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Erica, “Marco? Polo!”

Perhaps an acquired taste, Netflix’s original seriesMarco Polowas not overly well received by audiences. This wasn’t because of a lack of funding which resulted in a crappy historical portrayal (the first season apparently had a $9 million budget per episode). The limited audience ofNetflixsubscribers and the even more limited audience of those of us “history buffs” who enjoy such genres is partly to blame, as is the very specific topic portrayed. When historical T.V. shows, or even more generally, when historical events are presented to a popular audience, it is not typically Asian history, (World War Two, being an exception), usually European or American historical events are portrayed. Regardless of its less than impressive reception, it showcases a less common historical theme than what is usually portrayed by other popular genres. Despite its lack of recognition for the gem that it is, and its limited audience, Marco Polois insightful but also contains enough creative license to keep viewers absorbed into the world of Kublai Khan and his Mongol Empire.

Historical recreations benefit greatly from television series. Unlike other forms of mass media, television has the screen time to portray events in detail. Where a movie only lasts 90 minutes or so and lacks the ability to change themes within its course, a television series can last years and has ample opportunity to navigate through broader historical themes, not just one particular battle or such. The detail that a $9 million budget allows for also is informative to the viewer. Sets, costumes and props that can be accurately reconstructed allows for learning and education of the viewer in an interesting and captivating way. Television also gives the viewer the ability to become dedicated to storylines, but also more directly to characters. I was devastated to hear that the show was not going to be renewed for a third season, that was two years ago and I am still not over it. This is the power of television, whether historical or not. You become attached to particular characters and are determined to see their story through. This level of attachment is not as prevalent in other forms of media as they do not allow you to become immersed in the character’s narrative as if you were living their life alongside them.

Typical audiences of such historical shows are generally more limited than other genres. Marco Poloalso faced more issues than most, because the show is set in a historical time that the average person knows little about and frankly does not have the desire to. That is what made Marco Poloin my eyes, such a captivating experience. The little knowledge that I had about this period was what I learned from one university history class that I was required to take. Most people today have a general knowledge of European and American history, but Asian history has always tended to be more exotic. Marco Poloattempted to bridge this gap. Sure, many people know who Marco Polo was, but today many still associate the name with the pool game. My first thought when I hear Marco Polo is the games I used to play on the playground as a kid. Despite the popularity of his name, many would not associate him with as the thirteenth-century explorer who spent nearly two decades of his life at the court of Kublai Khan. A mass production such as this, attempts to enlighten and educate a more mature audience, (as the show is well deserving of its TV-MA rating for violence and explicit sexual content), all while entertaining them with intriguing storylines and relatable characters.

Of course, with any production of historical events that is not in the form of a documentary, there has to be a certain degree of creative license for the creator and some lee-way on the shows accuracy of the actual events. With anything in history, it is difficult to prove what did or did not in fact happen, especially when relating to character’s personal lives and feelings. The events that occurred during Marco Polo’s stay in the Empire are easier to verify, whether or not the creator lines their story up with the truth of the past is the question. For example, in the second episode of the first season, Marco witnesses the battle between Kublai’s forces and his brother Arik’s, Kublai executes his brother himself for his challenge against his right to rule. According to what records we have though, Arik was actually pardoned by Kublai for his treason. Another example is within episodes eight and ten, where Marco is depicted as actually fighting alongside the Khan’s forces in their attempt to overcome the Song of Southern China. While in episode nine, Marco is imprisoned and almost executed for failing his Khan in battle, and is only spared when, he personally, gives the Khan the key to defeating his enemy. None of these events appear to have actually happened though. Yes, Marco would have witnessed these events, but whether or not he directly participated in them is more questionable.

The creative license to include such scenes, make the Khan and the empire appear more barbaric and threatening to the safety of our beloved Marco. While the events that are being depicted are historically accurate, the Khan did indeed desire and eventually succeed to overcome the Song Dynasty. Whether or not Marco was directly apart of the battle and whether the Khan’s success was all because of Marco is debatable, but less necessary to the story that attempts to inform the public. The portrayal, though, of Chinese foot binding is present in the show as well. It is depicted as a strictly Chinese tradition that was frowned upon by other cultures, as we know rings true today with our evidence. Further the creators choice to use appropriate actors for the roles they portrayed was a decision to uphold the historical accuracy of the show. All three Polo men, Marco, his father Nicollio and his uncle Maffeo were all portrayed by Italian born actors. The Mongolian and Chinese characters as well were all portrayed by Asian actors and actresses with varying Asian heritage. Important key aspects such as character choice, battles and events are all appropriately accurate within Marco Polo. They follow history closely enough that the viewers are still informed about the specific period of history, but the creator alters just enough of the facts to keep the audience engaged and dedicated to the storyline.

Marco Polomanages to balance the historical fact of events with entertaining creative license to create an effective medium of historical learning. The relatively unknown history of the Mongol Empire under Kublai Khan is still rampantly present and teaches viewers sufficiently. The suspense, danger and romance that the characters are faced with, might not be as historically accurate, but add to the allure of the show to viewers. While watching I did not only want to know what happened to Marco romantically, and physically in the “dangerous” world of the Khan, but I also wanted to know what the Khan would get up to next, what new obstacle would he have to climb after his victory over the Song Dynasty. The length of the story that Television allows for, allowed me to become engaged in an aspect of history that I had little interest in before hand. If given the chance, Marco Polocan excite the desire for knowledge, specifically of Asian history, that gets little attention in other aspects of mass media, not only just for fellow “history buffs” but for viewers across the board.

Television itself is perhaps the most engaging form of mass media, in general, but also for historical depictions. It allows viewers the time to develop a personal relationship with characters, all the while showing the broader picture of a time in history, not just an isolated event. These shows give you visuals of what a time, event, or person looked like, so you do not get the wrong assumption about the story or characters. Depending on creative license, shows can be geared towards more mature audiences, but thanks to Netflix, age is just a number… and not a restriction. They also give you the important facts, the gist of a period of history, with a sprinkling of fiction to keep the audience engaged. Series like that of Marco Polo, give viewers what they want while educating them. They even have the opportunity to spark the audiences interest in a certain time period or historical character, like the show and characters of Marco and Kublai Khan did for me. This type of historical education is necessary to spread historians work to a broader audience of people in a compelling and exciting way. Without a touch of creative license, history would not appeal to mass audiences, preventing the spread of historical knowledge that deserves a public audience.

Bibliography

Marco Polo. Created by John Fusco. Written by John Fusco and Yipeng Ben Lu. Featuring Lorenzo Richelmy, Benedict Wong, and Joan Chen. 2014-2016, on Netflix. https://www.netflix.com/search?q=marco&jbv=70305883&jbp=0&jbr=0.

Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. "Footbinding (Late 10th century-early 20th century)." In Women in the Middle Ages: An Encyclopedia. Edited by Katharina M. Wilson, and Nadia Margolis. ABC-CLIO, 2004. http://ezproxy.uleth.ca/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/abcwm a/footbinding_late_10th_century_early_20th_century/0?institutionId=2649.

Reese, Ty M. “Polo, Marco (1254-1324).” In Encyclopedia of World Trade: From Ancient Times to the Present. Edited by Cynthia Clark Northup. Routledge, 2013. http://ezproxy.uleth.ca/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/sharpe wt/polo_marco_1254_1324/0?institutionId=2649.

Tucker, Spencer C. “Kublai Khan (1215-1294).” In 500 Great Military Leaders. Edited by Spencer C. Tucker. ABC-CLIO. 2014. http://exproxy.uleth.ca/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/abcclio ml/kublai_khan_1215_1294/0?institutionId=2649.

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Contact me for more information:

Sheila McManus

Professor, Department of History

University of Lethbridge

(403) 329-2540