Shaw Brothers’ historical epic is better served by its alternate title: Four Assassins, given that Marco Polo, the 13th century Venetian trader and writer who was the first westerner to trade with China, is more a supporting player here compared with say, the 2007 miniseries starring Ian Somerhalder or even the disastrous 1973 musical biopic with Desi Arnaz Jr. Veteran director Chang Cheh crash-zooms onto Marco (Richard Harrison) as he rides into the kingdom of Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan (Lee Tung-Chun). After observing a lengthy martial arts bout that introduces swaggering Mongol warriors Abulahua (Gordon Liu), Caldalu (Leung Kar-Yan) and Dulldan (Wang Lung-Wei), Khan sends Marco to survey his kingdom. He returns three years (more like two seconds) later, sporting a porn star moustache and trailed by Chinese assassins. The three tough guys make short work of the rebels, save for one man (Carter Wong, later in John Carpenter’s cult classic Big Trouble in Little China (1986)) schooled in what the dub calls “pugilism”, though we know they mean kung fu.
Mortally wounded, the Chinese patriot finds refuge with his brave wife (Shih Szu), but Khan tasks Marco and the three warriors with suppressing this rebellion. A guilt-ridden Marco prevents the woman from committing suicide to join her husband, while his soldiers bully plucky farm boy Li Xiongfeng (Alexander Fu Sheng) and his brothers (Chi Kuan-Chun and Tong Yim Chaan) into helping escort her to prison. After much meandering we finally meet our lead characters. Li Xiongfeng is something of a prankster, seeing as he pees into a bowl of soup bound for his Mongol oppressors, though this gag almost backfires when Marco hands his bowl to the woman! Nevertheless, the farm boys help our heroine escape home to her father, who just happens to be head of a secret sect of martial arts masters. Xiongfeng and his brothers endure a series of comedy training scenes that endow them with skin impervious to steel, the ability to knock stone walls down with their bare fists and fight off a hundred men, single-handed. All of which come in handy when the Mongolian army come knocking at their door.
Far from a straightforward adaptation of Marco Polo’s celebrated journal, this is another of the “overthrow the oppressor” type plots Chang Cheh recycled throughout the mid-Seventies, including Five Shaolin Masters (1976), Shaolin Temple (1976) and the superior The Boxer Rebellion (1976). By this point in his career Chang seemingly cared less about staging compelling drama than bare-knuckle action. The action, which largely bookends the film, is lively, visceral fun choreographed by future director Liu Chia-liang and performed by an array of stars-in-the-making. Liu fell out with Chang on the set but went on to become a far more progressive and innovative filmmaker, notably with 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) whose star Gordon Liu takes a supporting role here. For all Liu's efforts, the film is strangled by its boring, repetitive plot, a curiously inert protagonist (Marco spends much of his screen-time watching people fight) and scrap-happy Chinese characters who, when they aren’t fighting, pontificate endlessly about technique. Chang had little time for the martial arts maidens that once dominated Mandarin cinema and reduces kung fu starlet Shih Szu (best known for the Shaw Brothers-Hammer co-production, Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974)) to a snivelling damsel in distress. Her sole contribution to Chang's beloved chivalric values is taking her own life, thus proving herself a loyal spouse. Production values are up to Shaw standards in spite of Kung Mu-To’s grainy photography while several music cues are suspiciously similar to Akira Ifukube’s theme from Godzilla (1954).
Marco Polo remains an understandably ambiguous figure in Asian culture, given he opened China’s doorway to the west but also paved the way for things like the Opium trade. Here he is cast as something of a conflicted antihero who comes to admire the rebellious Chinese and lament his alliance with Kublai Khan. Sadly, any attempt at complexity is scuppered because Richard Harrison never even attempts to act. Harrison was one of those down-on-their-luck Caucasian actors who became a staple of martial arts cinema. Marco Polo was his first Hong Kong movie after a career in Italy where he made some interesting films: The Invincible Gladiator (1962) by the underrated Alberto De Martino, spaghetti western Vengeance (1968) by Antonio Margheriti and pop art superhero flick Fantabulous (1967). His most popular outings were in the Euro-spy genre, including Secret Agent Fireball (1965) and You Can Do a Lot with Seven Women (1971). In the Eighties, he teamed with notorious schlock producer Godfrey Ho for a string of cut-and-paste ninja movies: Ninja Terminator (1985), Ninja Holocaust (1985), Ninja Squad (1986), Golden Ninja Warrior (1986), you get the idea. Regardless of genre, Harrison hated them all. He once joked his only contribution to cinema was persuading Clint Eastwood to star in A Fistful of Dollars (1964).