Is it Chinese propaganda or White savior racism? This is the most fascinating question at the heart of the new historical monster epic, The Great Wall. As one of the first Chinese-US co-produced blockbusters ever made, racial and cultural bias are legitimate concerns. This is a Chinese movie starring a White American actor. But it’s also a story about how much better the Chinese are than Europeans. But it’s also a story about a European ostensibly (if not literally) saving the Chinese. All this, and it just may also be a Power Rangers prequel as well. The question of whether it’s racist or propaganda — or both — might not seem relevant to a discussion of the movie’s ultimate quality, but it is. The Great Wall isn’t a great film, but it has an enormous impact on the film industry going forward.
The Great Wall stars Matt Damon as William, a European from…somewhere in Europe. He’s joined by Pedro Pascal as Tovar, his Spanish partner, as they travel to China in search of gunpowder. Upon reaching the Great Wall, they meet Commander Lin (Jing Tian) and the Faceless Order, a group trained to defend the wall from lizard people every sixty years. They soon find themselves at the centre of the war between the Chinese and the lizard people (Tao Tei) and are forced to decide if they’ll help, or try to escape with as much gunpowder as they can find, and leave the Chinese to die. While the concept is simple and ridiculous, it more or less works on film. This is a movie about honour and self-interest, and about the choices William and Tovar eventually make.
“A man must learn to trust.”
Let me say right away that Damon’s accent is strange, and extremely hard to place. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s Scottish by way of the worst Sean Connery impression possible. He and Pascal speak English throughout, and if you’re worried about subtitles, there aren’t that many. Jing Tian as Commander Lin, the female leader of the Crane Troop of the Faceless Order, often speaks English with Damon, and Willem Defoe has a smaller role as a Westerner living with the Faceless order as well. The Great Wall is a Chinese movie tailor-made for American audiences, complete with humorous banter between the European heroes to ease the tension. It’s as historically authentic and inviting as any of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Too bad the special effects don’t look as good.
The Tao Tei, or lizard people, are completely CGI. While The Great Wall is often gorgeous to look at, with a sumptuous colour palette and inspired cinematography, the CGI effects are where it looks the most dated. The Tao Tei are cheap and cartoon-looking, and the effects for them often look unfinished. Their design is sadly uninspired as well. I’ve been charitably calling them lizard people, when really they’re just giant alien geckos. This is in contrast to the ornate and colourful armour designs of the Faceless Order. Some of the film’s most gorgeous moments happen when legions of Faceless Order troops simply stand in formation or ready themselves for war. The Faceless Order is separated into five distinct troops, and each troop gets it’s own colour. They might not be historically accurate, but they sure do look good standing together.
“Where you go, I follow.”
Unfortunately, they also look like an army of proto-Power Rangers. It’s visually striking to see the different troops standing and fighting together, but it feels like a giant droid is always just around the corner. Their designs strain credulity at times, and make you question the movie itself. Why does every grunt soldier get an ornate animal helm? Surprisingly, there’s very little in the way of magic or fancy powers here — these are simply soldiers fighting a unique enemy. In that sense, it has more in common with the anime series Attack on Titan, in which different labelled units of troops also worked together against a supernatural foe. Their armour is in sharp contrast to Damon’s William. He starts the movie covered in mud, and pretty much ends it that way. The Chinese characters are visually clean and stunning, while the most colourful part of Damon’s attire are his arrows.
So…is this movie racist? Well, yes. Sort of. While William is a scoundrel who has to learn cleanliness and honour from the upright Chinese, he’s also a master bowman who saves the day more than once. There’s even a scene where he saves and encourages a Chinese soldier dismissed by his peers. But that’s as far as the White saviour trope really goes. He never co-opts Chinese culture and they never learn from his ways. While movies like Avatar and Dances with Wolves are about white men joining ‘savage’ cultures and eventually excelling at and learning those cultures’ values, The Great Wall is about a White man being confronted with just how amazingly advanced the Chinese are. Apart from his archery, William isn’t important at all. It’s more Mad Max: Fury Road than it is The Last Samurai.
“I’ll need my bow.”
This movie is about William’s moral choice, but there’s never any question of the morality of the Chinese. They’re honourable people doing honourable things, and the world beyond the wall is much more terrible. There’s plenty of propaganda to unpack in that message, but there are several moments that also undermine it. At one point we see the Emperor of China, but he turns out to be just a scared child — far from the regal authority figure you’d expect from a pure propaganda piece. Similarly, the soldier that William saves ends up playing an important role, implying that Western individualism isn’t all that bad. In the end, The Great Wall is fairly complex — yes, it’s racist, and yes, it’s propaganda, but it’s not as racist or propagandized as you probably expect. Whether that makes it better is up to you.
Chinese director Zhang Yimou feels a bit like Guillermo Del Toro meets Zack Snyder. The Great Wall is filled with slow-motion close ups and gratuitous special effects shots, but also has plenty of attention paid to colour palettes and small details. Unfortunately, discussion surrounding the movie’s themes and implications are more interesting than the movie itself. You’ll know where it’s going within the first half hour, and the movie is basically just a popcorn action flick with a high-brow international sheen. The acting is stilted, the story is bland, and the special effects simply aren’t that special. If you’re interested in seeing more Chinese blockbuster cinema, then you should go see it and know that it’s not terrible. But if you have no interest in Matt Damon slaying space geckos, you won’t be missing much by skipping this film.
“Do you hear it?”
The Great Wall is an important stepping stone in Chinese international cinema, and I hope it succeeds in bringing more unique stories to the big screen. It’s ambitious and often gorgeous to watch, with a lot of creative ideas and interesting set pieces. While it isn’t at the quality you’d hope for considering its pedigree, it’s often entertaining and never truly bad. It’s light propaganda for the Chinese but, face it, so is Independence Day for the U.S. The only real hurdle the movie has yet to overcome is having a White American lead in a Chinese narrative. No, the part wasn’t white-washed, but look at the poster below and ask yourself why Matt Damon’s face is bigger than the titular wall. This is the state of movies today, and the potential success of international cinema is one of the many ways we can hope to change it.
My Rating: 5.5/10