Keeping Up with the Khans

Netflix’s Marco Polo: a recap of episode 1.

By Laurence Bergreen

Monday, December 15, 2014

Benedict Wong and Lorenzo Richelmy in a scene from Netflix's “Marco Polo.” Phil Bray for Netflix.

Netflix is billing its newest original series, Marco Polo, as one of the most lavish television shows ever produced, at a cost of $90 million for ten episodes. The series is also the streaming service’s first real foray into the world of history. Lapham’s Quarterly asked Polo biographer Laurence Bergreen, author of Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu, to recap and respond to each episode. We’ll also be sharing excerpts from Polo’s own Travels, a chronicle that took readers of the Renaissance by storm.

I’ve been asked to write about Netflix’s heavily promoted new miniseries, all ten hours of it, on the basis of my book, Marco Polo: Venice to Xanadu, in which I brought a contemporary perspective to a venerable story. First of all, let me explain that I’m not among that small but hardy band of Marco Polo deniers, who claim the Venetian trader never went to China, or, at most, collected tales from other travelers and passed them off as his own. That kind of charlatan would be, primarily, Sir John Mandeville, a self-proclaimed English knight. Mandeville, who never traveled to Asia, collected all sorts of far-fetched stories and circulated them in the fourteenth century. If you were, say, Christopher Columbus, you regarded both Marco Polo’s travels and Sir John Mandeville’s account as equally plausible, but only Polo’s story was the real deal. It is a great story, one of the most widely read books of the Renaissance, and it’s been adapted to movies and television a number of times over the years. For example, there was The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938), which starred a very non-Italian Gary Cooper.

At least that movie was easy to follow. Even though I wrote a long, detailed book on the subject, as I watched episode one of the Netflix series, I often had little idea of where events were being drawn from the historical record. Desert, swordplay, concubines, Marco Polo in jail, Marco Polo out of jail—it all unfolded with little rhyme or reason. And then there was Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor, with his voice dubbed in a flat, nasal Bronx accent. This made me feel at home, but it did not help me to suspend disbelief. So I settled back, and I’ve been trying to enjoy the miniseries as a spaghetti samurai epic. Accuracy be damned.

Up First: A Recap of Episode One

We first meet the dashing young Venetian Marco Polo (played by Lorenzo Richelmy) walking with his father and uncle through a field of mutilated bodies; these are the remains of a massacre at the hands of Kublai Khan’s army. We then watch the army return and kill everyone standing—except the Italians, who are taken straight to the emperor.

At the throne of Emperor Khan, the Polos kneel and offer a vial of holy oil as tribute. Khan (Benedict Wong), as we later find out, is a lovable and self-aware brute, but at the moment he is indignant that no high-ranking Catholic officials are being offered. Seeing an opportunity, Marco’s father (Pierfrancesco Favino) offers his son Marco as tribute in exchange for permission to trade in the emperor’s domain. Khan is amused and accepts, but not without shouting as they leave: “I still want those priests!”

While imprisoned, Marco, in a flashback, recalls his life up to this point: his father’s long absence during his childhood; disobeying his father’s wishes to stow away and join an adventure; his father’s acknowledgement of his courage during an arduous journey.

Back at the court of Kublai Khan, the emperor’s handsome son (Remy Hii) is desperately trying to impress his father. But he is a lover, not a fighter. His advice to the emperor is to make the Song dynasty rebels in Xiangyang pay tribute, rather than wage a bloody war. This course of action is mocked by Khan’s family, who worry he is becoming “too Chinese, too cultured” and ask if Khan will be “the emperor of Mongolia or the emperor of China.” Khan jabs a sword into the ground and proclaims: “emperor of China, emperor of Mongolia, I will be emperor of the world!”

Meanwhile, in Xiangyang we meet the Han Chinese rebels, with their dying emperor, stern empress dowager, and scheming chancellor. The chancellor, who speaks with breathy detachment, is excited for the conciliatory Song Emperor to die so he can take command and prepare to battle the Mongolians. We are also introduced to the chancellor’s sister, who is the emperor’s favored concubine: she is sent to improve diplomatic ties with the governor of Suzhou. In order to secure an agreement, she pulls out a menacing jade hairpin mid-coitus and threatens to stab the governor.

So where does Marco fit in with these inter-dynastic struggles and warring states? It remains a mystery in this episode. All he needs to worry about for now, it seems, is keeping on Khan’s good side, which means training under a blind martial-arts master Bayan the Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu), who can throw a pear and cut it twice before it hits the ground. Staying on Khan’s good side also means visiting him in his brothel without touching any of the women there.

It is this combination of swordplay, sex, and war that gives rise to this episode’s most amusing three-part montage: a sequence that cuts between Khan’s son and the Mongol hordes poised for battle, Marco resisting the temptation of concubines, and Bayan the Hundred Eyes dancing around a snake. Just as the snake is caught, Marco escapes from the brothel, and the emperor’s son charges into battle against the Song rebels.

My Take

Marco Polo’s travels aren’t really a narrative. He dictated them as an older man in jail to a romance writer, Rusticello of Pisa, and intended them as a guide for other business travelers. He was more interested in items to trade, such as fabrics and gems, than in colorful narrative. We know next to nothing about his personal life during the twenty-four years he spent away from Venice. So all the orgies and courtesans shown in the miniseries are, as they say, conjectural. Caveat emptor.

As a glance at Marco Polo’s actual account reveals, the historical individual and his family—to say nothing of Kublai Khan and the Mongol Empire—are so much more interesting than this flattened-out adventure tale. The first episode seems part Ridley Scott and part an after-school special—and mostly the after-school special. The mystique and appeal of the original has dissipated amid a welter of clichés and the rush to stuff it all into a genre production. I can’t say this enough, but Marco Polo’s travels were, among other things, an encyclopedia (the first of its kind) of the people, customs, events, and business conditions along various branches and tributaries of the Silk Road. Nearly all of these were new to the West. For instance, the city of Hangzhou, Marco Polo’s home away from home, was the largest city in the world by far in those days, ten times larger than Venice or Paris or London. That news came as a shock to a Europe struggling with the depredations wrought by the plague. Not until the nineteenth century—just the other day in historical terms—did Marco Polo’s account receive independent confirmation from other Westerners, who’d finally made it all the way to China.

Maybe it’s too much to ask of a miniseries, but none of this spectacle is coming through in the first episode, despite its epic aspirations. Okay, so it’s not David Lean of Lawrence of Arabia at the helm, or the Bernardo Bertolucci of Last Emperor, another Asian extravaganza, but I was hoping for more candy for the eye and food for the brain. Instead, we get a heavy-handed representation of the amazing Mongols as a mixture of action figures from a lost Star Trek episode and Planet of the Apes. Well, they were neither; the Mongols were amazingly resourceful, sophisticated, adaptable, open-minded (at least in some ways), and fierce. Think what it took for this tiny band of nomads—does the concept of nomad come through in the miniseries?—to conquer the most powerful and sophisticated empire on earth, China. Think about what it took for them to fire arrows in one direction while riding horseback in another. Or the imposition of a Mongol version of the Pony Express to carry important documents around this vast empire. Or the cunning way the Mongols allowed the Chinese to go about their business, rather than carrying on as oppressors. If they showed those things in this episode, I missed them. Any of these items could have injected interest into what threatens to become an extended version of the Karate Kid. But Marco Polo was not a martial arts expert or student, as the miniseries makes him out to be. He was one of a number of Europeans whom Kublai Khan skillfully deployed as tax collectors and spies, precisely because they were foreigners. The miniseries alludes to this in passing, but doesn’t really show how that plays out, at least not yet.

When I give talks about Marco Polo, I like to point out that his encounter with China reversed the usual ways we in the west look at things. Leaving Venice for Asia, he was going to a much more advanced civilization—technologically, philosophically, almost any way you can name. I didn’t see any of this in the show; it would have been fascinating to show how he visited the future by going to China, not the past.

With Malcolm Nicholson.