Summary: The Great Wall is a powerful film misunderstood by critics. It is masterfully produced and acted, with a vision we need to see — about working together for something greater than ourselves, and about the promise of America and China working together as partners.
“The Great Wall”
Now in theaters. Directed by Yimou Zhang.
Staring Willem Dafoe, Matt Damon, Tian Jing, and Andy Lao.
“The Great Wall” tells the story of European mercenaries searching for the secret of gunpowder who become embroiled in the defense of the Great Wall of China by an elite force against a horde of monsters. The first English-language production for Yimou is the largest film ever shot entirely in China.”
I grow sad reading the critics’ reviews with their inability to be reached by simple emotions and stories. They get excited by films embodying Leftist ideology or post-modern sensibilities (almost overlapping categories). They like especially fine CGI, and nice children’s films. These are people that would hate most classic films, if they saw them for the first time without knowing their reputations. We see this in their reviews of “The Great Wall”. They hated it (a Rotten Tomatoes score of 35%); many appeared to have watched it blindfolded.
It is a simple film the key to a great story. As in the best monster films (e.g. The Thing, in both the 1951 and the 1982 versions), the monsters provide an existential challenge to the group. In this case, an endless horde of monsters (the Taotie) from a meteor attack China. If China falls, so will the world. They are fought at a re-imagined version of the Great Wall by the Nameless Order, an elite force of China’s army of awesome skill, wielding impressive (but appropriate for the time) weapons.
The film has many strengths. The cinematography is fantastic, with skillfully shot combinations of gripping panoramas and close-in shots of the battles. Unlike many films these days, I could always follow the action — knowing who was where, and what they were doing. The many small touches gave it texture seldom found in American films. Some of these were visual, such as the stack of bloody harnesses of the dead Crane Soldiers. Some were plot notes, such as the monsters’ adaptive tactics (like Afghanistan insurgents, not as dumb as believed).
The settings showed imagination on a scale rarely found in Hollywood. The actors portrayed exception people, but avoided the rug-eating so popular today. Instead they respond to events as actual people do.
Matt Damon gave his usual restrained performance, as a character actor par excellence. he plays a tired man who has fought one battle too many — and faces a future of many more. Tian Jing gave a superlative performance as Commander Lin, waging the battle to which she devoted her entire life (although at 28, she’s young to lead an army). Magee Lee at Variety described her as “wooden”, true only if you consider today’s emo actors to be your baseline. The supporting cast are workmanlike, but given little to do (a common feature of highly stylized films).
The dialog is terse and unadorned, like the acting of Damon and Tian — well-suited to the gravity of the situation. The setting, action, and characterizations convey the story. As usual in modern films, history is reimagined to show women as soldiers before modern weapons.
A film with Chinese and American tropes
Although written by Americans, they wrote for a Chinese audience so the structure differs from most similar US films — although it is similar to Pacific Rim (the 2013 monster film that was a big hit in China). There are no slacker heroes (great despite no hard work, training, or experience), and no lone hero (alienated from his own organization) who saves the day. Instead the American writers used Chinese tropes. China is defended by a regiment of highly trained and extremely disciplined troops. Victory becomes possible through the self-sacrifice of an everyman (the singer Luhan), an individual soldier not otherwise distinguished.
The film features a romantic tension between the two leads. This resolution of this combines both socialist realism (the art style popular in communist countries) and modern American gender politics (and perhaps a touch of racism).
The critics look, but don’t see the important story in The Great Wall.
Some critics called The Great Wall “generic” and shallow — unlike deep and subtle films like Rogue One (cardboard characters, nonsensical plot, RT score of 85%), Avengers: Age of Ultron (cartoon characters, moronic plot, RT score of 75%), and the awful in every way new Ghostbusters (RT score: 73%).
Many of the critics were obsessed by what they saw as “whitewashing”, another in the stories of US or British saviors of lesser peoples — providing the intelligence and leadership they lack. It’s a long tradition, from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan to James Cameron’s Avatar. But ideological blinders prevent them seeing the actual events of The Great Wall. Matt Damon’s William demonstrates skill as a warrior, teaming with Commander Lin to do great things. But he assumes neither leadership nor a preeminent role.
We can learn much from The Great Wall
While ranting about imaginary ideological crimes, critics ignore the aspects of the story relevant to our lives. We face global challenges as extraordinary as the monsters in The Great Wall. Nuclear war today, misuse of genetic engineering tomorrow. Massive failures in the biosphere as the world industrializes and population grows another 50%, to 11 billion, in the next 50 years. Climate change (it has destroyed civilizations in the future, and we have no exemptions). And unknown unknowns, perhaps as damaging to us as lead poisoning was to the Roman Empire.
Monsters come every 60 years in The Great Wall. But, as Louis Pasteur said, “fortune favors the well-prepared mind.” Their China has prepared well, not just in developing the sophisticated weapons of the Wall, but also in the honing the minds and bodies of its soldiers. An America that cannot even maintain its bridges and dams can learn much from this film.
The film gives us a second lesson. William and Commander Lin overcome their differences and learn from each other — then work together. Similarly, China and American can overcome our differences and learn from each — and work together. The fate of the world might depend on this.
The making of The Great Wall shows a possible future for the world, where we learn to work as partners. It was made by a team of Chinese and American actors, directors, and writers. Most of its $150 million production cost came from Chinese investors. It was produced by Legendary Pictures, which in 2013 partnered with China Film Group — the largest film company in China — and in 2016 was bought by the Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group. Whatever the success of this film, such films are the future.
“The Great Wall is unlike any American blockbuster you’ve seen, a conservative movie with action set pieces that are actually inventive and thrilling enough to be worthwhile. See it on as big a screen as you can.”
— By Simon Abrams.
Tian Jing will be in Pacific Rim Uprising, coming in 2018.
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See the trailer