(director: Archie Mayo; screenwriters: the story by N.A. Pogso/Robert E. Sherwood; cinematographers: Rudolph Maté/Archie Stout; editor: Fred Allen; music: Hugo Friedhofer; cast: Gary Cooper (Marco Polo), Sigrid Gurie (Princess Kukachin), Basil Rathbone (Ahmed), Ernest Truex (Binguccio), Alan Hale (Kaidu), George Barbier (Kublai Khan), Binnie Barnes (Nazama), Lana Turner (Nazama’s Maid), Stanley Fields (Bayan), Harold Huber (Toctai), H. B. Warner (Chen Tsu), Henry Kolker (Nicolo Polo); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Samuel Goldwyn; United Artists; 1938)

“As soft as boiled pasta.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Sam Goldwyn presents a lavish b/w production to tell the fictionalized Hollywood version of Marco Polo, world traveler, merchant, diplomat, explorer, adventurer and confirmed fanciful storyteller, and his trip to China in the 13th century. The film bombs as it’s not helped by a thin script from noted playwright Robert E. Sherwood, a lame free-wheeling short story by N.A. Pogso and a miscast Gary Cooper playing Marco Polo as if it were a western and not a tale about a swashbuckler. In spite of its gorgeous sets and ambitions to go from melodrama to comedy, everything seemed flat and as soft as boiled pasta. It was one of Goldwyn’s biggest money-losers (the figure is estimated around $700,000) and one of Coop’s biggest failures.

Venetian Marco Polo (Gary Cooper) is sent by his merchant father Nicolo to China on a trade mission, accompanied by his bookkeeper Binguccio (Ernest Truex). The hearty travelers overcome shipwrecks, sandstorms in the Persian desert and the mountains of Tibet; by the time they pass though the gate in the Great Wall to China the six foot, three inch Marco, dressed as a Chinaman, is carrying the burly shrimp Binguccio on his back. Soon as arriving, the nation’s first Europeans make friends with the amiable philosopher, merchant and inventor Chen Tsu (H. B. Warner), who introduces the westerner to “Spaghett,” known to us as spaghetti, and gunpowder (used by Tsu for celebrations but Marco thinks it can be used as a weapon); Marco puts away samples of the many new wonders, such as coal, to bring back to his father.

Marco is invited to the court of benevolent emperor Kublai Khan (George Barbier) and begins a relationship with the emperor’s inexperienced daughter, Princess Kukachin (Sigrid Gurie), by introducing her to kissing (evidently kissing on the lips was not known in China according to this film). She has been promised from birth to the Persian king, someone she has never met, but is anxious that he’s handsome. Khan’s duplicitous adviser Ahmed (Basil Rathbone) has his own designs on the Princess, hoping to marry her and make himself the legitimate ruler once he takes out pop. Ahmed thereby gives the emperor bad advice to have his million men army attack Japan (a losing proposition) and therefore while the emperor is unprotected at home to have his loyal troops steal the empire and force Kukachin to marry him. The sleaze has an instinct dislike of the powerful Marco and takes him to his private tower where he keeps vultures and shows Marco how ruthless he can be as he has a spy fall down a trap door into a pit full of man-eating tigers.

Marco is guided to Kaidu (Alan Hale), a suspected enemy of the emperor, as he’s ordered by the emperor and Ahmed to spy on him. Bayan (Stanley Fields), Ahmed’s assassin, mistakenly reports he killed Marco. But Marco and Binguccio elude him and are captured by Kaidu. Kaidu’s loopy possessive wife Nazama (Binnie Barnes) falls for Marco and so Kaidu decides not to execute the spies as long as they can keep charming his jealous wife so he can have some space to chase after other women (like Eurasian handmaiden Lana Turner). When Ahmed forces Kukachin to marry him, telling her dad to sign a will making Ahmed his heir or else he threatens her with an attack by the vultures, she sends a message to Marco by bird for help. But Kaidu refuses to let Marco leave. To get around that little problem Marco urges Ahmed’s other assassin, Toctai (Harold Huber), who goes undercover to work in Kaidu’s palace, to kill Kaidu after he has detained him with Binguccio’s singing; instead Marco saves Kaidu’s life and is rewarded with the warrior’s assistance in attacking Ahmed with his army. They enter the locked gates to the palace by the use of the gunpowder and free the Princess just before she marries, and they feed Ahmed to the lions. Kaidu tells Kublai Khan he resents his high taxes and the two settle their dispute amiably and become friends again, and Marco honors her father’s request to take Kukachin to Persia the long way.

The film plays fast and loose with history, mixing real events with fabulist embellishments.

Goldwyn discovery Sigrid Gurie was hyped as the “The Siren of the Fjords” and the publicists called her “the Norwegian Garbo” in press releases. But it backfired when reporters uncovered that Gurie was from Brooklyn, New York. Nothing seemed to go right for this pic.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”