Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Modern Day Marco Polo Explores Netflix New Series

Todays contribution is from Francis O'Donnell who wrote the following review of the recent Netflix series about Marco Polo 

There are experts and then there are experts. Often Professors and scholars, muse about the world solely from what they've discovered between the pages of dusty old books on library shelves, to be admired for sure. There are those who live life , get dirty in the field , learn and experience for themselves first hand. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive, but I, like doubting Thomas, need to see for myself. This passion is what lead me to spend two years of my life in the pursuit of a dream , to retrace the entire route of Marco Polo , twenty-five thousand miles along the Silk Road. If successful our expedition would be the first in history to do so.

Marco Polo, the thirteenth century Venetian merchant and explorer, is as controversial today as ever. When the book detailing his travels was published over seven hundred years ago, it's tales about the splendors of the east were disbelieved. This earned him the nickname Il milione , essentially the man of a million lies. The information he went on to share with a European audience lost in the dark ages was full of a magic , mystery and possibly , that existed beyond their realm of experience. Without question it changed the world , inspiring subsequent explorers. Among them Christopher Columbus , who owned a well worn copy with him when he accidentally " discovered " the Americas, while searching for a route to Asia and the riches that Marco described in his volume.

Today other merchants , explorers and story tellers are in the process of changing the world of Television viewing as we know it . Netflix , the online streaming service, is at the vanguard of this movement with their recent success with both House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. They now pledge to produce twenty original new shows per year. This is turning the apple cart over , making some in Hollywood nervous. Their ten part series, based on Polo , has been bashed by many Hollywood critics. Unfazed, the fans love it and want more, to that end, Netflix has recently renewed Marco Polo for a second season. This mercantile expedition, is much like the Polo's , not without risk.

Caravan leader, executive producer Harvey Weinstein , alias Niccolo Polo , a pioneer in the film world, who has navigated these treacherous stretches before. Traveling with him, Ben Silverman our uncle Maffeo founder of the Electus production studios and John Fusco as Marco, their son and nephew respectively , the modern day bard , writer , and the creative mind behind the series. One I feel is a tour de force and will be a enduring classic.

Who of us doesn't have our favorite film memories, mine was watching epic movies with my father , films like Taras Bulba , Ben Hur , or the Vikings. I would ask never ending ,annoying questions as I was to young to understand , but was mesmerized by the spectacle and action. He tolerated my questions with patience and together he and the movies helped ingrain in me my love of history. I envision this same scene going on in millions of homes across the country with Fusco's new adaptation of Marco adventures.

Behind the scenes there is a Hollywood tug of war going on, politics I won't even pretend to understand , basically a turf battle. Perhaps the reason behind much of the bad press. What I can do is put things in some perspective.

The 1938 “ Adventures of Marco Polo” staring Gary Cooper was a flop , but has become a beloved classic. Hallmark , who makes fine family Television , seemed lost following Polo's route during their 2007 journey in his steps, casting Brian Dennehy as Kublai Khan ? I loved him in Rambo First Blood and in Silverado , but as The Great Khan of Khans ? 

 Received less then enthusiastically, the 1982 co American , Italian venture, with stars like Burt Lancaster, Sir John Gielgud and Leonard Nimoy as Achmet, it had an amazing cast. This TV mini-series reignited my curiosity about Polo, having loved his story as a young schoolboy. 

Why is Marco Polo important ? He introduces us to the greater face of humanity. The diverse peoples and cultures he writes of , many for the first time make him perhaps the worlds first anthropologist. He contributions to the world of science, nature and geography is unmatched. The information he shared and brought to light make him the equivalent of the internet connection of his age. Victorian explorers returning from Africa , those in searching of the source of Nile and other mysteries, were not only seen as heroes , but as the equivalent of an astronaut today having dined with Martians. Imagine then Marco and the place he holds. There is something for each of us to learn in his account. Most important perhaps, and the reason he looms as large as ever is , he is a symbol of east - west cross cultural communication and cooperation. China's rise and our challenges in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world make him a perfect guide , to understand those worlds so important for us today. Unlike those who followed , he never conquered land or planted a flag for church or State . Those strange to him that he didn't understand, he gave his best effort to do so, all the while documenting their culture and customs , always with tolerance and compassion.

Damned if you do and damned if you don't , to much nudity, not enough, to much martial arts, not enough etc ... you get the point. When your are climbing a mountain you encounter two types of people , those who cut your rope, they covet the peak all for themselves, and those who reach out their hand and pull you up , realizing there is plenty of room at the top. Critics be damned, the people have spoken. It is good to know that our vote counts somewhere in this democracy.

In my own quest I was knocked down by the best , we were told by those experts I mentioned earlier that , “ Retracing Polo's route couldn't be done , and if it was , it wasn't going to be by us “. My colleague , photographer Denis Belliveau, and I used that negativity to our advantage. We turned it around to inspire and give us strength saying “ We'll show them ” and we did , but still the small minded and jealous reigned. They unwittingly helped us to become the first and only expedition in history to walk “ In the footsteps of Marco Polo “. By virtue of our experience I can say, Netfilx and John Fusco have created a world Marco Polo would recognize. Like Marco, my last word on the subject is this, “ Netflix has yet tell us half of what Marco has seen or done “. Here's to seasons three , four and beyond. I can't wait, there is always more to explore !

Francis O'Donnell is the creator and subject of the PBS Emmy nominated Documentary.“ In the footsteps of Marco Polo “ and companion book of the same name. Visit www.wliw.org/marcopolo for further details.

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