When History Gets Messed Up: The Marco Polo Case Study

NOTE: This is more of a reflection than a review but DOES contain MANY spoilers. Read at your own risk.

Netflix is easily one of the most recognizable entertainment brands in our day and age. From taking over a good chunk of the online streaming space and developing their own in-house productions, Netflix aims to be the go-to resource of everything entertainment. Sadly, Marco Polo is a slap in the face and a major step backwards.

Before we begin this ridiculous rant, its good to provide some perspective on what their new production is all about. It follows world-renowned merchant traveler and explorer Marco Polo during his early days within the court of Kublai Khan, Mongol Emperor and grandson of Genghis Khan. The show follows Polo as he explores and studies the Mongol empire, the power of Kublai Khan, and the impact the empire had across the whole world. Along his journey, he will understand the customs of his community, learn the Mongol ways, and be part of history as it unfolds in front of him.

Sounds like a pretty solid show right? Wrong. Very Wrong.

Many writers out there have written about the misleading impact trailers have, and Marco Polo is the perfect example. As someone who is very much interested in history – specifically historical people – the issues that exist with this show go far and wide. Credit where credit is due, the trailer did capture a few elements that can be seen in every single episode: great costumes and design. A lot of work has gone into trying to capture the Mongol empire as it was, highlighting the traditional garments and colours of the time, while also creating that old-age feel. Effort has also been made in creating a set – with appropriate props – that capture the civilization during Mongol-ruled China.

Marco Polo

The beauty, however, ends there.

Past all the fancy costumes, set design and such, the production is a roller-coaster without a track, speeding towards a mountain of problems. To break it down, the show suffers on the following fronts: story, historical facts, and acting.

The story is the core to any television production as it will determine the flow through the first set of episodes and hopefully into future seasons. Marco Polo aims to capture the life of the great traveler and his time with the Mongols. However, the story is more of a patch job than something with flow. Each episode feels forced, without any excitement. You will get a random moment of a lot happening, and then nothing. Sure, they are trying to build the story, but having a merchant traveler like Marco Polo, irrelevant of how young he was at the time, just roaming around in awe for 30 minutes can become very annoying. Picture Sherlock Holmes in the BBC franchise not talking or doing his mind palace thing; he would be very annoying as well.

The biggest problem with this production is historical accuracy. Like, it is PAINFULLY inaccurate. Let’s start by looking at the basis to which this story begins. We know that Marco Polo travelled to China with his father and uncle, welcomed by Kublai Khan, and spent close to two decades in the country. However, the show pictures Marco Polo as an offering from his father, a prisoner under the Khan rule. It somewhat puts down the character, a feeling stretched over the next few episodes. Instead of capturing the moment when a imaginative merchant meets a great ruler, its more a dark, timid meeting between people who have failed to honour the Khan’s one request. It really doesn’t help develop the Marco Polo we’d like to see on screen.

Marco Polo

The one historical inaccuracy that got under my skin was a pivotal moment in the Khan’s life. The show pictures Kublai Khan and his brother Ariq Böke as best of friends, and loyal to one another, when in fact, there was a civil war between the two of them. When their brother Möngke, who held the title of Great Khan, passed away, Ariq took over the throne while his brothers were away. When they did finally return, Kublai was elected as the Great Khan despite Ariq’s claims. This kind of scenario would never have two brothers hugging away, feeling super confident in one another. That, however, was not the inaccuracy that ruffled my feathers. No, my beef is with the fact that they had Ariq killed by Kublai on the show without any previous war battles. In actuality, Kublai defeated Ariq’s armies, leading Ariq to surrender in August 1264 in the eastern city of Xanadu. Kublai never killed his brother, but did kill his supporters to prevent any future rebellion.

Many people will argue: ‘so he killed his brother on the show, so what?’ So what?! The killing of his brother by his own hands pushes character development in a very different direction. Kublai Khan was The Great Khan, a grand emperor whose power was seen through his conquests. By responding to treason by single-handedly killing his brother paints a very different picture of the ruler. The historical events painted a king who was ruthless and powerful but had compassion and understanding. The show just paints the one side and that isn’t right.

Marco Polo

To add insult to injury, the performances in the show are not gripping as one would hope. Some characters are so lame that one must ask if having them in their respective scenes adds any value or not. The title character of Marco Polo, played by Lorenzo Richelmy, showed promise with his Italian background and rough-cut look. Unfortunately, the story and the related dialogues don’t let his character shine. In fact, that character becomes a dull backdrop at times as the scenes unfold. Benedict Wong does bring out a very powerful interpretation of Kublai Khan, but his scenes are crafted in such a way that you can’t appreciate his character. With the exception of Chin Han’s menacing character Jia Sidao, the other characters don’t do anything for the story. At no point did you feel that any of the other characters were of importance to the show and its continuity (the Ariq Böke situation mentioned above is a very good example).

Marco Polo is being mentioned as Netflix’s answer to Game of Thrones. Sadly, that is a rubbish comparison. Game of Thrones is based on a fictional story where creative risks can be made to appease the audience. Marco Polo is based on a real-life, epic traveler whose stories have been immortalized for all eternity. If you take that and start messing with it, you will end up with something that will just tick people off. What the production has done is take an epic character, paired it with a pretty bland story, thrown in the typical elements of nudity and sex, and created a Game of Thrones look-a-like that doesn’t deliver. In addition, the first season of Game of Thrones was $30 million less than Marco Polo and starred Sean Bean, Lena Headey, and more. So in essence, a scaled down version that cost more. Any one want to insert the face palm quote here?

It is becoming apparent that television productions these days are relying on cheap tactics such as adding more nudity than actually crafting the story, and that is just sad. Marco Polo could have been an epic production, one that could have redefined the way we look at historical characters and how television productions are tackled in the modern age. Instead, we end up with the same old drivel inside a fancy box. Pathetic.

  1. Adnan M. writes that “Marco Polo is based on a real-life, epic traveler whose stories have been immortalized for all eternity,” criticizing any deviation from the book as being unconscionable. However, there is a well-respected theory on the part of some historians that the original work on Marco Polo was completely the invention of an Italian fiction writer. If that is the case, then what harm is there in further embellishing on a story that might be nothing more than myth anyway?

    1. Hi John. While I do agree that history itself can be debated sometimes, with everyone having a theory of their own, the fact remains that the show distorts well-established history without even blinking an eye. The tension between Kublai Khan and his brother is an after-thought in this show, when it fact it was a major happening in Kublai Khan’s reign as emperor. What happens in the show is just inaccurate, moving away from historical fact. To stick to the point addressed by Marco Polo: at no point in the first half of this show (and there are only 10 episodes mind you), do you consider Marco Polo a merchant, a traveler, an explorer. You get one or two MOMENTS of him knowing the commerce trade but that’s it.

      Entertainment mediums are meant to divert from original pieces of writing. Even the Harry Potter films don’t follow the book. Heck, Lord of the Rings is so far away from the book that you get confused. Entertainment has a certain wavelength to experiment with a character or a group of characters, a story or a bunch of stories. However, it does not give the production the green light to take well established history and quite literally chuck it out the window. I appreciate what the production tried to do. However, it pitched itself as a film about Marco Polo in China during Kublai Khan’s reign, thus following a story that is established. I see no problem deviating from it to achieve an entertainment purpose. But certain historical facts just shouldn’t be touched, especially if they pertain to the well research history of the Mongol Empire.

      I hope this puts straight my perspective a little bit more. It is, of course, an opinion, and I am up for having a conversation around things.

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