Sunday, December 14, 2014

Marco Polo: Evocative History

I just finished watching the remarkable television tableau that is Marco Polo.  It was said by some to be Netflix's answer to Game of Thrones, but it's really nothing like that high fantasy of knight and dragon, because Marco Polo is about a real man who lived in and changed history.   In that sense, it's more like Rome, but not so much like that HBO masterpiece either, peopled as it was by not one but many real characters from history, whom we know pretty well, ranging from Julius Caesar to Cicero to Antony and Cleopatra.  Maybe The Vikings would be the closest fit, a history with hardly anyone we know.  But in truth Marco Polo not only has a story but a feel and presentation all its wondrous own.

The action after the beginning of the first episode all takes place in China, though the Europe of 1273 and The Silk Road that connected them are in everyone's thoughts and speech.   Marco Polo, who in our real history was a pathbreaking merchant who spent much time in the court of Kubla Khan, bringing marvels of the Orient back to Italy, is here much more than that, almost a Leonardo in his understanding of science and invention, and a poet with words as well.  This painting with words is what first gets him into Kubla's good graces, but Marco's facility for machines of war proves crucial in the battles the Mongols are fighting with the Song Dynasty (which I grew up seeing rendered as the Sung Dynasty).

The Chancellor of the Song is a brilliant adversary, who has beaten and may still be able to beat the Mongols.   On his side is an impenetrable wall and a secret new weapon, gunpowder.   What Kubla has is lethally good Mongol cavalry - who conquered more of the world than Alexander the Great or the Romans - and Marco.   Unless you know your history better than I do, you won't know who wins what battle until you see it on the screen.   (The winning weapon in the decisive battle is entirely true to recorded history.)

The personal duels are also excellent.  My favorite involved a blind monk, who is not only Marco's tutor in arms, but better than just about every fighter with sight, including more than one at the same time.   The ballet of Far Eastern interpersonal combat is excellent and a sight to behold.

Women play a major role in this story, with Kubla's wife smarter than he, and younger women not only good in bed but better in combat than many a man.   The cinematography is outstanding - looking like paintings I've seen in books and museums come to life - and the music is haunting, too, representing, I assume, real traditional Mongol music.

If I had to compare Marco Polo to other real historical drama on television, I'd say it's better than The Borgias, about as good as The Tudors and The Vikings, but not as good as Rome.  But that's high praise indeed in my book, and I highly recommend Marco Polo.

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