02 Nov Movie Review: MARCO POLO (1975)
Director: Chang Cheh
Starring: Alexander Fu, Chi Kuan-Chun, Philip Kwok,Bruce Tong Yim-Chaang, Shih Szu, Lu Ti, Richard Harrison, Gordon Liu, Leung Kar-Yan and Johnny Wang.
Marco Polo opens with the eponymous character arriving at the court of Kublai Khan where, with processional pacing, heroes compete in a series of five grueling matches to choose three champions. After they are selected, Khan assigns Marco Polo to tour the empire for three years and write a report.
The three champions bow before Khan.
Upon his return, two assassins break into Khan’s chambers and attack. One of the assassins is killed but the other, Brother Zu, escapes and returns to his family in Yangzhou. Khan promotes Marco Polo to Royal Inspector of Yangzhou and tells him to take the three champions there to find the assassins and his allies.
The chase begins for the assassins who broke in.
Chasing Brother Zu Jianmin to his homestead, Polo’s men kill him and take his wife, Mrs. Zu, prisoner. Zu Jianmin’s four sworn brothers rescue Mrs. Zu and seek refuge in the house of her father: Tiandao Mansion. There they ask to learn martial arts so they can avenge Zu’s death and kill Khan. But this is China during Mongolian-rule and civilians are forbidden from wielding weapons or training in Kung Fu, so the master of Tiandao, Chief Wang, cleverly arranges for them to perform various jobs on his estate.
One brother finds himself frying beans in a pan with his palms, then crushing them in a grinding stone. That his boss has laced the beans with an itching poison only adds to his troubles. Another must cut down bamboo trees by wrapping them around his entire body, thus learning Bell Cover technique. One moves large stones to clear a field to help him build internal energy. But the worst task is reserved for Philip Kwok’s Chen Jie, who gets dunked into fertilizer pits and must leap from them without climbing out in order to improve his Qinggong*. Each of the brothers are instructed by a master who uses these means to surreptitiously transmit his style of kung fu.
Our four heroes training at Tiandao Mansion.
The bulk of the story occurs around this period of training, as Marco Polo investigates Tiandao Mansion and delicately tries to catch Chief Wang red-handed training assassins. But Chief Wang is cunning and Polo must make several unannounced visits to find evidence of wrong-doing.
In the end, Marco Polo is moved by the brave appeals of Mrs. Zu (the wife of brother Zu, one of the original assassins) and must choose between his loyalty to Khan and a cause he feels is just. The movie culminates in an elaborate battle sequence as Khan’s men close in on Tiandao Mansion and the brothers make a final stand against them.
Marco Polo is a moving, at times stunning, action film with plentiful swordplay and kung fu. The martial arts here are grand and occasionally press the limits of believability. At one point an entire wall is used as a weapon against Khan’s soldiers. The characters are eviscerated and their suffering is the focus that gives us further sympathy for their cause. It is a classic wuxia theme, and one that Chang Cheh excels at. He uses blood and bravery to move the viewer.
An entire wall is knocked down, taking out quite a few opponents.
Marco Polo is an interesting character in the film. He is a villain of sorts, serving as the oppressive official who hunts down the heroes. But there is mutual respect between him and the assassins, and he shows tenderness towards Mrs. Zu, which opens the door to his redemption. In the end he is more of an observer and perhaps something of a stand-in for the viewers themselves.
Mrs. Zu and Marco Polo first meet as her husband is slain.
But the stars of the movie are the four sworn brothers played by Alexander Fu Sheng, Philip Kwok, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan and Chi Kuan-Chun who all deliver the goods. These are some great physical performances. Alexander Fu and Philip Kwok are particularly exceptional but the entire cast is marvelous. And the fight choreography is quite good. It strikes a strong balance between weapons and open-handed fighting. There is no shortage of action either. The movie opens with five back-to-back duels, then immediately leaps into a huge battle sequence as the two assassins arrive in Khan’s court. It ends with a long battle as the four brothers try to fend off Khan’s soldiers and his three champions. This is a martial arts film for action lovers and people who enjoy having fun with history. The Kung Fu strikes look painful and real. The blood of heroes flows freely.
The fight sequences in Khan’s Hall are believable and exciting, coming one-after-the-other. Between hard-hitting palm strikes and back-breaking kung fu, we get acrobatic cartwheels and flips pulled off with such ease you almost don’t see them. Notable in this scene is Gordon Liu playing a duel wielding Mongol warrior named Abulahua, with two wide swords in each hand. The section alternates between open-handed strikes and weapon-play.
Gordon Liu wields his two swords with incredible force.
The assassination attempt early in the movie is another great fight scene. This one is intense and we get a better sense of some of the techniques involved. Chang Cheh throws everything at the viewer here. Axe, spear and fist attack with blazing ferocity. The two assassins who want to kill Khan must contend with his three champions: Dulidan, Abulahua and the powerful Caidalu. One of the assassins (Brother Zu) has nearly mastered the Bell Covering technique, which makes his flesh impervious to all weapons. However, his training seems incomplete.
The action is crazy at times yet remains lifelike. In both these scenes, but particularly in the first, the smooth move of the camera brings the viewer into the action without obstructing anything. The punches, throws and kicks are all tangible. You feel as if you are there fighting before the Khan moving with the characters.
The final battle is a spectacle filled with athletic performances and extended fight scenes. It is about twenty minutes of non-stop action, where each of the heroes gets a chance to shine. Each brother’s style is distinct which helps maintain the viewer’s interest. It is a parade of impalements and stone-throwing slaughter, as one character knocks an entire wall onto charging Mongol soldiers and another is filled with arrows in a final stand.
But this is a film that is much more than physical performance alone. The actors and the characters they play are also a big part of what makes it work. Even though she does no real fighting, Shih Szu delivers a very moving performance and reminds us of her acting talent. Alexander Fu provides most of the comic relief playing the mischievous Brother Li. Philip Kwok is the perfect choice as a Lightness Kung Fu disciple. Their masters are eccentric but stern. And there is an interesting chemistry between Richard Harrison (playing Marco Polo) and Lu Ti (Chief Wang) when Chief Wang appeals to Marco Polo’s humanity, making the case that if his people were invaded by the Mongols, he would resist as well. Lu Ti declares their intention to fight endlessly from one generation to the next and the rhythm of the delivery and the dialogue make you believe every word.
Fu Sheng’s comedic timing is always on point.
Marco Polo’s treatment of history is also of note. It is not a close study of history or necessarily one that aims for accuracy. The movie uses history as a canvas, as a backdrop for the drama and action. So it takes a fair number of liberties. Still, it feels historic because of the way it is shot. Cheh signals this to the viewer in various ways. For example, he conveys this through the processional pacing and use of stately wide shots. The pacing of the film in fact works very well in the beginning, establishing both the formality of the court but also the power of Khan. The rhythm established at the start of the film, continues throughout.
The title is perhaps a bit misleading as Marco Polo is cast more as a sympathetic villain who slowly comes to the light, rather than a central figure. In this film, Marco Polo is an official in the court of Kublai Khan and made royal inspector of Yangzhou. While there are versions of Il Milione (The Travels of Marco Polo) where he claims to have overseen the city for three years, most don’t take this account very seriously as it hinges on the translation of a single word. Still Chang Cheh seems to be drawing on Il Milione for some of the plot developments in the movie.
Marco Polo ultimately earns the respect of our heroes.
In fact, there are a lot of open questions around Marco Polo that are still being debated by historians and what he was doing in the court of Kublai Khan is one of them. Stephen G. Haw for example believes he may have in fact been a bodyguard of Khan and that this position would have meant a number of other duties, including procurement and supervision. Specifically, Haw thinks Polo was a member of the keshig, a thousands strong force of personal guards. This is just one hypothesis among several of course. Interestingly, this fits somewhat with the role he assumes in the film.
Marco Polo is uncannily successful in getting the viewer to shift sympathies from the court to the assassins. We don’t begin in the shoes of the assassins, but of the court itself, with Marco Polo and the three champions. And as the movie unfolds, we come to understand the assassins’ point of view more and more (though it is clear pretty early on who the villains and heroes are). Part of the success here is due to the charisma of Alexander Fu, which is particularly lively in Marco Polo. But ultimately, as with many Chang Cheh films, it is through the bravery, pain and bloodshed of the heroes that they win us over. This is at work in the climactic confrontation but also in the training sequence which emphasizes the toil of the heroes as they steadily improve their kung fu through rigorous condition.
The fights are impressive from the gate.
The opening scene helps set the tone and mood. The procession of fight sequences, the clear way in which Khan wields power over his court, it all moves with the weight and formality of history. The violence comes in unrelenting waves. It is a movie that begins and ends with long-drawn patriotic bloodshed that pushes the limits but never tires or bores the viewer.
I think Marco Polo is a strong movie and one that is easy to overlook. The film manages to pack a lot in its 140-minute run-time. There is no shortage of kung fu or swordplay. There are also plenty of well-composed shots and poignant moments, which benefit strongly from the use of appropriate music. It is the perfect blend of intense action and historical drama.
*Lightness Kung Fu
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Brendan Davis is a writer, game designer and wuxia film enthusiast. You can read many of his reviews at the Bedrock Blog or watch his videos on YouTube. He recently released a wuxia tabletop RPG called Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate.