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Marco Polo travels from Venice to Peking, where he quickly discovers spaghetti and gunpowder and falls in love with the Emperor's daughter. The Emperor Kublai Khan is a kindly fellow, but his evil aide Ahmed wants to get rid of Kublai Khan so he can be emperor, and to get rid of Marco Polo so he can marry the princess. Ahmed sends Marco Polo to the West to fight barbarians, but he returns just in time to save the day. Written by
John Oswalt <email@example.com>
You either get it or you don't. Like most studio films, this movie was intended to make money by providing one thing - entertainment. Not a history lesson, not social commentary. Entertainment. Like the better realized but equally fake-medieval "Adventures of Robin Hood," released the same year (1938), "The Adventures of Marco Polo" (note the similar title) provides plenty of entertainment in the comedy-adventure genre that eventually led to "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Evaluating either "Raiders" or "Marco Polo" on its historical accuracy misses the point. It's like asking how Marco is able to speak what must be flawless Mandarin, plus the language of Alan Hale's presumably Turkic people. If you gotta ask, the movie just isn't your style.
Cooper looks a little less comfortable in this role than in some others, but he's adequately wry and intrepid, never taking the role of Marco too seriously. The rarely-seen Sigrid Gurie, whose face reminds one of Garbo, even through the Asian makeup, is beautiful and ethereal as the daughter of Kublai, played with Midwestern folksiness by the affable George Barbier. (Remember, it's not supposed to be real.) As Kublai's evil vizier, Basil Rathbone emanates the same elegant menace as he did in the role of Sir Guy in "Robin Hood." The ubiquitous Alan Hale, Sr., plays his usual self, and if you look carefully you'll see teenybopper Lana Turner in a small but fully credited role.
Why aren't there any Chinese here in leading roles? Because first, the studio had big-name actors on contract and meant to use their box-office appeal to make a bundle. Second, despite the potentially impressive Asian-American talent pool in California no greed-driven executive would have counted on white audiences in 1938 to shell out Depression-era cash to watch Asian unknowns acting the leads in for-profit motion picture. "The Adventures of Marco Polo" is not "The Last Emperor," and it doesn't pretend to be. Nor is it a misconceived turkey like John Wayne's Mongol epic "The Conqueror" (1961). Instead it's only a great "family film" and simple adventurous fun in the pulp-magazine tradition.
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