Saturday, May 13, 2006


I'm on the fence about Gary Cooper. Generally, I think he's fine, but rarely do I find him to better than that. For me, he's at his best in lively adventure films, and he's pretty much the best thing about this adventure movie, which I assume is an almost totally fictional version of the life of the title explorer. In 13th century Venice, Marco (Cooper) is sent by his father to China to meet with warlord and emperor Kublai Kahn (George Barbier) in hopes of establishing safe trade routes. Along the way, he is introduced to pasta, which old sage H.B. Warner calls "spaghet," and fireworks. Once there, he ingratiates himself with Kahn and falls for his daughter, the Princess Kukachin (Sigrid Gurie), much to the dismay of the slimy Ahmed (Basil Rathbone), who makes a point of showing Polo his torture room filled with hungry vultures kept chained to the wall until they're needed. Polo is sent by Kahn to be a spy in the camp of rebel leader Kaidu (Alan Hale) where he gets romantically entangled with Kaidu's wife (Binnie Barnes), an entanglement which Kaidu encourages as it keeps her occupied while he has his own affairs. Ultimately, Kahn is defeated in his attempt to invade Japan and on his return to court, discovers that Ahmed has engineered a coup which assures him the princess's hand. Not to worry, though, because Polo has gotten Kaidu and his army to carry off a revolt against Ahmed. Along the way, Polo is inspired to put the children's fireworks he'd seen earlier to good use as an explosive and Ahmed winds up falling to his death in his own torture room, in a pit of hungry panthers. Parts of this have the feel of a good light-hearted boy's adventure movie, and the role of hero fits Cooper well, but the supporting cast leaves something to be desired. Rathbone and Hale are fine, but Ernest Truex doesn't have the chops to play Polo's oafish sidekick, Gurie is an uninspiring heroine, and Barbier does not make a particularly powerful Kahn--despite his heavy make-up, I kept thinking of his persona as the bumbling doctor in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER. Robert Grieg is a chamberlain with extraordinarily long fingernails, and Lana Turner has a small role as Barnes's handmaiden. [TCM]

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