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.
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.
If you don't wish to spend those three hours in preparation for the rest of the show, skip them and get yourself a copy of ''The Book of Marco Polo, Citizen of Venice . . . Wherein is Recounted the Wonders of the World,'' which will prepare you for the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday spectaculars. That's when Marco starts traveling and when the fireworks start, literally and figuratively. Chat with the producer
Producer and co-writer Vincenzo Labella is best known for his collaboration on the script of Franco Zeffirelli's ''Jesus of Nazareth.'' He has spent more than four years preparing ''Marco Polo,'' and the miniseries has become something of an obsession for him.
''At the end of his life, Marco confessed that he had not told half of what he had seen. That was our key -- we could respect history by re-creating what he told and we could make it an entertaining show by imagining the things he did not tell.''
Does that mean that much of the story cannot be called authentic?
''Well, there had to be some dramatic incidents invented -- but we are often following Marco word by word. The background is absolutely accurate. We worked in close association with the Mongolian Institute of the Peking Academy of Science and History.''
Mr. Labella, a Roman who speaks English with only a trace of an Italian accent, proudly reads from a plaque signed by Yang Na, director of history of the Peking Academy of Science and History, attesting to accuracy of the portrayal of Kublai Khan. ''A meticulous study of historical data will bring the audience a true panorama of life in the 13th century in China.''
Mr. Labella seems compelled to add:
''But you must not forget that 'Marco Polo' is the story of the victory of a book. At the end of the series there is a final hearing in which they try to determine if his book could be dangerous to innocent ears. They decide to let it go free. Marco Polo in essence is a book more than a man. He would probably be long forgotten were it not for his book.''
What does Mr. Labella hope the series will accomplish other than attracting large numbers of viewers?
''I hope it will induce people to get involved with further inquiry. Aside from whatever distraction the show offers, it should leave some room for afterthought.
'' 'Marco' is not 'Laverne and Shirley' or 'Dallas,' but I believe it is still a show rather than a history lesson. History can be told in many ways.''
Will audiences gain an appreciation for other cultures by watching ''Marco''?
''It is all about the triumph of imagination, the dream of foreign places and the reality of them. Certainly, those who know only about Western civilization of this period will learn about the other civilizations which existed simultaneously.''
'Marco Polo' is not about a swashbuckling hero, it is about a very normal human being who went from the past into the future. He left the middle ages in great expectation and came back a renaissance man. As his collaborator says: 'He has really taken us to times yet to come.'
''Isaac Azimov has said that in order for a man to duplicate today what Marco Polo did in the 13th century, he would have to reach a populated asteroid outside our solar system.''Will ''Marco Polo'' be condensed and shown theatrically in Europe, as happens to many miniseries?
''No. I could not bear to do that to the series. I will not chop it down. But in China, it will be shown in theaters as five separate two-hour films.''
Mr. Labella believes that today's young generation has lost the sense of wonder: ''I hope that this show will tell young people that they must let their minds go free and refuse to be mesmerized by the drug of sense-dulling TV shows and those infernal Pac-Man machines. People must exercise their own imagination, they must free in themselves the sense of wonder which was the essence of Marco Polo.
''Today, in an era of marvels, people get bored easily. They have seen such amazing things as men walking on the moon. We had to figure out what we could do on the TV screen that would amaze them.''
Are there still wonders to be discovered on earth?
''There are no more geographical wonders. But maybe there is another continent in the human mind, a continent worthy of being explored. And there is also the marvelous land that is the past. I will continue to explore both.''