Marco Polo: Myth and Orientalism on Netflix

Before you watch the Netflix TV series “Marco Polo,” and even before you jump into the pool and play Marco Polo again, consider watching the National Geographic Mystery Files TV series episode on Marco Polo.

The Mystery Files is broadcast in the UK and looks at the mysteries of history.  The Marco Polo episode aired during its second season in 2011. What it tells you makes you wonder what do we really know about China? How can Americans and Europeans separate fact from fiction is Marco Polo is the basis of our knowledge?

My husband and I only watched the first episode of the new Netflix series “Marco Polo.” On the positive side, we have both men and women of ethnic Asian backgrounds playing Asians. In particular, Kublai Khan is played by Benedict Wong.

Previously Kublai Khan has been played by  Brian Dennehy (2007 TV “Marco Polo”), Michael Kostroff ( 2001 in “Marco Polo: Return to Xanadu”), Ruocheng Ying (1983 TV “Marco Polo”), Keye Luke (1982 “Voyagers” TV series), Peter Copley (“Into the Labyrinth” 1982 TV series), Tung Chun Li (1975 “The Four Assassins”), Zero Mostel (1973 “Marco”), Anthony Quinn (1965 “Marco the Magnificent”), Martin Miller (1964 “Doctor Who”), Robert Harris (1939 TV “Marco Millions”), and George Barbier (1938 “The Adventures of Marco Polo”).

Wong (“Prometheus”) was born in Manchester, England. The Italian-born Lorenzo Richelmy plays Marco Polo. So far, so good.

Marco with his father Niccolo Polo (Pierfrancesco Favino) travel into the territories of Kublai Khan and seeing the aftermath of Khan’s ruthless burn and pillage war strategies. Should these men be so horrified? How should we evaluate their expressions? This takes place in Marco Polo supposedly lived from 1254 to 1324. His father and uncle Maffeo (played in the series by Corrado Invernizzi) took the journey together in 1269. Marco Polo supposedly returned 24 years later. Kublai Khan lived from 1260 to 1294 and was Mongolian.

Pope Gregory IX established an ecclesiastical tribunal that we know as the Inquisition in about 1232. At that time, the Inquisition was most active in northern Italy and southern France. Torture was sanctioned by the Catholic Church. A papal Inquisition was re-established in 1542 to suppress the Protestant movement. The Spanish Inquisition was established in 1478.

So it’s best to take off your 2014 sensibilities and remember: Torture was if not normal not abnormal in Marco Polo’s era. On the other hand, you might feel right at home considering that the majority of people in a recent poll were totally behind CIA and military operatives torturing our non-Caucasian enemies.

A group of Khan’s men on horseback come upon them. They fire arrows and kill all but Niccolo, Maffeo and Marco. The riders take these European prisoners to face Kublai Khan. Niccolo offers Kublai Khan his son and despite his protests, Marco is left to amuse the great warrior with his descriptions of his travels to China from Italy.

Fusco then employs something right out of the TV series “Kung Fu” and the film series “Zatoichi.” Marco Polo is taught martial arts by a blind man.

Marco also gets lessons in other things, including calligraphy (but not by a blind man) and finds himself attracted to one of Kublai Khan’s women.

Writer John Fusco takes advantage of this non-network series by going into the lurid. This Marco Polo series is not for young children unless you want them to grow up with fantasies of Asian sex slaves. Certainly there was sex in China and Kublai Khan, who had more than one wife, did have sex as did the rest of his court, but the first episode features Marco Polo entering the red-lit rooms of the Kublai Khan’s quarters of five temptations. Marco Polo must leave without submitting to temptation, but there is the promise that some day he will be able to indulge.

If you got Yellow Fever, this will only feed your fever. How long before some club recreates this scene as a gentlemen’s club?

A lot of who you feel about this series may depend upon your politics and cultural aspirations. By scholarly accounts, Marco Polo is a fantasy, perhaps one of the first fantasy novels. That might be fine, but it misled generations on the true nature of China (Marco Polo’s account didn’t mention the Great Wall of China or chopsticks among other things but it did mention people with their faces where an ordinary person’s navel would be). Is that slander or libel or the fetishization of a culture?

At this point, are we to believe that Marco Polo will save the Asian world with his more civilized ways? Or will he be enlightened by Asia and Asians? Will Asia just be a place for white men to enrich themselves and have exotic adventures? Or will we see as some Asians see Kublai Khan, as a great leader, a hero who unified many tribes into an empire, not unlike Alexander the Great.

At this point, the first episode, the theme is hard to discern and Marco Polo according to legend had two decades there. Richelmy as Marco has soulful eyes, but I’ve seen puppies who are better at breaking hearts. He didn’t catch my interest and he lacks the presence of Wong whose Kublai Khan always speaks with an undertone of impatience. His Marco is not the equal of Kublai Khan. Richelmy doesn’t project a vulnerability or charm that would make me believe a great warrior would spare his life on a whim.

If Kublai Khan was so terrifying and his advance so terrifying, then what about travelers from Asia fleeing his wrath? The refugees.

We really don’t know about the other side, the other view of Europe. There are two sides of the story. If Marco Polo made the journey from West to East, shouldn’t some Chinese or Mongolians made the trip from East to West? What kind of tales did they tell? Why don’t we know more about them?

One of the prized products the Portuguese brought back from Asia were slaves that were traded, bought and sold in Portugal. What of them? Missions were sent from China to the Pope in Rome. What of them?

According to Wikipedia, Marco Polo wasn’t the first person to travel to China and there is plenty to doubt that he even did. Marco Polo is more Western fantasy, but one wonders about Eastern fantasy. Were there legends of the East on the West.

Marco Polo may be one of the first blockbuster fantasy novels, one that still excites the Western mind, even as it tends to be more and more problematically politically incorrect.

This Marco Polo lacks a charismatic actor at its center but does go for ethnic authenticity. Yet perhaps the problem with Marco Polo is that the fantasy is too dated for today.  I’d watch the documentary, but skip the Netflix series unless you have a fetish for Asian babes.

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