The Adventures of  Marco Polo (1938)





Director:     Archie Mayo

Starring:     Gary Cooper (Marco Polo),  Sigrid Gurie (love interest Princess Kukachin),  Basil Rathbone (sinister Ahmed),  George Barbier (Kublai Khan),  Binnie Barnes (Nazama),  Ernest Truex (Polo's sidekick Binguccio),  Alan Hale (outlaw Kaidu),  H.B. Warner (Chen Tsu),  Robert Grieg (Chamberlain),  Ferdinand Gottschalk (Persian Ambassador),  Henry Kolker (Nicolo Polo),  Lotus Liu (Visakha),  Stanley Fields (Bayan),  Harold Huber (Toctai),  Lana Turner (maid).

Gary Cooper is Marco Polo; Basil Rathbone is the villain; and Lana Turner is one of the handmaidens.  



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

"Marco Polo lived in Venice seven hundred years ago.  He was the first European to visit China and write the story of his adventures in that land of magic and mystery.  He was also the first traveling salesman." 

Venice.  Nicolo Polo shows his guests some of the precious cargo he brought back from the far east.  More specifically, he is showing the men his treasures he gathered in China.  The other men are merchants, but can't take the long journey necessary to get to China and back.  Nicolo says that his son Marco Polo can make the trip.  

A merchant named Binguccio goes searching for Marco Polo in a gondola.  Nicolo wants to see his son immediately.  He finds Marco with a young woman named Angelina.  She tells Marco and he comes out and gets in the gondola. 

Nicolo tells Marco that he wants him to return from China with agreements that will allow their merchant ships access to the China seas.  Binguccio is going to go along with Marco.  Nicolo has a letter from him to Kublai Khan in his city of Peking (now Beijing).  Marco's route will begin by sailing to the port of Acre (in today's Israel).   On the way to Acre a terrible storm blows up, lashing the ship hard with winds and waves.  The ship goes down and Marco and Binguccio have to be saved by some friendly Arabs. 

From Acre Marco goes across Persia.  It's just the two of them in a vast desert.  A sand storm approaches.  They lay their horses down below a hill and wait out the storm.  Finally, the team comes to Peking.  They see the Great Wall along the way.  Binguccio collapses after coming through the gate to the city of Peking.  Marco has to carry him on his back.  Very soon after arriving, an educated older man takes the two foreigners into his home to eat with his family.  The two Venetians are introduced to noodles, which the Chinese call "spaghet".   The children have a good laugh at the clumsy way in which the foreigners try to eat the noodles with chop sticks. 

Their host, Chen Tsu, tells Marco to be careful.  While Kublai Khan is a good and just man, his main adviser is extremely cruel.  He is a Saracen named Ahmed, a foreigner, who is the emperor's minister of state.  The children place a lit firecracker under a sleeping Binguccio and are delighted at the effect of the explosion on their guest.  Marco is very curious about the firecracker.  Chen Tsu tells Marco how it is made.  Fire powder is made of a combination of carbon, sulfur and saltpeter.  Marco wants to know if the fire powder is used in war, but Che Tsu tells him that would be much too deadly. 

Marco carries Binguccio to the palace to see the Great Khan. They are stopped by the guard.  When Marco mentions his name, the guard recognizes it.  He says he was informed of his arrival as soon as he set foot in China.  The two Venetians are shown to their palace quarters. 

Kublai Khan speaks about his plan to invade the Japanese isles.  The emperor then speaks with Ahmed about a problem in the west with a band under the leadership of Kaidu the Tartar.  He asks Ahmed to fill Kaidu's camp with spies.  Ahmed tells the emperor that he has already been doing this for a long time now and his Majesty need not worry about Kaidu.    He then goes on to tell the emperor that China has one million soldiers and 10,000 ships ready to invade Japan.

The Chamberlain comes in to see the emperor.  He tells him that a stranger named Marco Polo has come from the city of Venice in the empire of Rome.  But first, the emperor must see the Persian ambassador.  The ambassador asks when his sire will be able to marry the emperor's beautiful daughter, the Princess Kukachin.  After all, the time is near when she must fulfill the negotiated marriage contract. The emperor says that Princess Kukachin will embark for Persia at the seventh moon. 

The princess is with her servant Visakha.  Marco wanders around the palace and sees the princess and Visakha arranging flowers.  The princess talks with a goddess about going to Persia where she will be a queen.  Marco wanders over to her.  He surprises the princess with his unannounced presence.  She asks his name and he tells her.  He also tells her that she is simply exquisite.  Marco is taken away by the Chamberlain to take him to see the Great Khan. 

Marco just tells the Khan that he is just here for educational purposes.  He has heard so much about this great land that he wants to see its wonders.  The princess comes in and the Khan introduces her to Marco.  They are interrupted by the arrival of the young women.  Kublai Khan tells Marco that each year the most beautiful women of the empire are selected as candidates to serve as attendants at court.   A lot of women come in dressed in their native costumes.  The Great Khan asks Marco to select those who should be chosen to be court attendants.  

He approaches the women and then takes one at a time and asks them to answer a whispered question.  After awhile Marco has sorted the women into groups.  The Khan now wants to know what questions did he ask the ladies?  Marco says he only asked them one question:  "How many teeth does a snapping turtle have?"  Marco then eliminates the group of candidates who offered a definite answer in the form of the number of teeth such a turtle has.  Then he eliminates those who gave the right answer:  the snapping turtle has no teeth.  He says these women know too much.  Marco now recommends the remaining girls since they all said:  "I don't know."  This proves that they are both honest and reasonable.  His Majesty accepts the group that Marco chose. 

Now the Great Khan turns Marco over to Ahmed.  Ahmed will show Marco the pleasures of the palace.  When Binguccio arrives, Ahmed invites him along on the tour.  Ahmed takes the men to see his quarters.  He has a fortress within a fortress, reachable only by a draw bridge.  Inside his tower, Ahmed shows them his collection of vultures.  Ahmed uses the vultures as aids to his methods of torture.   When a prisoner is brought in to see Ahmed, the minister throws food to the vultures and they pick the flesh off down to the bone, thereby putting more fear into the hearts of those to be tortured. 

A prisoner is brought in.  Ahmed explains that the prisoner is an officer in the army of Kaidu.  He entered the palace as a spy for Kaidu.  Ahmed tells the man that this is the last time he will be asked to tell them what they want to know.  One of the guards has to tell Ahmed that the prisoner's tongue has already been cut off. So Ahmed has the guard put the fellow out of his misery.  The guard goes over and trips a lever opening a hole up underneath the prisoner.  The captive falls into a den of hungry lions. 

Binguccio tells Marco that they have been in the palace for seven days now.  When are they going to return to Venice?  Marco just tells him not to rush things.  He sees the princess outside in the courtyard and goes to talk to her.  He asks her if a princess like her can marry any man of her choice?  She says ever since she was a baby she was promised to the King of Persia.  Marco tells her that she doesn't really love this King of Persia, a man she has never even seen.  The princess says that the love for her king will grow in her heart.  So Marco says he's leaving,, but he keeps hanging around.  He finally asks the princess for some remembrance.  He asks permission to kiss her.  The princess does not know what a kiss is.  So Marco volunteers to show her.   He slowly kisses her.  Then he kisses her again.  She seems to like it because she asks him if she could do it too?  So they kiss again, but this time go in for a longer kiss.   She kisses him again.  One of the guards sees this and is puzzled, but he figures this can't be a thing right for the princess to do. 

Ahmed tells one of his men, Toctai, that they have to put down the Kaidu rebellion before the Khan finds out about the heavy taxes they have been collecting from the people of that area.  He wants his men to infiltrate into Kaidu's army and cause a lot of discontent (by convincing the people that it is Kaidu who is actually taking the tax monies for himself).  Bayan reports to Ahmed that the princess and Marco were doing something strange with their mouths in the courtyard.  This throws Ahmed into action.

The emperor has called Marco before him.  He tells Marco that he is to go after Kaidu in the west and cooperate in intelligence gathering on Kaidu and his army.  Marco objects that he is just a traveler/visitor.  The emperor tells Marco that if he will do this for them, the emperor will look more kindly on signing the trade agreements Polo wants.  Marco feels he's cornered and has to go.  He goes to tell Binguccio to pack up their things for they are going west.  Home?, asks Binguccio.  No, they are going into trouble.

The princess comes to see Marco.  She wants to know why they are sending him to the west?  The princess tells him he must not go, because Ahmed will never let him return alive.  Marco tells her that Ahmed could kill him here just as well as in Kaidu's province.  And if he does this favor for her father, maybe she won't have to marry the King of Persia.  The princess loves Marco and she initiates the kisses now.  They are, however, interrupted by Ahmed who tells Marco that the horses are ready to go. 

Marco and his assistant travel northwest to the territory of Kaidu.  In the territory Kaidu puts to death three of Ahmed's spies.  He now tells his men that they are to capture the spies before they get into his camp.  The men go out into the mountains to catch more spies.  They see Marco and Binguccio down below them coming over the bridge that leads into Kaidu's province.  The two guards with Marco now turn back.  Marco tells Bayan that he will see him again, but Bayan is doubtful of that happening.  Kaidu's men capture Marco and Binguccio after a brief chase.

Kaidu finds a new female servant has started work for him.  He is very taken with her and starts his approach to win her over to him.  As he talks, his wife Nazama walks into the tent.  When Kaidu sees her, he acts like he is very angry with the servant and tells her to get out.  The servant leaves.  Nazama warns her husband that she better not see him even looking at another woman.

Marco and Binguccio are brought before Lord Kaidu.   Nazama seems very taken by the look of Marco.  Kaidu notices his wife looking at Marco and he wants to torture the two men, but Nazama intervenes.  Marco puts on all the charm he can muster to soft-talk Nazama.  He compliments her on her great beauty.  Nazama tells her husband that it is obvious that this man is not a spy.  Lord Kaidu now sends everyone out except for a guard and Marco.  He tells the man from Venice that he sees that Marco has attracted his wife's attention.  And Kaidu wants Marco to keep it up, so that Nazama's interest will be diverted to Marco and not to himself.  If Marco won't cooperate, he and his companion will be put to death. 

The princess tells her father that she doesn't like him going to war against the Japanese.  The emperor's troops are already on the move.  The princess insists that her father simply must return from the war alive.  Ahmed is staying at the palace and speculates that one typhoon could eliminate the reign of Kublai Khan.  Bayan reports to Ahmed that Marco Polo is dead.  He says he himself killed Polo. 

Kaidu flirts with his new servant, who says she is very afraid that his wife might suddenly show up again.  He tells her that his wife will not be coming tonight. 

Nazama is with Marco. At first, he is a bit taken back by Nazama being so forward with him, but he quickly adapts.  He goes for a kiss and is surprised that Nazama wants to touch noses.  So he touches noses with her.

Back with Binguccio, Marco says he has a black rock (called coal) that burns to provide heat.  He could have had a piece of jade just as big as the coal, but he decided to take the coal instead.  Binguccio is critical of Marco for thinking this coal would be a good gift for his father.  Marco informs Binguccio that if he can't keep Nazama happy with him, they both will be killed, so Binguccio better hope that his master is in excellent form with this woman.  

A message arrives for Ahmed that the emperor's army has been destroyed.  So now, Ahmed sits himself down on the emperor's throne.  The Persian ambassador comes to remind Ahmed that one week from now,  the princess is to marry the King of Persia.  Ahmed says he is thrilled about the upcoming marriage.  The ambassador presents a beautiful necklace to Ahmed for his part in making the marriage possible.  Ahmed tells the ambassador that he will take him to see the princess, but soon his guards grab the man to take him somewhere else. 

Ahmed presents the necklace to the princess.  She doesn't want the necklace or him and tells Ahmed to go away.  He tells her that the emperor is dead.  And now the princess won't have to marry the King of Persia, but she will have to marry Ahmed.  After Ahmed leaves, the princess tries to get a message off to Marco Polo by way of carrier eagles.  The bird, however, is shot down by Kaidu's men and the message is brought to Kaidu.  Kaidu sends for Marco and has him read the message from the princess.  Marco tells Kaidu that the princess must be in imminent danger and he must be allowed to go back to the court of Kublai Khan.  Kaidu refuses to let him go. 

Ahmed is informed that the emperor has arrived with only his bodyguard.  The evil one tells his guard to let the emperor and his men into the palace.  And he is also to bring the princess in at once. 

The emperor comes in and Ahmed tells him the festive banners displayed all around are in honor of an upcoming wedding.  Indeed, the princess has decided not to marry the King of Persia.  Instead, she is going to marry Ahmed.  The evil one now insists that the emperor sign a statement saying that when he is dead, his rightful heir will be Ahmed.  The emperor calls Ahmed a "black-livered traitor".  He calls for his guards to take action, but they will no longer obey him.  The emperor insists that he is not going to sign the statement.  So the guards escort the emperor out of the throne room.  He will sign the document or Ahmed's vultures will kill the princess.  The emperor now agrees to sign.  

Marco has an idea of how to escape.  He calls over Ahmed's spy Toctai and tells him that Ahmed says tonight Kaidu must die.  Toctai says he is ready to kill Kudai tonight. 

After dinner, Kudai tries to leave the tent, but Marco insists he stay so Binguccio can sing for him.  So Kudai stays.  Toctai comes into the tent.  He throws a spear at Kudai, but Marco pulls Kudai out of the path of the spear.  It misses.  Toctai prepares to throw his knife, when Marco throws a knife that pins Toctai's right sleeve to the wall.  The guards takes Toctai away.  Kudai is grateful to Marco for saving his life.  Marco immediately takes advantage of Kudai's good mood to tell him that Ahmed is going to marry the princess and make himself emperor.  All this is happening when the emperor and his army are fighting the Japanese. He urges Kudai to take his army and oust the usurper Ahmed, who is the one really leveling the too heavy taxes on him and his people. Marco says he will go to the palace of Kublai Khan and make sure the gates of the fortress will be open to Kudai and his men.  Kudai agrees to the plan.

In the morning Marco prepares to leave on horseback for Peking.  Nazama comes looking for him and Marco takes off in a flash.  He waves goodbye to her as he rides away.  Nazama orders her husband to go after Marco and bring him back.  Kudai uses this opportunity to call out the whole army and head for Peking. 

The princess has to dress for the big wedding.  Marco sneaks into the house of Chen Tsu and asks him for his help.  Marco wants to use that fire powder meant for the marriage celebration of Ahmed to the princess to be used by Marco instead against Ahmed.  Chen Tsu agrees to help him get into the palace.  The princess is thinking of taking her life as she has her servant bring her a knife. 

Marco sneaks into the palace in the costume of the palace workers.  The princess speaks of Marco Polo as she readies herself.  She is just about to kill herself when Marco sneaks into her room.  She hugs Marco tightly.  Marco tells her they have to get out of the palace.  Just then the alarm for an enemy attack is sounded.  Kaidu and his men have arrived. 

Ahmed gives instructions to let Kaidu and his leaders come through the western oter gates and then close the gate behind him.  This will trap Kaidu within the fortress where he will be dealt with. 

Ahmed's soldiers come for the princess.  Marco tells her to delay the marriage ceremony as long as she can.  Polo leaves the room. 

Kudai gives the order to charge through the gates.  A little later a guard orders the gates be closed.  Marco hears the shouted order and goes into fast action to stop the gate closure, but the inner gates close before he can get to them.  Kudai's forces make it through the outer gates, but are stopped before the closed palace gates.  Archers now rain arrows down on Kudai and his leaders.  The order is given now to close the western gates behind Kudai's small force.  Kaidu orders a retreat, but finds the western gates closed behind him.  To get out of the line of fire, Kudai rushes his men down a nearby street. 

Chen Tsu arrives with a cart filled with the fire powder.  Marco helps lead the cart over to the outer gates where the men start to stack up the powder against the outer gates. Marco tells Chen Tsu to get his men away from the gates.  He makes a hole in a powder container on the cart and lets the powder run out as he drives the cart over to Kudai's men.  He then tells Kudia to have some of his men attack the west tower.  The fight is on.  Polo now lights the fuse with a lit torch.  The western gates are opened.  Now Kudai's men open the inner gates. 

The princess keeps delaying the marriage ceremony by making a really long statement before she is to say I do.  Marco and some of Kudai's men run up to stop the wedding ceremony, but only Marco reaches the wedding room.  Ahmed pulls out his knife and Marco takes out his knife.  The fight is on.  They struggle with each other.  Ahmed tries to push Marco into the lion's den but Marco overpowers him and throws Ahmed in with the lions. 

Kublain Khan is restored to his throne.  He thanks Lord Kudai for his services to his kingdom.  The emperor stops the over taxation of Kudai's province and gives Kudai a bevy of beautiful women as a present to Kudai.  No present could have pleased Kudai more.  Marco tells Binguccio to draw up the trade agreements right now.  Polo goes over to talk with the princess and tells her that now she must go to Persia to marry.  But, says Marco, they will go to Persia by way of the islands of the South Seas.  After all, the King of Persia is a very patient man.  He can wait. 


The film only has a veneer of history.  Otherwise, the story is totally fictional.  And the plot is a rather formulaic action plot.  And yet I still enjoyed it.  But I think the real story would have been more exciting than this Hollywood formula plot. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



Historical Background:


In the travel of the Polos, the Mongol territories were divided among the grandsons of Genghis Khan:

Hulagu -- receives Iran, Armenia, and Egypt.
Kublai -- master of Mongolia, Northern China, and Tibet, and conqueror of Southern China.

1251  --  Marco Polo born in Venice, Italy. Merchants Nicolo, his father, and Maffeo, his uncle, begin their first eastern journey. They had a house of business at Constantinople and another at Sudak on the shore of the Black Sea.  

1255 -- from Sudak the Polos head east to the banks of the Volga, territory belonging to Bereke, Mongol Khan of Kiptchak.  Bereke fought a war with Hulagu, the Mongol conqueror of Persia. Bereke was defeated.  This stranded the Polos in place for a short while.

They travel further east to Bokhara, where they stay three years. From here they go on to visit to Kublai Khan, the most powerful of the grandsons of Genghis Khan.  The great Khan was favorable to the Christians and was receptive to the visit of the Polos.  He gave the Polos letters to the pope, letters which asked for Christian missionaries.

1266  -- the Polos start their return trip.  

1269  -- finally reach St.-Jean d'Acre where they learn of the death of Pope Clement I. They return to Venice.

After a wait of two years for a decision on the new pope, the Polos decide to return east, this time bringing the eighteen year old Marco Polo.  (They did receive some letters from the new pope, Gregory X.)

1275  --  They finally appear before the delighted emperor, probably at Yen King near the present Beijing, after three and a half years of travel.  

Kublai liked Marco Polo, who readily learned the four languages of Mongolian, Chinese, Persian, and Uighur. Kublai sends him on a journey to gather information (probably in Anman). For three years he was governor of the city of Yang-chow (Janguy).

1282  -- Marco may have participated in Kublai's expedition against the Kingdom of Mien (Burma).

Kublai finally gives the Polos permission to return to Venice.

1295  -- the Polos arrive back in Venice after a 24 year absence.

In many respects China was ahead of Europe at the time: use of paper and wide use of books of philosophy, religion, and politics. But many of the things Marco Polo told his fellow westerners were not believed and he became known as the "man of a million lies."

1296  -- Marco Polo commands a galley in Venice's war against Genoa.  The Venetian fleet was destroyed in the Gulf of Lajazzo and Marco taken prisoner to Genoa. While in Genoa, he wrote a manuscript based on his notes from his travels.  His work even included details about the natural history of the area's plants and animals.  

Upon his release Marco returned to Venice where he served as a member of the Great Council until his death.

1324  -- he dies in Venice.

Christopher Columbus was a fan of the writings of Marco Polo and Columbus undertook his expeditions to the Americas in a hope to find a shortcut to the lands described by Polo.  


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