Classic Film Guide

Adventures of Marco Polo, The (1938)

Six foot, three inch Gary Cooper standing upright and passing through the palace guards undetected among the Chinese peasants (e.g. pretending to be a Chinaman himself) isn't the only unbelievable moment in this fictionalized biography of the great Venetian explorer. According to Robert Sherwood's screenplay, or N.A. Pogson’s story, produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed by Archie Mayo, Marco Polo (with help from Kaidu, played by Alan Hale) actually saved China, rescuing emperor Kublai Khan (George Barbier), and his daughter Princess Kukachin (Sigrid Gurie), from his own ambitious adviser Ahmed (Basil Rathbone), as well as bringing spaghetti and coal to Italy. Apparently he also discovered that the gunpowder China used to burn bright for celebrations and make firecrackers (as toys) could be also be utilized on a larger scale for weaponry (e.g. to blow up gates or bring down walls). Since historians question the facts surrounding this famed, mid-to-late 13th century trader-explorer, I'll not comment further on the validity of such claims. In the film, Ernest Truex plays Polo's traveling companion and bookkeeper Binguccio, Binnie Barnes plays Kaidu’s wife Nazama, H.B. Warner plays the native Chen Tsu who helps Polo, Ferdinand Gottschalk the Persian Ambassador, Harold Huber plays Toctai, the assassin Ahmed sends to kill Kaidu, and Lana Turner plays Nazama’s maid, who's coveted by Kaidu.

Because his son is young and popular with the ladies (his disarming good looks?), Nicolo Polo (Henry Kolker) and some Venetian businessmen decide to send Marco (Cooper) to the East to establish trade agreements. First he travels by ship, but when it's wrecked by a storm, he and Binguccio (Truex) continue on foot through the desert and then the mountains of Tibet to China. He meets Chen Tsu and his humble family and learns that the emperor's adviser Ahmed (Rathbone) is not to be trusted. After his introduction by his father's letter, Marco quickly earns Kublai Khan's (Barbier) admiration when he helps to sort the emperor's concubine women, culling out the guessers and those who are too smart. Later, Marco is smitten with the Princess Kukachin (Gurie), to whom he introduces the Western custom of kissing, even though she's betrothed to the King of Persia. Lotus Liu plays the Princess's handmaiden Visahka. When Ahmed learns of it, he's threatened such that he convinces Khan to send Polo to a troublesome, overtaxed province to spy on its leader Kaidu. Ahmed orders Bayan (Stanley Fields) to kill the Venetian en-route; he reports back that he'd succeeded, prematurely.

But Marco is captured by Kaidu’s (Hale), though he's saved from execution by Kaidu’s instantly smitten wife Nazama (Barnes). Kaidu sees an opportunity to spend time with his wife's maid (Turner) while Nazama is distracted by Polo. Ahmed convinces Khan to go with his troops to conquer Japan and is pleased to learn that the emperor's fleet was lost at sea. He decides that the Princess will be his wife, but she sends a warning by air (a hawk?) to Marco; conveniently, it's intercepted (shot down) by Kaidu’s men. Marco insists that he must go, but is delayed by Kaidu. Marco then recognizes that Ahmed's assassin Toctai (Huber) has become entrusted as one of Kaidu’s men. He plots Kaidu’s assassination, but only in order to save the rebel leader and expose Toctai. This earns Marco the privilege of returning to the emperor's palace, where Khan himself had returned to find that Ahmed had the Princess in a precarious position, tied down under his vultures. This forced Khan to sign away his power and become Ahmed's puppet.

Marco's first stop in Beijing is Chen Tsu’s humble home, where he orders and/or commandeers all the flash power (e.g. gunpowder) for the wedding celebration between Ahmed and the Princess to create bombs capable of bringing down the palace gates. When Kaidu and his men arrive, Marco tells Kaidu the obvious (e.g. that his men should attack the gate tower), helping the rebels to take the palace so that Marco can rescue the Princess. The explorer is somehow adept enough to take on Ahmed singlehandedly and overpower him such that he falls into his own den of lions, where he's killed. A grateful King asks Marco to escort the Princess to Persia, a trip assured of being a long one (e.g. to the kissing partners delight).

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