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In The Footsteps of Marco Polo - Movie Review

Two Guys From Queens Document Their Great Adventure

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating
User Rating 5 Star Rating (3 Reviews)


In The Footsteps of Marco Polo - Movie Review

Francis O'Donnell and Denis Belliveau flank local man in Afghanistan

Denis Belliveau
In The Footsteps of Marco Polo documents a great travel adventure: Francis O’Donnell, a former Marine, and Denis Belliveau, a photographer, set out to follow in the footsteps of Marco Polo, the great 13th Century Venetian explorer who ventured as far as China in search of knowledge and treasures that he brought home, significantly expanding the European world view. O'Donnell and Belliveau, who took a pact not to quite their journey before finishing it, wanted to know whether Polo did, indeed, visit all the places and see all the sites he wrote about. The trip took two years, and resulted in this exciting documentary.

Enjoying the Challenge of Travel

In 1993, Francis O'Donnell, an ex-Marine from Queens (NY) who loves to travel, sold some of his collected antiques to raise enough money to make an historic journey he'd dreamed up--retracing the entire route traveled by Marco Polo in the 13th Century. Francis asked his pal, photographer Denis Belliveau, to join the adventure.

The two friends flew to Venice, where they picked up the 25,000-mile Marco Polo route, which they would follow on foot, boat, bus, train, truck, horse, camel and yak. Fortunately, they packed video equipment among their travel essentials--and this documentary is wrought from their footage.

The exotic places visited along their route are shown with magnificent images. And many of these places are so remote, so isolated, that they still seem to be as Marco Polo might have seen them. Time and again, the two travelers comment that they feel they've stepped into history, and you, seeing these places through their eyes, get that feeling, too.

Their trip was fraught with difficulties and dangers, which makes the documentary something of a thriller. Frances and Denis traversed Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries not friendly--not then, not now--towards America and Americans.

At first, they weren't allowed to enter Iran, so they decided to bypass that country and return to it at the end of their trip.

They entered Afghanistan armed with a letter of introduction to a local warlord, who upon receipt of the letter, provided them with several jeeps and 14 armed guards who escorted them safely through the country's civil conflict.

Getting to Know The Locals

The duo's stories, told on camera or in voice over, are amazing. They stared down gun barrels more than once, endured freezing cold and inedible foods. Francis, interested in experiencing local culture, had his head shaved by a street corner barber wielding a sharp razor and received a tattoo from an artist working in a hut on a remote Malaysian island.

Francis and Denis hired local guides to escort them through the isolated and inhospitable Wakkan Corridor, a scarcely-populated region of Afghanistan a narrow pass through treacherous mountain terrain that stretches to the east, bordered to the north by Tajikistan and to the south by Pakistan and India, and leads to China, Marco Polo's most celebrated destination. The guys from Queens traverse the Wakkan Corridor on the backs of camels, learning to relax into their unusual gate and turn their heads to avoid the foul odors released by their belching. At the end of the 14-day Wakkan passage, they were confronted by border guards who'd never seen Americans before and refused to recognize their visas.

Their handling of trying situations turns into a fascinating lesson in international diplomacy--one that's useful to any traveler.

The film is a terrific history lesson, a survey of life in those Central Asian nations that few Westerners have the opportunity to see. It's also an exhilarating, inspiring travelog that will make you want to get up an go. And that's something that Francis and Denis encourage you to do with their encouraging message to venture forth and explore the world.

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Film Details:

  • Release Date: November, 2008 (on PBS)
  • MPAA Rating: Not Rated
  • Locations: China, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Iran, Mongolia, Venice, Turkey and elsewhere.
  • Language: English
  • Producers: Francis O'Donnell and Denis Belliveau
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