Marco Polo, Hugo Fregonese

Fregonese’s ‘Marco Polo’ Traveled a Twisty Road to Production

Hugo Fregonese’s 1962 Italian-French production of Marco Polo is a film whose history is more twisty than the spaghetti Marco Polo discovered in China.

Marco Polo
Hugo Fregonese
Kino Lorber
7 February 2023

Arriving on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber is Hugo Fregonese’s 1962 Italian-French production of Marco Polo, a film whose history is more twisty than the spaghetti discovered by Marco Polo in China. The story is largely a remake of the 1938 version, The Adventures of Marco Polo. Produced by Sam Goldwyn and directed by Archie Mayo, that Hollywood effort stars an aw-shucks, country-bumpkin-ish Marco (Gary Cooper) who saves Kublai Khan from the evil schemes of a power-hungry minister (Basil Rathbone, of course). Said minister is duping the great and gullible Khan with false stories of rebels. He also aims to usurp power by marrying the Khan’s beautiful daughter, played by another foreigner. It’s a good thing Marco sees the potential to weaponize fireworks. In other words, it’s fantasy-land nonsense.

The 1962 Marco Polo follows the same general outline and includes several specific moments borrowed from the earlier film. This is ironic, to say the least, since the Italians were supposedly so offended by Cooper’s portrayal of a national hero that they dubbed his character into Italian with a different name and labeled him a Scotsman. In making their own film almost 25 years later, they had no objection to casting another gangly American he-man, Rory Calhoun.

The difference, which shows to nobody’s advantage, is that instead of a naïve bumpkin, Calhoun’s incarnation is a sleazy bounder. Marco Polo‘s opening reel gives us no less than four scenes in which the ramblin’ Marco ditches beautiful women, one of whom is married and another deserted at the altar. It’s like the producers have confused him with Casanova or possibly James Bond. The only thing missing is having him jump out a window when a husband comes home.

Another oddity of Marco Polo‘s opening section is the many disorienting fade-outs, which imply trouble in the editing room, perhaps in cutting the thing down from a longer version. Is the Italian version longer? We apparently have the official Italian cut in its English version, as prepared by the producers for export. This exact edition has never been released in the US before.

As historian Tim Lucas explains in his commentary, Marco Polo is among many Euro-movies imported by American-International Pictures, whereupon they’d cut some bits out, re-dub it with their own crew, and create a new score by Les Baxter. Lucas states that AIP’s version, ten minutes shorter, has also been missing for decades, and he’s never been able to see it. As supported by the Baxter soundtrack CD, he speculates that much of the early, sleazier material about our ladies’ man got chopped out as AIP went straight for the action.

We can hope so, as it was probably an improvement. What wouldn’t have been an improvement is that AIP’s meddling meant the English performances of Calhoun and his leading lady, Yoko Tani as the Khan’s daughter, also got re-dubbed by other actors. Calhoun and Tani provide their own voices in this version prepared in Italy, while the actors surrounding them are dubbed in English.

So what we’re graced with on this Blu-ray, scanned from a 4K master, is a work of sumptuous widescreen Technicolor splendor, decorated with beautiful sets and costumes, featuring integral performances by Calhoun and Tani in a mediocre story laced with nonsense. Twice (twice!) Marco proves that Europeans have the ingenuity to perfect a more brutal death machine, and we wonder at the extent to which the writers proudly claim western achievements or offer a critique. The primary writer is the prolific Ennio De Concini.

Marco Polo may be no masterpiece, but it makes you think about how this era of Italian blockbusters got away with looking so fabulous on a budget. For better and worse, they don’t make ’em like this anymore.

If you look up this Marco Polo on Wikipedia or IMDB, they claim the film is directed by Piero Pierotti, who’s also one of the writers. But this print trumpets the director as Fregonese, an Argentinean vagabond who made films in several countries and Hollywood. His output shows a consistent sympathy with outlaws, prisoners, and rebels, and that’s clear in Marco Polo when Marco is educated by a stint in a cruel prison and decides to help rebels overthrow the bad usurper. The “loyal rebels” are led by Khan’s own slandered nephew.

That raises an issue. What I’d call Exotica Plot #1, found commonly in science fiction, finds American or Western heroes traveling to other planets, time periods, or mythical lands and fomenting rebellion against tyranny. Always rebellion against tyranny, all the time. Such films seem unashamedly pro-revolutionary, which opens Pandora’s box of ironies and contradictions for Hollywood.

Whether in the 1938 or 1962 versions, Marco Polo employs Exotica Plot #2, in which the legitimacy of the absolute monarch isn’t questioned but is subverted by an evil underling or interloper who’s not allowing the true authoritarian ruler to dictate wisely. Therefore, the “revolution” is to restore hierarchical power to its proper benevolent authoritarian, who deserves to rule the peasants by divine right. The people aren’t really revolting against him but against those who abuse and deceive him, for they love their master.

I believe this plot is used for political-historical reasons. Nobody has diplomatic relations with Mars or Atlantis, so they can have the first type of revolution, but it’s a different story for real countries. I recently watched this identical trope in Harmon Jones’ 1954 film Princess of the Nile, where Jeffrey Hunter plays a Baghdad caliph’s son who rescues the titular Egyptian princess (Debra Paget) from marriage to a usurping Bedouin leader (Michael Rennie) who has drugged and bamboozled her father. Same plot as Marco Polo, even the same type of blue-eyed hero. Even though these films are fantasy versions, China and Egypt are real countries.

Among more ironies is that if China had made a contemporary film about Kublai Khan, its sympathies might have been with the people overthrowing his tyranny. Or alternatively, he might have been associated with Mao in uniting the people against foreign influence.

The real star of Marco Polo isn’t Calhoun but cinematographer Ricardo Pallottini, with the gorgeous music of Angelo Francesco Lavagnino coming in a close second. If our minds wander from the patronizing and womanizing hero or the naïve politics, our rolling eyes always land on some spectacular eye candy, for this thing’s got production value coming out of the royal wazoo.

The most surprising emotional punch is delivered in a subplot starring two of the several Asian actors. The endearing sidekick Ciu-Lin is played by Michael Chow, whose many facets include being the son of an illustrious Peking Opera star, the brother of Tsai Chin (a James Bond girl), a noted painter, and the owner of the Mr. Chow restaurant chain. He’s introduced as a sado-erotic object, bound shirtless in the air and nearly pierced by multiple arrows, like iconic images of St. Sebastian. Marco takes one look at him and decides to claim him as a companion. Marco dumps all women, but he’s always with this guy; make of it what you will.

Later, Ciu-Lin will have a thing going with the Princess’ handmaiden, played by Thien-Huong. That’s how she’s listed in the credits, but Lucas explains she’s better known as Tiny Yong, a French-Vietnamese recording star and actress who was all over the place in the ’60s before she, too, began founding her own restaurants.

Although the romance between these two characters is more hinted than depicted, it culminates in a scene of startling dignity, tragedy, and emotion that far surpasses anything else in Marco Polo‘s running time. Since this scene is hardly necessary to the plot, Lucas offers it as proof of Fregonese’s authorial voice. Further proof is the emotional pertinence and stylistic care of the many insert shots, which Lucas finds unusual for an Italian genre rarely bothered with such things.

Who is this Fregonese? Lucas refers to a September 2022 retrospective of his films at the Museum of Modern Art, which cites his “themes of claustrophobia, entrapment and imprisonment”. Certainly, the scenes of oppression and prison in Marco Polo are among the film’s most effective. That’s not among the 11 films in MoMA’s line-up; they look delicious. The only one I’ve seen is the oppressive Man in the Attic (1953), with Jack Palance as Jack the Ripper.

Omitted from both Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema (1968) and Georges Sadoul’s Dictionary of Film Makers (1972), Fregonese finds mention by David Thomson in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (2003). Thomson calls him “a visual narrator able to inflict ordeal on his characters within moments of a film’s start”, one whose “laconic bleakness” offers “a smoldering, begrudging beauty” associated with those “who cling to Hollywood’s underbelly”. Well, Marco Polo shows how laconic bleakness looks in lavish widescreen color.

As mentioned, this Blu-ray contains only the English dub prepared by Italian producers back in the day. Amazon indicates the existence of a 2009 French DVD, which we assume contains the French dub. Perhaps the Italian dub can be found in Italy, although neither that nor the French would have Calhoun’s voice. The French might well have Tani’s voice. The ideal platonic Blu-ray in the sky would offer all three soundtrack options plus the long-lost AIP cut for comparison by fans who really have time on their hands.