The Adventures of Marco Polo DVD Review: "The Princess Bride" of Its Day?

The Warner Archive re-releases a highly enjoyable epic of a box office bomb from 1938.
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As anyone who was taught in grade school about what a great benefactor Christopher Columbus was to the Natives on the New World has since gone on to discover, the telling of history is not always about the facts. And while a bit of whitewashing is absolutely unacceptable when it comes to one's education, taking such liberties generally makes a big screen motion picture more favorable to people whose only purpose is to be entertained.

Ironically, the very same audience who drooled over Samuel Goldwyn's 1939 adaptation of Wuthering Heights - a film that stayed heavily from its own source material - cried foul when the iconic producer unveiled his historically inaccurate epic The Adventures of Marco Polo the year before. Though it was as well-received then as would be petitioning the inclusion of a Columbus Appreciation Course at a tribal university today, I have to say The Adventures of Marco Polo possesses a certain amount of charm when viewed in this day and age. In fact, I dare say that this very well could have been The Princess Bride of 1938 were one to go out of their way to assemble a listing of movies that would fall into such an odd filing.

Sure, it's just as correct politically as it is historically - witness the casting of many non-Asian performers as Asian characters (which was commonplace in the old days, so just deal with it) - and from the very moment our titular hero is summoned by his comic relief counterpart by way of his horrible singing, and promptly strolls into China to discover everybody speaks English, it is fairly evident that we are not supposed to take this one too terribly seriously. And once you, the viewer, get atop of that wave, well then The Adventures of Marco Polo is quite the fun and entertaining ride from thereon in.

Here, the great Gary Cooper manages to rise above being cast in a role he himself thought he was entirely wrong for, inhabiting the role of the least Italian-like Marco Polo in moving picture history whilst exhibiting a great deal of flair akin to that of your average Errol Flynn swordfighter/swashbuckler flick of the time. Another (undoubtedly deliberate) parallel is notable with the casting of Basil Rathbone as the story's villain Ahmed - a character that could very well be the distant cousin of Rathbone's Sir Guy of Gisbourne in the Errol Flynn masterpiece, the similarly titled The Adventures of Robin Hood, which Marco Polo beat to the silver screen a full month before (hey, timing is everything, right?).

After crossing the burning sands of the Sahara and frozen peaks of the Himalayas, Marco Polo and his sidekick Binguccio (Ernest Truex) emerge in Peking (land of Duck), wherein they our charismatic hero delights the ultra-friendly war-happy Kublai Khan (George Barbier, who shines admirably even with all that horrible yellowface makeup on). Marco also catches the bright, light-colored eyes of Princess Kukachin (Sigrid Gurie), whom he is only too happy to introduce the art of kissing to. This in-turn sets the stage for what is undoubtedly the film's funniest moment, when one of Rathbone's henchman Stanley Fields witnesses the unfamiliar facial embrace and reenacts it with a less-than-pleased Harold Huber to explain what he had seen. On-screen, mind you, thus making this the Brokeback Mountain of 1938 too, I suppose.

Sensing too much charisma and good, Ahmed persuades Emperor Khan to send Marco Polo to the land of their mortal enemy, Kaidu (played by a very jolly Alan Hale), before sending his oblivious king off to invade Japan on what he knows will be a suicide mission. But Kaidu doesn't mind Polo's presence all that much; in fact, he's just what the doctor ordered, as his oppressive wife (Binnie Barnes) clearly has the hots for the charming foreigner, which Kaidu sees as his golden ticket to landing his servant girl (played by an unknown Lana Turner, whose eyebrows never grew back after being shaved for her role here as an Eastern Asian lass). Soon enough, Ahmed's diabolical plan to marry the Princess and take over the kingdom comes to light for Polo to see, and our intrepid adventurer must figure out a way to save the day.

Also starring in this fun, decidedly brainless Hollywood comedy/adventure/drama are Robert Greig (the suffering butler Hives in The Marx Brothers' Animal Crackers) as Barbier's long-nailed chamberlain, Ferdinand Gottschalk as a doomed Persian ambassador, Henry Kolker as Marco's father (who sets him out on his mission), and H.B. Warner delivers what is without a doubt the film's most dignified performance as local philosopher/firework manufacturer Chen Tsu. Warner also portrayed Jesus, the Christ in Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings in 1927 - the first film to be shown at Grauman's Chinese Theater, which I suppose justifies his casting here in some very strange way that I haven't quite worked out yet.

A reissue of an out-of-print MGM DVD, The Adventures of Marco Polo returns once more via the Warner Archive Collection, who have ported over the original 2007 disc's 1.37:1 video presentation as well as mono audio soundtrack. The visual aspect of the title is quite nice all around, with a few blemishes standing out every now and again like a white guy made to look like an Eastern Asian fellow. Likewise, the soundtrack comes through very clear. English (SDH) subtitles are also on-hand, though the main menu does not indicate such. No other extras are included for this release, but the strange little former box-office flop - much like Gary Cooper's Marco Polo, whom no woman can resist - appealed to me so, that it hardly bothered me.

Ripe with political incorrectness, sexual innuendo, and one of cinema's first gay kisses, Samuel Goldwyn's once-disastrous The Adventures of Marco Polo receives a hearty recommendation from yours truly for all of those reasons and more. And besides, what have you got to lose? It's still a whole hell of a lot closer to the truth than what my grade-school teachers taught me about Christopher Columbus!

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