The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938) – reviewed by George

This old film, in black and white, sounds as though it might be a history lesson, but it is an adventure film with a lot of clever dialogue, and a final action sequence featuring hordes of horsemen attacking the palace of Kublai Khan in Peking. The screenplay is by Robert E. Sherwood, based on a story by N. A. Pogson. So, while a more historical movie might had been based on Marco Polo’s own accounts of his travels and exploits, Pogson’s story, possibly a story treatment, seems intent on spies, court intrigue, and a love between Marco and Kublai Khan’s daughter. This in no way diminishes the pleasures of the film. Gary Cooper makes a grand Marco, while Sigrid Gurie makes a fine, exotic princess, very sad when she resigns herself to becoming the Queen of Persia. Early on, Marco is introduced to spaghetti and fireworks by H. B. Warner (later the druggist in It’s a Wonderful Life), and the fireworks will play a huge part in the finale. Ernest Truex is Marco’s bookkeeper and traveling companion on this incredible trip, and in otherwise serious roles, Alan Hale and Binnie Barnes provide some humor as Lord Kaidu and his wife Nazama. Lana Turner has a tiny part as Kaidu’s maid, at whom he screams about feeding a goat to the dogs, when he realizes that Nazama has overhead his flirtation. George Barbier plays the Khan, and Basil Rathbone is his adviser Ahmed the Saracen. I suppose Rathbone’s British accent (when everyone else, except for Gurie, has an American one) is explained by his being a Saracen, but it weakened his work for me. Still, because of his tremendous talent for playing villains (and Ahmed is more a plotter and schemer than straightforwardly evil) he remains memorable in this role. Directed by Archie Mayo, the film is constantly interesting, and the action is good, but too much of the film takes place indoors for me. So the performances really carry the film today. Marco is portrayed as not only clever, but also the smartest man in the room, and this may well be the way it was.

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