Netflix’s Marco Polo

Genre television typically attracts a certain built-in audience which, regardless of the plot and cast, gleefully accepts the latest regurgitation of a familiar set of tropes and signifiers. Historical dramas are popular genre television, with shows like OutlanderVikings, and, of course, Game of Thrones currently enjoying critical and commercial success. Netflix wanted a piece of the action, and on paper, Marco Polo meets all of the requisite criteria for becoming a genre hit: a Hollywood budget, an immense cast, and of course, Netflix’s distinct advantage, the ability to binge watch as the viewer pleases.

Marco Polo is a fictionalised historical drama that follows the Venetian explorer of the same name through his adventures in 13th-century China following his capture by Kublai Khan. Marco (Lorenzo Richelmy) must learn to navigate through the politics and culture of life in the court of Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong), grandson of Genghis Khan, who is in the midst of his quest to become emperor of the world and sees Marco as a valuable tool in this conquest.mp_02_00736r

Marco Polo is at times a feast for the eyes. The production values are breathtaking on a show that boasted a budget reportedly outstripped only by the show to which it owes its inspiration, HBO’s Game of Thrones. A sprawling multi-ethnic cast, stunning on-location shots in Malaysia and Kazakhstan, impressive action and meticulous costuming, Marco Polo looks to have spent its $90 million wisely. The camerawork and cinematography are undeniably gorgeous, but, sumptuous as the production is, the creative vision its peddling is emotionally empty. The show is instead a jumble of prestige tropes assembled in such a way that the series features moments of surprising brilliance that abut moments of astonishing daftness. It is devoid of narrative passion, and it lacks the raw ferocity and charisma of its counterpart Game of Thrones, not to mention its wealth of engaging characters.

Though the sensual and opulent visuals of Marco Polo go some way towards neutralising the overripe dialogue and undernourished performances, they cannot compensate for Richelmy’s unforgivable lack of screen presence. Marco’s dialogues are ridden with clichés and faux wisdom, so much so that it resembles a horoscope read aloud. It’s vague, and comes with an oriental tinge that borders on racist. Blame it on the writing or the vastly more powerful performances of Benedict Wong as Kublai Khan and Tom Wu as Hundred Eyes, but the lifeless Richelmy is not so much a protagonist as he is an afterthought, often serving only as an impressively dressed conduit into this ancient and exotic world. Of course, this may well be intentional given that Marco Polo himself was only as fascinating as the stories he told, principally of the Chinese Emperor, grandson to Genghis Khan, to whom his adventure allows us access.

redeye-lorenzo-richelmy-marco-polo-netflix-20141210Nevertheless, Polo’s tenure under Kublai Khan is dreadfully dull, and the show haphazardly hops from one set piece to the next in its disjointed narrative, resulting in a spasmodic rhythm that is not conducive to a settled viewing, let alone a binge. Alternately tedious and salacious, mixing dull political manoeuvring with gratuitous sex scenes and cartoonish violence, the production occasionally jolts to life with the energy of a sudden brawl or assassination attempt, but it soon settles back into a state of mildly agitated, interwoven intrigue. Most baffling is the uneven balancing of these contrasts as the series lurches between modes without warning. Too often, then, genre works tend to skate by on aesthetic alone, and Marco Polo may well be one of those works.

At times, though, Marco Polo offers nuanced character drama, set in a world rarely brought to the Western screen: the empire of Kublai Khan, who ruled over a fifth of the world, and the Chinese Song dynasty, its perennial rival. While Marco Polo deserves credit for its positive presentation of Kublai Khan – the Mongol Khan assimilated in China wherein he founded its Yuan Dynasty – and of the Mongol story more generally, the show then proceeds to flout historical accuracy and undermine its own characters to play up orgies in the Khan’s harem and threesomes in his bedchamber. Historically accurate when it wants to be, the series is sloppy and intended to draw international attention, not plaudits. Indeed, others have proved capable of presenting women less dismissively.

Moreover, Marco Polo  does little to justify the continued prevalence of the tiresome story of the white man visiting the “exotic” Orient. Though the mostly Asian actors are for the most part able to maintain the bare threads of the story, it is a disservice to the incomparable source materials to fall into such well-charted pitfalls of the storytelling about other cultures. In the hands of even a somewhat sensitive Western production, Marco Polo is uncomfortable to watch, a window into a culture that isn’t the West’s to adapt, and into which the maximum number of tropes have been awkwardly crammed. Yet, the most perplexing thing about Marco Polo is that the show is about the white male interloper to the Mongol Empire who somehow becomes the saviour of the Mongols, bringing the trebuchet to its armies hitherto stymied by the city walls of Xiangyang. Viewers accustomed to such heroic intervention from Westerners should note that the ingenious Mongols had already developed ballistic siege weapons sufficiently ruinous as to subdue every hostile city from Hungary in the West to Korea in the East. The Mongols ruled the largest contiguous empire in history – and they needed no help from Marco Polo to do so.

Marco Polo also feels unserious despite its roots in actual events. Its semi-historical basis should lend gravitas, but such is the dramatisation of Polo’s adventures that the show is left feeling far from grounded. In one remarkable sequence, a condemned Marco preaches to Kublai Khan the great strength and irrepressible resistance of Western Europe, so much so that he appears to convince the Great Khan to abandon his ambitious plans to conquer as far West as the Vatican. Yet, students of the history of the Mongol Empire will remark upon the great successes of the agile Mongol Horde against the cumbersome European knights it rendered obsolete, and they will also know that the Mongols conquest of Middle Ages Europe was in fact aborted due to the paling of the West’s meagre potential loot against that available in the vastly more prosperous East. Narrative liberties with historical events are, of course, fair game, but such sequences are superfluous given that the immensely rich source material is already attractively dramatic far beyond the capacity of the modern scriptwriter.marco-polo-benedict-wong-lorenzo-richelmy-slice

Still, there remains the faintest glimmer of potential. The imposing Benedict Wong carries a shrewd, menacing presence as Khan, creating unexpected depth within a character who, as written, could easily come off as a despotic caricature. It’s such a shame that the writers seem to imagine his character as some exaggerated warrior version of Jabba the Hutt. As is often the case with such population-dense epics, his performance shows a spark of promise that demands more time than is available, as do those of Uli Latukefu, who plays one of Khan’s sons, and Joan Chen, who plays Khan’s wife.

So replete is Marco Polo with medieval warfare, lopped-off heads, gratuitous nudity, and persnickety period detail, that it pleads longingly to be compared with HBO’s Game of Thrones, a far superior show by almost every measure. Clearly what Netflix hopes you will see is extravagant, prestige entertainment along the lines of such a fantasy epic but, in truth, Marco Polo is closer to one of those cheesy, international adventure movies. There is the potential, though – given some promising early performances, the large budget and the uniquely fascinating source material – for a series that, even if it isn’t thematically deep, could yet be salvaged into good historical popcorn drama.


‘Genghis Khan and The Making of The Modern World’

“The Mongols swept across the globe as conquerors, but also as civilization’s unrivaled cultural carriers.” – Genghis Khan and The Making of The Modern World

It’s fair to say that The Mongols have become a real fascination of mine in recent months. It all began with Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History mini-series Wrath of the Khans, after which I immediately set about scouring the internet for more histories of The Mongols. First up for me was Professor Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and The Making of The Modern World.

Like Dan Carlin, Weatherford traces Genghis Khan’s rise to power on the remote steppes of Mongolia, his development of revolutionary military strategies and weaponry, and his emphasis on rapid attack and siege warfare which would overwhelm opposing armies across Asia, shatter the Islamic world, and render the armoured knights of Europe obsolete.

“When their highly-skilled engineers from China, Persia, and Europe combined Chinese gunpowder with Muslim flamethrowers and applied European bell-casting technology, they produced the cannon, an entirely new order of technological invention […].”

A Mongol bomb thrown against a charging samurai during the Mongol invasion of Japan.

Weatherford, an anthropologist who has spent forty years working around the former Mongol Empire, is the only Western scholar ever to be allowed into Genghis Khan’s homeland and forbidden burial site, and his impassioned work is thusly perhaps the epitome of the revisionary tendency to gloss over the atrocities of Mongol conquest in light of the societal, cultural and technological revolutions ushered in by their rule.

To that end, Weatherford firstly tackles the portrayal of Genghis Khan as a bloodthirsty barbarian at the head of a savage band of nomadic warriors ruthlessly looting the civilised world – and he is quiet on the atrocities and butchery described in such classically gruelling detail by Hardcore History. Instead, he presents the Mongols not only as ingenious masters of conquest, but as instituting progressive and benevolent rule, accentuating the positive changes brought to the vast territories conquered, such as the assurance of religious freedom, the lowering of taxes, the establishment of meritocracy, and the creation of public schools.

“As he smashed the feudal system of aristocratic privilege and birth, he built a new system based on individual merit, loyalty, and achievement. […] He lowered taxes for everyone [abolishing them for doctors, teachers and educational institutions]. His was not an empire that hoarded wealth and treasure; instead, he widely distributed the goods acquired in combat so that they could make their way back into commercial circulation.”

Indeed, Weatherford offers Genghis Khan the visionary leader whose irrepressible conquests joined backward Europe with the flourishing cultures of Asia, establishing vast networks of trade routes which became lucrative pathways not only for commerce, but also for the revolutionary ideas, technologies, and expertise that later triggered a global awakening, an unprecedented explosion of culture, science and progress that rapidly transformed the European way of life during the Renaissance. It is in part this connecting of such disparate kingdoms that Weatherford advances as evidence of the Mongols laying the foundations of our modern world.

“At the time of [Genghis Khan’s] birth in 1162, the Old World consisted of a series of regional civilizations each of which could claim virtually no knowledge of any civilization beyond it’s closest neighbour. No one in China had heard of Europe, and no one in Europe had heard of China, and so far as is known, no person had made the journey from one to the other. By the time of his death in 1227, he had connected them with diplomatic and commercial contacts that still remain unbroken.”

Weatherford emphasises not only the Mongol development and spreading of revolutionary technologies such as printing, the cannon, compass, and abacus – all of which would only later reach Europe courtesy of the vast Mongol trading network – but also innovations perhaps less striking to the modern reader, such as an international paper currency and postal system, which were in equal part crucial and groundbreaking. Having been spared from total Mongol conquest due to the superior Eastern spoils, the Europe of the Middle Ages appears to have benefitted cheaply from Mongol rule through its absorption of such varied technology and innovation.

The Chinggis Khaan Statue Complex is located just an hour’s drive away from the capital of modern day Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar.

Why, then, has history remembered Genghis and his comrades so ungenerously? Whereas Geoffrey Chaucer admired Genghis Khan, considering him “so excellent a lord in all things”, this early portrait of the Mongols bears little resemblance to that of Voltaire in The Orphan of China, and that of later books and films that portray Genghis Khan and his irresistible army as savage hordes lusting after gold, women, and blood.

Such a contrast is perhaps the result of Genghis Khan’s enduring mystery and the ensuing speculation, or of the fearful and bitter accounts from witnesses that the Mongols encouraged, tales of fear and doom brought from the ruins of one city to that next in line for conquest. Perhaps, alternatively, it is a further example of the pseudo-scientific racism that, in the latter half of the last millennium, sought to distort the history of an Asian steppe tribe and discredit its formation of an empire greater than those of the Romans or of Alexander The Great.

Either way, Weatherford’s lively analysis somewhat restores the Mongol reputation, though this revisionist history does far more than just paint an unprecedented portrait of a great leader and his legacy; instead, it does indeed challenge us to reconsider how the modern world was made.

 Professor Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and The Making of The Modern World is available on Amazon with the Kindle version priced at just £1.89.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History: Wrath of The Khans

In one of the most violent outbursts in history, a little-known tribe of Eurasian nomads breaks upon the great societies of the Old World like a human tsunami. It may have ushered in the modern era, but at what cost?” – Wrath of The Khans I

I recently finished a mini-series of podcasts called Wrath of the Khans, a five-part offering from Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History about the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan and his descendants. It was every bit as mind-blowing as Blueprint For Armageddon, Carlin’s mini-series on the First World War, and so I felt compelled to write this recommendation and share this incredible catalogue of work with as many people as possible.

Before the series, I knew very little about the Mongols. To my mind, they were nomadic tribespeople specialised in raiding on horseback who, united by Genghis Khan, mercilessly rampaged through Asia. That’s it. So, for those of you as unfamiliar with their story as I was, here’s a little something to whet the appetite. When Genghis Khan died in 1227, his empire was about four times the size of those of the Romans or the Macedonians at their respective peaks and, by 1279, his sons and grandsons had spread Mongol control yet further, as far as Eastern Europe.

Astoundingly, the Mongol army never numbered more than 100,000 warriors, yet subjugated more lands and people in twenty-five years than the Romans conquered in four hundred, building an empire that stretched from Siberia to India, and from Korea to the Balkans, dramatically redrawing the map of the world through their merging of disparate kingdoms to form modern, recognisable borders that stand to this day.

Ruled by Genghis Khan’s sons and grandsons, the extent of the Mongol Empire by 1279.

If you love history and you’re curious about Genghis Khan and his remarkable Mongol Empire, Hardcore History is a perfectly accessible entry-point to the subject, designed, as Carlin says, “for other ‘history geeks’ like me, for the group that sat around a pizza and some beers after history class and got into the weird, fun questions on history”. Now, I know that’s me, and I know I have friends out there who are the same.

And it is hardcore. A Dan Carlin mini-series is more akin to an audiobook than a podcast; his one-man shows often appearing less like a monologue, and more, as here, like a glorious 8.5 hour-long conversation. Yet, it’s immense length is never problematic – except maybe for your iPhone memory. Instead, it is precisely this sustenance that makes it so brilliant. Each episode is a smorgasbord of facts, figures, analogies and conjecture, with Carlin impressively wrangling rich detail and several developed perspectives into an easily-digestible narrative that is both entertaining and educational, without the need for academic examination.

Carlin is, in essence, just recounting a great story – and he does it well. Wrath of The Khans, like all Hardcore History shows, is an intense, blow-by-blow account of the meteoric rise of the largest contiguous empire in history, and of an army responsible for between 35 and 50 million deaths, all of which were, of course, inflicted by hand. It describes the natural strengths, intuitive tactics and unique history of the Mongols, tracing in detail their relentless assault against countless Eurasian peoples.

With the help of their own Secret History of the Mongols and other historical sources, Carlin describes the Mongols’ ingenious strategy, epic battles and gruesome submission of the likes of Jin China and the Khwarezmid Empire, alongside incredible death statistics and accounts from witnesses, in so much as they exist. For a glimpse into the ‘gore in-store’ with Hardcore History, there are surrendered civilians deployed as human shields during assaults on their still besieged neighbours, building fires accelerated by the fat of the dead, and wagon after wagon loaded with sacks full of single ears, severed as a way of counting enemy losses. It is hardcore, but it’s a fantastic show for so many other reasons too.

Also addressed, for example, is the historiography of the Mongol legacy, and the tendency of revisionist historians to gloss over the deaths of 35 to 50 million people while eulogising about the societal, cultural, and technological revolutions ushered in by Mongol devastation. The Mongols, who introduced both the first international postal system and the first international paper currency, have also been credited with: religious and cultural tolerance; the promotion of universal literacy, meritocracy and diplomatic immunity for envoys; the abolition of torture; the sponsorship of infrastructure to facilitate Eurasian trade; and the spreading of revolutionary technologies like printing, the cannon, compass, and abacus. These innovations are advanced by some as evidence of Mongols laying the foundations of the modern world. But at what cost?

Carlin concertedly emphasises those who “paid the bill”, drawing provocative comparisons between the Mongols and Caesar’s Romans, or Alexander The Great’s Macedonians, similarly ruthless in their day, yet later hailed as revolutionary. Opening on that theme with a controversial book title suggestion for brave, budding authors, “The Long-Term Benefits of the Third Reich”, he asks: will we one day forgive Hitler’s bloodshed in this same way? If history offers any indication, says Carlin, the pendulum will, perhaps in hundreds of years, swing that way. I should mention that, with such unconventional conjecture aplenty, Carlin frequently laces his narratives with the disclaimer that he is not a historian by trade but a journalist, qualifying his opinions in self-deprecating asides in which he confesses to being an amateur, a mere “fan of history”.

Carlin though, is a virtuoso orator. Part storyteller, part analyst, he is a master of the art of dissecting a multitude of angles equally, and it is this, combined with his unconventional narrative style, that renders his podcasts so unique. As I said, Hardcore History is a one-man show, 8.5 hours is a long time, and it’s true that his gravelly, dramatic intensity may take some getting used to. Nevertheless, an eventual succumbing to his eloquently rhythmic description of even the most harrowing events is inevitable.

If Hardcore History sounds right up your street, have a listen. You’ll love it.

The ten most recent episodes of Hardcore History are available free on iTunes, including the six-part, 24-hour series, Blueprint for Armageddon, on the subject of the First World War. Alternatively, Wrath of The Khans is available for $1.99 per episode from