Every time someone takes another shot at filming the travels of the famous Venetian merchant, it opens the door to charges of “whitewashing.” It is a problematic practice, but Polo’s Italianness has rarely been rendered with much authenticity either. Frankly, you have to give the underrated Netflix series credit for its casting. Lead actor Lorenzo Richelmy is indeed Italian, unlike Gary Cooper, Alfred Drake, Horst Buchholz, Alain Delon, Rory Calhoun, and the guy from Krull. Ian Somerhalder is not exactly Italian either and Brian Dennehy sure as heck isn’t Mongol, but at least most of the supporting cast looks relatively credible in Marco Polo: The Complete Miniseries (the shorter one from 2007 directed by Kevin Connor rather than the really long one from 1983), which is now available on DVD from Mill Creek Entertainment.
So, there is this family from Venice that thinks there is money to be made on the Silk Road. That means dealing with the great Kublai Khan, Genghis’s grandson. Polo’s father and uncle hope to win him over with their Venetian charm, but young Marco does the job too well. At the Khan’s command, Polo will stay in Mongol-dominated China to give him the benefit of his truth-talking outsider’s perspective. For a young adventurer less than thrilled with the prospects of a merchant’s life, this really isn’t such a bad shake, especially when the great Khan sweetens the deal, giving him the lovely Temulun as his wife.
Up to this point, the first hour of Connor’s Polo tracks pretty closely with the initial Netflix episodes, but they diverge when the 2007 Polo meets Temulun and her younger sister Kensai. He falls hard for his wife, but even though she never fully reciprocates, they come to an affectionate understanding. Alas, she will inevitable rebel and be executed while Polo is off serving as a provincial governor for his Khan.
After a long subsequent mapping tour of the distant borderlands, Polo returns finding a much weaker Khan. He also discovers Kensai has grown up to become a dead ringer for her sister. Unfortunately, just when Polo believes he has another chance at happiness, courtly politics rudely interrupts once again.
If you can get past Dennehy as the fierce and noble Khan, then the 2007 Polo is a reasonably presentable, picturesque production, but that is a big if. Granted, Connor and the Hallmark team were probably wise to eschew the Fu Manchu makeup, but that also guaranteed Dennehy would look like a complete fish out of water. At least Somerhalder looks Italian and he buckles swash relatively well. As Polo’s best friend and loyal slave Pedro, BD Wong always looks like he wants to push his beloved master in front of an express commuter train, but in fairness, we would all probably look that way if we found ourselves in a similar situation.
Desiree Siahaan looks appropriately winsome as Temulun and Kensai, but she also has some nicely turned moments of high dramatic tragedy. Luo Yan and Kay Tong Lim classily round out the cast as Khan’s wise Empress Chabi and Lord Chenchu, Polo’s minder-protector, respectively.