The Legend of Genghis Khan

There are parts of the world today where Genghis Khan (c. 1162-1227) is viewed as the ultimate culture hero and founder of the largest empire on a single land mass in human history. There are others who  see him as the most murderous conqueror ever to scourge the face of the earth. Enough is known of this man to make it certain that he really existed and initiated his massive conquest from the nomadic regions of Mongolia. At the same time, a great deal of legend has been attached to this story and it is never easy to separate the facts from fiction. Over the last century or so, the movie industry has done its part to add further embellishments to the truth.

The first three movies on my Genghis Khan list are the most ridiculous. They are The Conqueror (1956), Genghis Khan (1965), and Genghis Khan (1992). The first one  stars John Wayne and it speaks for itself. The second one stars a much too handsome Omar Sharif and descends to the level of absurdity with the performances of James Mason and Robert Morley as Chinese royals. The third one was originally advertised as a vehicle for Charlton Heston,  apparently not in the title role, but the production ran into crippling difficulties. It is available for download on Amazon.

Genghis Khan: To the Ends of the Earth and Sea (2007), Mongol (2007)

These next two movies were made by Japanese and Russian film companies respectively and feature entirely Asian casts. In each of them, Genghis Khan was played by a Japanese actor. Genghis Khan: To the Ends of Earth and Sea was filmed in Mongolia.  Mongol had to be filmed in China. Both films did much better in markets other than the U.S.

The Legend of Marco Polo

After the death of Genghis Khan, his successors  carried on the extension of his empire until it eventually reached from the Pacific to the borders of Europe. The fifth in succession was Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis. He made his base of power in a subjugated China, founded the Yuan Dynasty, and called himself Emperor. There is no Hollywood movie devoted to Kublai but he figures heavily in the several films about Marco Polo.

Long before I entertained any hope of traveling the world or any aspiration for writing this book and website, I read a novel called the The Journeyer, by Gary Jennings (1984). It was based on The Travels of Marco Polo and it was as close as I could come at that time to offshore adventure. I knew it was fiction but I had no reason to doubt that it was rooted in real life experience. It has only been in preparation for this current work that I have become startlingly aware of doubts that Marco Polo made his famous journey from Venice to Beijing, or even that he ever existed at all. Legend has it that he dictated his travel memoirs to a fellow prisoner while incarcerated in Genoa. The original document is no longer extant and in its place are some hundreds of versions of The Travels of Marco Polo, leading to the suspicion that it joins the King Arthur stories as a popular legend that has been embroidered many times over by scribes who take the license to make improvements. Mainstream scholarly opinion holds that there was a Marco Polo and he did make his journey, though he would not have been the first European to have done so. This makes it seem possible that the narrative attached to his name is drawn from his fervent imagination, or the reports of others, hearsay or factual.

There has not yet been a definitive Marco Polo movie from Hollywood, but over the years there have been a few lame attempts both for the big screen and for TV. The earliest one on my list stars Gary Cooper and has something of the same unintentional humor as the John Wayne movie about Genghis Khan. I could find no trailer for this movie but I did find a YouTube clip that tracks his journey over the Silk Road, and stops just as he makes it across the border into China. I am providing some excerpts from my full review to fill in some of the gaps.

The Adventures of Marco Polo  (1938)

Gary Cooper stars as the Venetian adventurer, Marco Polo (c. 1254-1324). This film has the look of a college theater production.  Most of the settings appear to be flats or painted backdrops. The year 1938 was not a good time for shooting in foreign locations. Marco is summoned by his father from a lady’s chamber along the canals of Venice and informed that he is being sent on his own to China.  He travels through a brief montage of oceans and deserts to arrive at Xanadu tired and hungry. There he is made welcome in the palace of the friendly old Kublai Khan. Almost immediately he catches sight of the Princess (the serene Sigrid Gurie), daughter of the Great Khan. She is, sadly, promised to the King of Persia.  Basil Rathbone is the evil Prime Minister, who is fomenting a war with Japan. He makes himself known to Marco by demonstrating his means of execution, dropping a man through a vaudevillian trap door into a lion’s den. The merchant from Venice is drawn into various palace intrigues and dangerous adventures, helping in the end to fend off an invasion of Kublai’s empire by employing the new invention of gunpowder. The Khan has the quality of the Wizard of Oz. Marco proposes to escort the Princess to Persia, taking the long way home to Venice. Almost all of the details in this screenplay are radically altered from the traditions of The Travels of Marco Polo. The film was a failure at the box office.

There are two other early Marco Polo movies, even more unpromising. This is Leonard Maltin territory. Rory Calhoun stars in a 1962 Italian version of Marco Polo.  Maltin calls it an “unspectacular epic.”  Desi Arnaz, Jr. and Zero Mostel are featured in a musical film called Marco (1973).  Maltin says it is lumbering and disappointing.

Marco Polo (1982) – TV Miniseries

Despite a lineup of major stars in minor roles, including Burt Lancaster, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, John Houseman, F. Murray Abraham, and Leonard Nimoy, this ten-hour miniseries did not do well with the critics. Kublai Khan is played by a noted Chinese actor. I found the trailer, but not the film, just as I was finishing this page.

Marco Polo (2007 TV film)

Made-for-TV and now available on YouTube, this movie does a fair job of distilling the legend of Marco Polo to its most popular parts. The action is framed by scenes in the Genoa dungeon where Marco relates his exotic experiences to his cellmate, named Rustigielo of Pisa, who eagerly writes them down. In flashbacks, young Marco hears tales of the journey to China from his merchant father and uncle. Seized with the promise of adventure, he elects to join them on their return trip. In the beginning, there is the necessary travelogue with dramatic footage of ship and caravan sailing from Venice to the Levant and then overland on the Silk Road to the northeast. Arriving at the summer palace of Kublai Khan (Brian Dennehy!), Marco defies the wishes of his father and uncle, deciding to place himself in the service of the Great Khan. His fortunes rise and fall at the pleasure or displeasure of his patron. When things are bad, he is put in a dungeon with a wooden weight around his neck. When things are good, he is made a gift of a beautiful slave girl whom he comes to love. The main body of the film is given to Marco’s adventures in love and war. Almost the last third of the movie, however, is taken up with an elaborate fiction involving his efforts to keep his beloved slave girl from being delivered to the King of Persia. He acts as her guardian on the two-year trip around the tip of India with the intention of spiriting her away to Venice. It almost works out for the best until the fates intervene.

I could finally this poor quality trailer, interesting primarily for the Brian Dennehy interpretation of a Mongol Emperor.

 Marco Polo  (2014) – Netflix Series

This ten-episode TV series appeared on Netflix in December 2014. The first episode opens with the arrival of the Polo family, father, son, and uncle, at a village in China. It has been decimated by the forces of the Great Khan and there are many bodies impaled on stakes. Soldiers appear and take the Polos to meet Kublai Khan. The elder Polo negotiates for rights to trade in China and agrees to leave his son at Kublai’s court as hostage. Now the credits roll and the story doubles back to Venice where the three Polos are preparing for their journey. Vast deserts, forbidding mountains, sudden storms, and personal crises slow them down but never cause them to turn back. For those of us who will never get to Samarkand, this is a chance to see the sights as the Polos did in the late 13th century.

From this point onward, it becomes increasingly possible to see why this project fared so poorly with the critics. There is a great deal of invented detail revolving around Marco’s life at court, most of it designed to create occasions for female nudity and male-to-male violence.  The action centers on the determined efforts of Kublai to conquer an imposing walled city, last holdout against his complete control of China. In its favor, this series is splendid in its scenic interiors and exteriors. It is also a landmark in the Marco Polo filmography if for no other reason than all of the Asian characters are played by Asian actors. Benedict Wong, a British actor of Chinese descent, gives Kublai Khan a rightfully dominant role in this drama. As I was writing this, it was announced that Netflix had ordered another ten episodes of this series for next season.


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