The Great Wall is one of those movies that is more interesting for what it portends and 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 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 filmed entirely 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.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.