders?” Marco wants to know, like an eager child at the zoo.  This is really where the miniseries really starts.  In Acre, the Polos visit the Papal Legate (Burt Lancaster, not so who else?).  We have a repeat of The Doge and The Patriarch, arguing over whether they need to open up trade with those further east for religious or financial purposes?  The Papal Legate is more reasonable, hoping that the Italians had seen the lights (which they didn’t) and that Kublai Khan is worthy of “friendly relations.”  After all, there is the famous “Pax Mongolia,” Kublai Khan’s pan-religious tolerance and the chance for the Christians to stretch around the world.

There’s another reason for the stop in Palestine.  They need the Papal Legate’s help to get some oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is under Muslim control, as per Kublai Khan’s wishes.  It’s the Papal Legate who insists Marco continue on the journey, giving the elder Polos one hell of a guilt trip that they can’t refuse.  Given letters of safe conduct to Jerusalem, Marco sees his first Bedouins…and sees them harassed and slaughtered by Crusaders for no actual reason.  The miniseries manages to take both points of view so as not to offend anyone.  Uncle Matteo makes a lofty speech about the dedication of the Crusaders, but Marco keeps insisting the Bedouins were not warriors.  “If you want to survive in this world, you can’t go around make rash judgements,” Uncle Matteo says, before pointing out they are sitting in the Garden of Gethsemane.  That’s awfully convenient!  I guess we know which side of the argument the creators actually picked, without having to say so.

At the church, the priest is awfully cranky about giving away any of the scarce oil, despite the Legate’s orders, but a few coins change that.  “That’s their right.  They need the money,” Niccolo rationalizes.  Forgive the miniseries for going a bit daffy as Marco suddenly has an insane desire to be all hoity-toity religious, with the lighting on his face making him look like the Christ himself.

Unfortunately, their journey on is delayed AGAIN because the Legate summons them back to Acre with some news.  He has been chosen Pope, “unworthy as I am,” he says like a Jewish mother, arms outstretched like a proper Pope.  Haul out the incense, the candles and the bald priests, it’s time to make a Pope!  He’s now Pope Gregory X and Marco is there to witness it (this is nowhere in his book, as it does not match up historically).  That’s forgivable, but Marco’s impassioned speech to The Pope about what he’s seen so far in Palestine actually resulting in The Pope saying he “has a lot to answer for.”  A Christian Pope in the Thirteen Century?  Not likely.

Okay, so the Polos have the oil.  What about those 100 scholars to argue for Christianity at Kublai Khan’s court?  The Pope has only two men to send, Brother Nicholas (Tony LoBianco) and Brother William (Hal Buckley).  Hey, maybe Kublai Khan will be having a bad day when they arrive and won’t notice 98 missing learned men.  They are given full rights to Christianize anyone encountered in any way possible.

The Polos wander through the desert, bypassing local wars, but encountering harsh climates and exhausting terrain.  At an oasis, they discover a dead Muslim with leprosy, so they can’t drink the water.  Even more shocking is a battlefield they find, with only a few animals alive among hundreds of dead bodies.  At least there is water.  Brothers Nicholas and William start to rebel against the Polos, declaring themselves in charge and questioning the decisions of the experienced travelers.  Only Marco seems immune to the difficulties, taking copious notes in his diary.  There’s a curious scene where the elder Polos wonder about Marco.  Niccolo knows nothing about his son (saying “he’s so different than me”), but Uncle Matteo says the kid is strong and will be of use.  The travelers are taken to an enemy camp after an ambush.  These are the most unlucky travelers this side of an “Airport” disaster movie.

The leader of the Muslim camp is Ali Ben Youssouf (Ian McShane), who was born Italian but taken as a slave by Muslims until he learned the glory of Allah.  He serves as a mouthpiece for Islam, explaining all that is great about his religion and making note of what is lacking in Christianity.  Rather than killing them, he spares all of their lives because he was once saved by a Christian.  The wrinkle is that he wants them to return to Palestine, and they want to continue going east.  He won’t stop them, but he warns them only death awaits them because it’s so barren.  It’s not because of Kublai Khan, because Ali Ben Youssouf has a prison full of Mongols, which gives him the false idea that the Mongols are conquerable.

That last thought is not lost on Brother Nicholas, who believes what he’s seen and heard, so he and Brother William decide to return to Palestine.  “Cowards!” Niccolo snaps. Even Jacopo, who talks as if he’s playing a court jester, thinks going back is the right thing to do, but Niccolo draws his sword and says they are all pressing forward, “even if it means that I have to drag you by the ears or tie you to my saddle.”  He puts Marco in charge of guarding the priests so they cannot escape, but Marco falls asleep, leaving a servant to do it, and of course they escape.  Niccolo is awfully angry at his son, but there will be plenty of time for them to hopefully work that out over their long journey.

It’s decided the best route is through the Straights of Hormuz.  The first thing they encounter is a funeral, replete with wailing widows because plague has hit the down.  All of the boats are burned, causing Matteo to quip, “well, we won’t be going by sea.”  One of the servants dies and Marco gets very sick.  The upside of the latter is that “father and son found each other at last,” Rustichello narrates, saying further that “Niccolo’s love kept Marco alive.”  That’s a bit much, but luckily we’ve now moved beyond the father-son issues and can concentrate on the adventure.

Marco fully recovers in Badakshan, in Afghanistan, which is referred to many times as “paradise.”  Here his father teaches him song of the useful languages he will be needing.  One is allowed to laugh as Marco’s name is called in the echoing mountains and he doesn’t call back “Polo!”  They are forced to cross a very narrow bridge in frigid wind, and awfully hair-raising experience as the animals are dragged through the river’s strong current below.  This brings them to the Pamir Range, bleak and full of miles and miles of snow.  The horses now become the problem, “afraid of the evil spirits of the mountains,” according to Uncle Matteo, though Niccolo thinks this is nonsense.

The horses are right.  There’s a spectacular avalanche at that very moment!  Marco wakes up in a room filled with scary-looking statues, which isn’t even the oddest part.  What’s with the man who levitates?  He is in a Buddhist lamasery, full of holy men.  It’s these men who are responsible for saving Marco’s life and he’s enchanted by the peace and interesting thoughts to which he’s exposed.  The movie certainly goes to great lengths to spotlight Buddhism’s teachings of serenity over what catastrophic death-inducing Christianity and Islam we’ve so far seen.  The monks want him to stay with them and learn Buddhism, but Marco says, “I swore an oath to the Father of my church,” and no one argues.  It is his destiny.  He hasn’t received treatment this understanding since birth!

Now they are officially on the Asian steppes, enormous wide open spaces controlled by the Mongols, who almost silently manage to surround them, but Niccolo produces the golden ticket and that is their safe passage.  By 1275, they have finally reached Gansu in Northern China.  That skips a huge amount of the story, but frankly, in Marco Polo’s actual writing, this time period isn’t particularly special.  He describes every sight and sound he encounters, but none of it is all that thrilling.  They travel under the protection of Bektor Khan (Hessen En), an elderly clan leader.

Bektor’s movable court is full of smiling people who treat the Polo party kindly.  Of course, Jacopo is never very happy, so he doesn’t like the local alcohol (fermented mare’s milk) and complains, “where is the good wine of Venice?”  He’s really starting to become an irritant.  In the camp, Marco is delighted at the music and dance and displays or horsemanship performed, not to mention the giggling women Matteo tells him are Bektor’s wives.  The harmony is almost too giddy, such as when the discussion of marriages arises.  Bektor asks Marco how many wives he has, shocked to hear he has none at age 21, when he had five already.  “Here we make sure every mare born is immediately given a rider,” Bektor jokes, with the whole camp laughing along.  With waves of guffaws circling the gang, a wrestling match is put on for Marco’s entertainment.  Bektor’s son bests two wrestlers and then a very drunk Marco jumps into the fray, proving to be a worthy opponent.

Caidu Khan (Shaokang Yu), Kublai’s nephew, arrives to pick new horses, having a conversation with Marco about the worthiness of horses.  Marco has learned a great deal and is able to speak intelligently on the subject.  Caidu tests Marco’s sense of fear (which Marco passes) and then goes into a rambling speech about how the Mongols should never be city-dwellers as Kublai Khan has become.

By the summer of 1275, the Polos have reached the legendary Shang-Du, Kublai Khan’s breathtaking summer retreat, the most spectacular city yet encountered (not that they have seen too many since Palestine, to be fair).  Marco learns about coal here.  “They’d never believe that in Venice, burning stone?” Marco says.  After bathing, it’s time for their audience with the Mongol leader.

There is a rule for everything when it comes to being in Kublai Khan’s presence, but luckily the elder Polos know them all and are welcomed back warmly by Kublai himself (Ruocheng Ying).  Kublai wants to know where the 100 learned men are, and is offended when Niccolo refers to the Pope as Kublai’s “brother.”  “Yours is the only religion that has turned an instrument of death into an object of beauty and a symbol of power,” Kublai says as he regards the gift of a jewel-encrusted cross.  He is most excited to receive the oil from Jerusalem.  Kublai is thrilled that the Polos have returned as promised and he doubles all of their personal holdings, which have been kept in safekeeping for them.

Kublai sends Marco off with the oil to Empress Chabi (Beulah Quo) since Marco has been the one to carry it the entire way.  Marco explains that the oil has the power to heal for believers, and Empress Chabi seems awfully up on all things Christian.  She knows of the “palaces of gold” in Rome.  Marco, who has never been there, tells what he has heard of it, and Empress Chabi eats them up.  “Nothing in China can be compared with it, I’m sure,” the Empress says, her eyes aglow in wonder, though Marco wisely says that the two places are very different and cannot be compared.

The dancing and beauty of Bektor’s movable court are nothing compared to what Marco sees in Shang-Du.  Sumptuous gowns, food beyond imagination and dancing girls all over the place.  Marco is astonished to see that the Chinese have printing presses (yet unknown in Europe) and the plethora of books, noting that everyone can learn in China, whereas in Venice, only the wealthy can do so.  However, Marco is also told by Prince Chinkin (Junichi Ishida) that all is not perfect in the Khan’s dominions, as war is about to break out with the Song Dynasty in Southern China.  But, war is far off, so Kublai Khan puts on an astounding production number for the visitors that ends in a cascade of fireworks.

“Anything that’s new fascinates me,” Marco says, more of a goon all the time, when shown a clock by Kublai Khan.  Furthermore, based on what he sees of Marco and what the Empress says, Kublai learns to rely on him, even granting him permission to sit or stand in his presence.  The sense of adventure comes to a screeching halt when Marco tells Kublai Khan what he’s interested in: farming, caring for the elderly, asbestos, wild sheep and on and on.  Laying in on thick, aren’t we?  Within about 18 seconds, Kublai Khan is so impressed by Marco’s notes that he decides to reorganize his empire to some degree.  “The world may be conquered on horseback, but cannot be ruled from it,” Kublai Khan decrees.  He then dispatches Marco to Phags-Pa (James Hong), the keeper of the information, who is no fan of the Westerners, and one of those villains who all but tugs at his beard with dripping nastiness (only because he doesn’t have a beard).  Phags-Pa hates that Marco has dazzled the royal family and become a favorite.

At times, the dialogue sounds as if it were written by the UN.  When Marco tries to use a Mongol bow and arrow, he finds his strength no match for the special bow.  He asks his servant to show him, but the servant is aghast.  He’s not allowed “because I am Chinese.”  “And I am Venetian, what’s the difference?” Marco says.  We all have to learn from each other, and so on and so forth.  To be fair, Marco Polo’s writings allow for an astonishing amount of racial tolerance, especially for the Thirteenth Century (although, to be historically accurate, if he really did keep the diary he claims, it was always subject to the eyes of the Mongol court, so he no doubt went overboard in that era’s version of political correctness), but he’s never as sappy as the miniseries Marco.  Trotting out the words “peace” and “brotherhood” are way idealized, as is Marco’s command to his servant to call him by his first name.

However, do not fear the saccharine too much, because there are always gloomy Niccolo and Matteo Polo to cut at Marco’s happiness.  They chastise him for being “too familiar” with the royal family and to watch out for men like Phags-Pa.  Of course, in the same breath, they also say that they don’t mind him being so chummy if it can help them personally.  “We have too much at stake,” Niccolo notes as a final warning to Marco to tread lightly.

During a hunting excursion with Prince Chinkin, the prince has an epileptic seizure, scaring off the servants, but Marco saves his life.  Kublai Khan explains to Marco that anyone who “witnesses these attacks must be put to death” because if word got out that the heir to the Mongol empire has a sickness, it would be devastating.  Kublai assumes that Marco is now appalled by Chinkin’s ailment, giving Marco the chance to pontificate about both his deep friendship for Chinkin (his only other friend in the world died on the trip) and the fact that “the falling sickness” is a condition shared by many great men, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar among them.  “It didn’t affect anything else in their lives,” he chirps, which assuages Kublai Khan somewhat because even he’s heard of their great exploits.  “In ancient times, it was considered a sign of greatness,” Marco says, with violins playing underneath him.  “My son has the sign of greatness,” Kublai Khan rhapsodizes, bestowing some extra honors on Marco for changing his mind in the span on a few minutes.  Great, now not only is the UN represented, but apparently also the AMA.  The only thing missing is a visit from Gandhi.

Oh, Kublai Khan also gives him his belt since Marco had to use his to save the Prince’s life.  Of course he does.

Phags-Pa spits nails at all of this attention lavished on Marco Polo, and he also feels Chinkin is “weak” and will never be able to lead the empire.

Chinkin and Marco Polo head the entourage leaving the summer palace as Niccolo and Matteo watch proudly.  I would like to pause here to ask a question.  Had plastic been invented yet?  No?  I didn’t think so.  How, then, can one explain the plastic window on the tents behind these two as they see their spawn go off in glory?  There is no mistaking the plastic.  It even reflects.

Marco gets a tour of the Great Wall.  “If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it,” he says, still a sponge for knowledge, but a sponge you want to kick and shut up every now and then.  Prince Chinkin explains that it was built by the Chinese to keep out “the barbarians.”  “The barbarians?” Marco asks, not bright enough to be a suck up, but that’s the way Prince Chinkin takes it.  “Yes, the barbarians.  The Mongols…it’s only a relic now,” Chinkin replies, confident in his empire’s complete domination.  Prince Chinkin gets in on the sympathy talking by telling Marco that the Chinese Emperor did not build the wall, but rather slaves who died by the thousands.  Their blood is in the stones.  If only Mao had been alive to hear that schpiel, he would have screened this movie about six thousand times a week all over China.

“The only hope for the future is that one day we Mongols will no longer be thought of or think of ourselves as conquerors or proud invaders of a foreign land, but as sons of the same mother, China,” Prince Chinkin says after promising Marco that when he is in charge of the empire, there will be some changes made (this is prompted by news of the execution of Marco’s slave, who had seen the epileptic fit).  The only warm fuzzy we haven’t heard yet is Coke’s “I want to teach the world to sing…” ditty.  Can we PLEASE get back to the story and end all of this babble?

The court returns to Khanbalic (modern-day Beijing) after the summer sojourn.  This permanent city is overflowing in majesty and teeming with loyal soldiers and courtiers.  Kublai Khan is welcome back by the regent Achmet (Leonard Nimoy, in the most egregious piece of casting by idiocy…what, there aren’t any worthy Asian actors, so we had to use a Vulcan?).  Achmet has great news for Kublai Khan, bootlicker that he is, telling him that the Emperor of China has fled and Kublai Khan now rules all of China.  Achmet is the business mind of the empire, excited to hear of the Polos’ contacts between Europe and Asia that will be beneficial to all.  He is also the first to mention that we have now embarked upon the Yuan Dynasty.

Yet Marco is restless.  He whines to Chinkin that “my father and uncle are busy with projects,” mapping routes between Venice and Khanbalic, but Chinkin assures Marco that “my father has plans for you too,” which cheers Marco up a bit.  Like two naughty children, they leave the confines of the palace city because Marco is desperate to see what is out there.  Someone call the Chinese Board of Tourism, they are getting one hell of a plug, even centuries too late.  They go to the sanctuary of the astronomers to ask what the future has in store, if the Yuan Dynasty will have any peace.  The answer, only a tad clearer than The Oracle at Delphi, is basically no, though Marco doesn’t understand and Chinkin doesn’t want to hear the real truth.

Non-traditional medical practitioners will be happy with Chinkin showing Marco the healing powers of acupuncture.  The local peasant children laugh a little at Marco, but no one else seems at all perplexed by his presence.  Chinkin and Marco observe a wedding ceremony.  This all may seem highly episodic, but Marco Polo’s writings are like that.  He did love to report even the smallest details.

With China all his, Kublai Khan shifts his attention to an invasion of Japan, which he’s tried before without success. He amasses all of his most important vassals from all over the empire to discuss the matter and figure out the best method of invasion.  The Mongols, they point out, are horseback warriors and cannot handle an amphibious invasion.  But, Kublai Khan says the final decision is his.  Furthermore, a lot of the desert men, many of whom Marco has previously met, feel he’s become too Chinese and lost touch with his Mongol roots.  Try not to laugh when, during a dinner with some of these guys, the Polos and Jacopo are introduced to pasta and how to eat it.  We all know pasta is a Chinese invention, but the scene is bad comedy.

Marco decides he wants to learn about Japan (or, rather, the miniseries decides it needs to teach us), and he goes to a blind Japanese potter the Empress freed after the last attempt at war.  His memories of Japan are long winded and gloomy, but he’s not wrong when he says no foreign empire will ever conquer it.  “The flags of Kublai will be swallowed by Japanese waves,” he tells Marco as a warning.  “There is no more discussion,” Kublai roars since the envoys he has sent to Japan have been beheaded.  Marco and Chinkin try the astrology route, but that only makes Kublai Khan angrier.  “Our answers to Japan is WAR! WAR! WAR!” he thunders in increasing close-up.

Because Marco is seen as having too strong an influence of Chinkin, who loudly argues against the Japanese invasion, Achmet sends him to the South as a tax collector with Uncle Matteo.  “Use your natural gift, but avoid your excessive zeal,” Achmet tells him, a polite way of saying “stop interfering!”  He also gives Marco two pieces of advice: “the empire’s treasury is low” and “be careful” of almost everyone.  He’s suddenly Polonius, apparently.  Uncle Matteo is excited for a typical Medieval European reason.  “I’ve heard they have men who can turn any metal into gold.”  Ah, alchemy.  Without the desire to figure it out, there probably would be no Europe today.  A very frail Chinkin is sad to lose his friend, but is also full of idiotic warnings.  His tops them all when he tells Marco to remember everything is like a game of chess and he is a pawn in the game.  “The pawn is always the last to know” what is to happen to him.  Not only is that unoriginal, it’s also not necessarily true.  This is the problem with Marco Polo’s book and everything that stems from it: it’s all about him.  I’m not saying that in a bad way, but his writings are of his journey and all that he knew.  The real Marco Polo merely relied on his own notions, with very little time spent doing anything but observing.  Suddenly, the entire Mongol Empire seems to revolve around him in this story.  With everyone having chimed in, Marco sets off in his new role as tax collector.

Things turn bad very quickly when unseen men shoot at Marco’s polo with arrows, killing a few extras.  Marco gets into hand-to-hand combat with one of them after playing possum.  This is actually fun, a scene of daring and excitement after so much time spent at court.  Marco is best when traveling (and so is the movie).

Marco arrives in Yanzhou in 1280, with the whole city already up on the assassination attempt. The town leaders blame it on “bandits,” though they themselves seem less than thrilled to be under Mongol control in general.  Our bleeding heart hero is shocked to see the wealthiest people sucking harsh taxes from bedraggled peasants.  However, he also has time to enjoy local culture, discover new things and even take in a play.  The latter starts out charmingly, but turns into a diatribe against tax collection aimed squarely at Marco.  When Marco asks the man who spoke the lines why he did it, he blames someone else.  “I am only an actor,” he says, blaming a hermit playwright.  How’s that for continuity?  In the Twenty First Century, actors are still doing that.

New friends take Marco to see “The Immortal,” (Tad Horino) an aesthetic who lives in a cave high in the mountains.  No sooner does Marco arrives than the man starts spouting the sort of wise-though-confusing sentiments one would expect.  “Man must conquer himself before he can conquer nature,” he opines, having just mentioned gold to keep everyone interested.  He then gives Marco a brief yoga lesson and cleansing diet tips.  I won’t deny it’s an eerie scene, very much in line with the 1970s fascination with yoga culture, though out of step with the rest of the movie.

One thing that has certainly been missing from the narrative is sex.  Hell, the only woman with lines since Venice has been Kublai Khan’s wife.  Marco is in his twenties and has to be horny!  When Uncle Matteo disappears, a lovely woman named Monica (Kathryn Dowling) offers to help.  She never knew her father, and her mother died when she was young.  This tale of woe, and the fact that she’s at least part European, stirs Marco’s libido and he kisses her.  A chaste kiss, but a kiss nonetheless.  Her reaction?  “We should look for your uncle,” she says, but with a smile.

It’s not until Marco and Monica are trapped in a cave during a thunderstorm that Marco professes love for her…loudly.  She doesn’t make the inevitable very easy.  He’s ready, but she takes the time to point out, “your body is like a tree,” while pointing to the corresponding parts “trunk, limbs are like branches and the crown, it catches the light and holds it.”  Marco has some clunkers of his own.  He tells her, “in Venice, when someone shivers, we say an angel passes.”  Save it for a couples retreat, you two!  They kiss and find lots of flowery ways to proclaim their love, but if they go any further, this floppo scene doesn’t show us.

Uncle Matteo is found, but the three return to the city during a massive fire.  Useful for the first time, Jacopo is helping women and children escape the flames, but he is injured.  The town’s big shots have orchestrated it all, basically to pluck young women for slavery.  Marco is outraged.  “You’ll answer to the Khan for your loyalty…or treachery,” he says heatedly.

Marco knows it’s time to get back to the Mongol court, but there’s a hitch, of course.  Jacopo, seriously burned and disfigured, does not want to go home, not even to Venice.  Somehow, this movie’s misfit has found home.  He likes the people and “they treat me with affection,” he tells Marco.  I won’t miss him, how about everyone else?

Back to Khanbalic.  His first stop is at the Japanese potter’s home, where he learns that indeed the Mongols did attack Japan.  He leaves Monica there for safety and then goes to Achmet to find the girl stolen for slavery.  He doesn’t find much sympathy.  Achmet refers to a typical woman as “just another mouth to feed.”  Achmet agrees to sort of help, but tells Marco that it may be tough since Marco has so many enemies.  To make matter worse, Monica is kidnapped, but he doesn’t know by whom.  “I heard of him speak of a convent of Buddhist nuns,” is all the potter can tell him.  Then we discover Achmet to be a louse, since he finds the girl everyone is looking for and decides to use her himself.  “Will you touch me?” he asks her, with a dastardly leer.  Luckily, he gets his quickly, a victim of court intrigue.  Phags-pa is behind it and it all ends up with the slave girl dead and Monica and her adopted family executed.

Phags-pa has his reasons for doing what he does, and turns out to be less hateful than once assumed.  He has Monica’s sentence commuted to banishment and allows Marco to get a quick look at her one last time.

Kublai Khan is beset by troubles.  There are rebellions all over the place, religious questions to be dealt with and then the death of Prince Chinkin.  Marco tells Empress Chabi that he thinks Kublai Khan seems “too tired to hold the empire in his hands.:  Though nobody agrees with him, Kublai Khan decides to snuff out the rebellion, leading the army himself.

There is an epic battle.  It’s bloody and results in huge carnage and screaming.  Naturally Kublai Khan’s army is victorious.  The trampling death of the rebel leader is particularly gruesome, but, “according to our laws,” Kublai Khan says before it happens.

The Polos want to go home, but Kublai Khan will not hear of it.  They are too valuable to him and, as he points out, they have certain grown rich from him!  No one is as wise as them when it comes to gems, and Kublai Khan uses them to tell the real ones from the fakes, even giving them punitive power over anyone caught using the fakes.  But none of it is enough.  Niccolo wants to go back to Venice, “before I lose my will to live.”

Their ticket home comes from an unlikely source: Phags-pa, who seems mellow and almost nice.  “We could have been friends,” he says wistfully to Marco now that there are no intrigues between them.  Phags-pa has convinced Kublai Khan to let the Polo escort a princess to Persia on a sea route.  They are the only men who can handle such a task.  Phags-pa himself is going to a monastery to leave the clutches of power behind.  He’ll do well there, because he has the advice-giving-in-snippets down pat.

Marco’s parting from Kublai Khan is even more touching.  You expect the great and mighty warrior to hold onto Marco’s leg begging him not to go with buckets of tears.  It doesn’t happen that way, but almost.  Kublai Khan admits that he should have never tried to rule on anything but a horse’s back, “but now I’m too old to climb into the saddle.”  The Great Khan takes Marco’s hand and reminds him that “when a Mongol takes your hand, some of his spirit passes over to you.”

The voyage home, a highlight of Marco Polo’s story, is skipped entirely and we go right to 1299, back to Marco languishing in the Genoa prison.  I’ll spare you the trial, because it contains no new information.  What is interesting about it is that it happened in the first place.  What we so prize about Marco Polo today, the travelogue that allows us to see new and different works with a fresh excited eye, is just what was condemning him at the time.  The Church did not approve of anything it did not understand, could not conceive of anything it did not help invent.

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2 Comments to “Marco Polo (1982)”

  1. ConstantinusMagnus 4 June 2013 at 5:49 pm #

    I just read your excellent and extensive summery of the outstanding 1982 miniseries Marco Polo. Are you in any position to find out who owns the DVD and BluRay rights to this production? I haven’t seen it since a broadcast replay back in the 1980’s and have wanted to see it again ever since. I trust there is an infuriating story behind why this is not out on DVD/BR in North America. Perhaps the Weinstein Co.’s STARZ series due next year will shake loose this 30+ year-old miniseries from its disc release hell. Whoever owns the 1982 Marco Polo miniseries should have an enormous incentive to cash in on the expected STARZ marketing wave promoting their new show. Thanks for any info you can share.

    • Bj Kirschner 29 June 2013 at 1:26 pm #

      Did you find yet the information you wanted? If not, let me know.

      Bj


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