The Great Wall is one of those movies that is more interesting for what it portends and for the discussion around it than for what is actually onscreen. Not that what is onscreen, in the most literal sense, is bad or uninteresting. Zhang Yimou, the versatile director of splashy martial-arts epics like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, but also human dramas like Raise the Red Lantern and Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, is probably incapable of making a movie that isn’t worth looking at.
What marks The Great Wall as a departure for Chinese cinema as well as for Zhang is the level of Western influence and involvement. The film was shot entirely in China, but is mostly in English and stars Matt Damon, Willem Dafoe and Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal alongside a large Chinese cast, including Jing Tian (Police Story: Lockdown) and Andy Lau (House of Flying Daggers). With a budget of around $150 million from American and Chinese investors, it is reportedly the biggest U.S.-China co-production to date and the most expensive movie ever set in China.
The Great Wall exists largely for two reasons: Hollywood wants a bigger piece of the Chinese box office and China wants more cultural power abroad. Images of an armored, bow-bearing Damon amid a sea of Chinese warriors in a story set in medieval China have raised inevitable questions about whitewashing or the white savior trope, but these concerns are pretty clearly misplaced.
Damon’s character is patently European in conception; more importantly, China wants a big Hollywood star in the role as much as Hollywood does. Like Chinese chefs in America in the early 20th century with one menu for Chinese patrons and a second Westernized menu to lure in American patrons, The Great Wall’s Chinese backers want to craft a film that’s Western enough to draw the crowd that might show up for, say, a Planet of the Apes movie to a spectacle about a elite Chinese fighting unit called the Nameless Order that defends China’s Great Wall against a horde of nasty monsters who could destroy the world if they breach the wall.
If that makes The Great Wall sound less like a cross-cultural artistic collaboration than a corporate-driven commodity with a whiff of nationalistic propaganda, well, bingo.
That doesn’t make it worse than a typical Hollywood spectacle. Visually, at least, Zhang fills the screen with color, grace and energy, a welcome contrast to the visual leadenness of so many Hollywood blockbuster-style films.
The Nameless Order combine a level of superhuman discipline and acrobatic combat acumen comparable to Peter Jackson’s elves with flamboyant color coordination by division, reminiscent of the color-coded armies in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. Among other things, there’s also a climactic sequence set in a stained-glass windowed tower that’s lit like no other action sequence I’ve ever seen.
Damon plays a European mercenary named William who has come to China with a rapidly shrinking group of companions searching for legendary explosive “black powder” that the Chinese reportedly have and Europeans definitely want. By the time he reaches the Great Wall, only Pascal’s Pero Tovar is still with him. Dafoe plays Ballard, a European prisoner of the Nameless Order who, like William, came in search of black powder a quarter century earlier.
Alas, the monsters themselves — reptilian predators called Tao Tie — are pretty generic slavering CGI beasties, although some effort has been made to incorporate the taotie motif from classical Chinese bronze work into the design of their heads.
“What god made these?” asks Pero after their first encounter with the Tao Tie.
“None that we know,” replies William. (If there’s something vaguely orcish about the look of the Tao Tie, if not their anatomy — and for that matter something elvish or otherwise Middle-Earthy about some of the Nameless Order’s armor and weapons — it probably reflects the influence of New Zealand’s Weta Workshop, which did design, production and effects work.)
The pattern of the Tao Tie assault on the wall, which is simply swarming it in sufficient numbers to become a surging heap of monsters jumping on one another’s backs, directly echoes World War Z, based on the novel by Max Brooks, who shares a story credit for The Great Wall. I’m pretty sure I strained something in my head rolling my eyes too hard when someone pointed out the Tao Tie queen and explained how the individual soldiers are helpless without her. Is there no expiration date on that one?
29-year-old Jing Commander Lin Mae leads the Nameless Order’s all-female Crane Troop, the most flamboyant of the order’s divisions. Their tactic involves something that, for convenience, has been called bungee jumping, a less than entirely accurate term.
To walk to the end of a narrow beam 50 feet off the ground and leap off, relying on your comrades to catch you and pull you back, requires trust and commitment — something William hasn’t got much use for.
To Lin, that makes her and William very different. Both she and William were inaugurated into military lives as children, but William has been paid to fight for many flags (even for the pope, he says), while Lin’s sisters and brothers readily “give our lives for something more.” William rejects this, saying that he’s alive today because he trusts no one, though, of course, in time, the Nameless Order’s dedication and valor have a redemptive effect on William.
Not that William has nothing to offer the Nameless Order. The Great Wall is a story of cross-cultural cooperation, and what William has is … Legolas-level archery mad skills. You didn’t think it was going to be anything reflective of Western culture or values, did you?
The Great Wall is hardly the first film to suggest that Westerners or Europeans have lost a sense of cultural identity or belonging that shapes one’s sense of purpose and duty, that this sense of identity can still be found in other cultures, or that disenfranchised Westerners can reclaim a sense of purpose by connecting with other cultures. Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, King Arthur, Kingdom of Heaven and Avatar all trod similar thematic ground.
Given the pro-Chinese angle that government censors have already pressed on American productions like Transformers: Age of Extinction and Iron Man 3 — and Western culture’s sometimes morbidly self-critical streak — it seems likely that The Great Wall won’t be the last Chinese-American collaboration about all that Westerners have to learn from China, and all that Chinese don’t have to learn from the West.
Caveat Spectator: Lots of graphic, large-scale fantasy action and battlefield mayhem; some crass language, cursing and a few instances of profanity. Teens and up.