Appellate Judge Tom Becker often walks in the Gobi Desert to clear his mind.
"What if I told you I'd been to the center of the world? That I'd seen the future?"
Back when the network dinosaurs ruled the Earth, historical epics were considered Very Special Programs and were generally guaranteed ratings winners. Sometimes, you'd get something that really was special, like Shogun or Masada; sometimes, you got something patently ridiculous, like Greatest Heroes of the Bible. More often than not, you got a forgettable TV movie showcasing a young actor or actress who was starring or had starred in a popular series.
In Marco Polo, the 13th century explorer is portrayed by Ian Somerhalder, who had starred in the popular series Lost.
Facts of the Case
Marco Polo, his father, and his uncle, head out from Venice to China, over land. The two older men had made this trip before and, this time, in addition to Marco, they are bringing two priests. The point of the trip is to bring Christianity to the East and to sew up trade with the East. The priests, however, do not even believe China exists and, at the first opportunity, they high-tail it outta there. The Polos continue without them.
Their journey is depicted with scenes of the actors trudging through the elements and then shots of a map, where little red dashes appear to illustrate their progress, much like the way we followed Bugs Bunny's trip to the South Pole in "Eight Ball Bunny."
When they finally get to China, the citizens are running around the streets with a paper dragon, blowing off fireworks, and smoking opium.
During their audience with Kublai Khan, the Mongol leader is impressed with the young Venetian and wants him to stay on when the older Polos return to Venice. Is this the start of a beautiful friendship, or does the Khan-man have other plans?
Marco Polo's adventures have not fared well as films. Actors such as Gary Cooper, Rory Calhoun, Horst Buchholz, and Desi Arnaz Jr. (as an all-singin', all-dancin' Polo) have given ludicrous portrayals of the explorer as a swashbuckling adventurer.
The problem is that Polo doesn't seem to have been much of a swashbuckler. He was a student and historian, and later a diplomat for Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler. He recorded for posterity his observations about such awe-inspiring sights as the vast Gobi desert and the palace of Kublai Khan, and the many ideas, discoveries, and inventions he encountered in China and brought back to Europe.
This TV movie from 2007 (not to be confused with an apparently superior mini-series broadcast in 1982) eschews swashbuckling and presents Marco Polo as a hero of knowledge and resourcefulness. Regrettably, the acting, writing, and directing are just not strong enough to make this the kind of intelligent, intimate epic that it seems to aspire to be.
In our contemporary, information-rich world, it's hard to imagine the sense of wonder one might experience by, say, eating ice cream for the first time. Unfortunately, Marco's discoveries are handled in a "Gee Whiz!" kind of way, with Marco commenting every 20 minutes or so about the "wonders" he has seen. The film does pick up a bit in the middle section when Marco, after some court intrigue, is sent off on a few diplomatic missions, including one to the "Spice Islands." Here we get some nice location footage (much of the film was shot in China) and a couple of big action sequences to move things along, but at almost three hours, this is pretty drawn out.
Ian Somerhalder's Marco is blandly pretty and dishwater dull. Since Marco is from Venice, Louisiana-born Somerhalder speaks with an Italian accent, like Don Novello's Father Guido Sarducci character ("We were-a to meet-a KOO-bella, grandson-a of-a da Genghis-a Khan"). He is given a servant, Pedro, played by B.D. Wong (Oz) with a slight British inflection. The supporting and bit players sound like they could be from anywhere: Beijing, Liverpool, Brooklyn, or L.A.
The pinnacle of this Tower of Babeling accents, though, is reserved for Kublai Khan himself, who is portrayed by that esteemed Asian matinee idol, Brian Dennehy (Presumed Innocent). The actor who won a Tony Award for Death of a Salesman goes Willie lo mein here, sporting Christopher Lee's eye make-up from The Brides of Fu Manchu and Diana Ross's outfits from Mahogany. His accent isn't East so much as Northeast. Dennehy alternates between fatherly wisdom and good old Yankee bluster, occasionally combining the two. At one point, he gets ticked off at young Marco and has him locked in a dungeon with something that looks like an outhouse door around his neck. Later, he decides to forgive the impertinent Polo, but, to teach him a lesson, first describes in detail the dreaded "death by 100 slices." It's like the 13th century version of a football coach prepping a high-school class for that drunk-driving movie we all sat through.
The cinematography is very good and the transfer here is fine, with a great Dolby 5.1 audio track. For extras, there's a gushing "making of" feature with the director, actors, and crew members, an on-set interview with Dennehy, and a trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is a case where those who like this sort of thing—history-based TV-movie epics—will probably enjoy this film. The sets and costumes are well rendered, if not exceptional; there's a reasonable amount of historical accuracy; the actors are attractive; and Dennehy is always worth seeing, even when he is egregiously miscast. If you have a child in middle or high school who is studying world history, you might watch this to spark discussion, but be warned: It's a long three hours. This is a sincere effort, if not a particularly successful one.
Marco Polo is a standard-issue made-for-TV period piece. Twenty or so years ago, this might have been spread out over a couple of nights on one of the three major networks and billed as an event. With the glut of programming available now, this just doesn't stand out as history or epic.
Well, they tried, so I'll go easy on Marco Polo.
Death by 18 slices.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• "Exploring Marco Polo" (15:30)
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