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'Marco Polo': dazzling voyage into history and fantasy

By Arthur Unger / May 14, 1982

New York

Industry wags are calling it the first ''spaghetti Eastern.'' But Marco Polo, the most expensive miniseries ever made ($25 million to $30 million), is much more than that electronic joke. It is a wild and wondrous adventure into the world of the 13th century.

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There has been nothing like ''Marco Polo'' (NBC, Sunday, 8-11 p.m.; Monday, 8 -10 p.m.; Tuesday, 8-10 p.m.; Wednesday, 8-11 p.m.) since ''Lawrence of Arabia.'' Even the gorgeously executed panoply of ''Shogun'' pales by comparison.

''Marco Polo,'' produced by the Italian RAI-Radio Televisione in cooperation with America's NBC and Procter & Gamble, Japan's Dentsu and TBS, along with the People's Republic of China, is based on ''The Book of Marco Polo,'' in which Polo dictated what was in his own time considered a fantastic, unbelievable tale , a detailed description of his voyage to Palestine, Afghanistan, Persia, and Mongolia, which were far beyond the jurisdiction of the church in Rome and outside the then-accepted boundaries of civilization.

Instead of reporting only barbarian atrocities, Polo found wonders such as coal and gunpowder, enlightened customs and manners completely alien to those of Western Europe, but still another kind of civilization, one to be observed, admired, and even imitated in part.

Polo was, perhaps, a 13th-century combination of Margaret Mead and Armand Hammer, with just a touch of Henry Kissinger. He wished to trade with the Orient , he recorded the manners and mores of the civilizations he visited, carried greetings from the new Pope to Kublai Khan. He lingered in some parts of the Mongolian Empire, studied Buddha and the Koran, sneered at nothing, observed everything intently. The Pope considered him an emissary who could help spread the Christian word among the heathen.

This RAI retelling of his story, based upon years of research, is accomplished in a series of frescolike tableaux, overflowing with authentic costumes, sets, and locations (all in Italy, Morocco, and China). Since Polo told little of his personal life, producer and co-writer Vincenzo Labella felt free to invent a series of emotional relationships, all in conformity with possibility, but very much in the style of soap opera.

Based upon a sampling of five hours of the miniseries and a conversation with the producer, I believe that ''Marco Polo'' is information-entertainment TV at its most inspiring and persuasive best. It is as much a dazzling voyage into fantasy as into reality. If there are flaws, well, there are flaws in most of the world's largest diamonds. But it must be appraised as a huge, spectacular, ostentatious, although reasonably authentic jewel.

But don't be deceived by the cast list -- most of the well-known stars appear early in the show, complete their day's work, and then are never, or seldom, heard from again. So don't count on seeing much of Anne Bancroft, Sir John Gielgud, John Houseman, and Sada Thompson (although you'll see a bit more of Burt Lancaster) after the initial three-hour episode.

And although you can count on seeing actor Ken Marshall as Marco throughout the 10 hours, he never manages to bring Marco Polo beyond his adolescence (even if he has the most expressive cleft in his chin since Cary Grant). The other players manage well under the skillful direction of Giuliano Montaldo. Coauthors on the script were Montaldo, Labella, and David Butler.

To appreciate ''Marco Polo'' fully it is necessary to suspend picayune critical judgments and just lean back and enjoy the spectacle of outlandish 13 th-century life re-created authentically. It will have you yearning for the days when there were still undiscovered lands to conquer, thanks in large part to the cinematography of Pasqualino de Santis and the compelling music score of Ennio Morricone. Together with set designer Luciano Riccieri and costume designer Enrico Sabbatini, they have created a 13th-century world that reaches out and embraces the viewer.

The first three hours, which take place mostly in Venice, are a bit of a chore to watch on Sunday. But they do establish the character of Marco and the sociological, political, and religious aspects of life in Western Europe. The invented action in this premiere segment is filled with cliched speeches as well as hackneyed situations.