The Great Wall, on the Border of Art

Matt Damon in The Great Wall (Legendary Pictures)
Zhang Yimou’s visionary epic on monsters and diplomacy

When a blockbuster titled “The Great Wall” opens now at the beginning of a new political administration that pledges to “build a wall” as U.S. border protection, it’s a delirious coincidence. Hollywood’s storytelling and money-making impulses collide with the industry’s professed political leanings, seeming to mesh with stated White House policy. But the truly spectacular result achieved by director Zhang Yimou is more delicious than political pundits and moviegoers deserve in this destabilized social moment. It may even be unifying.

The Great Wall itself uses the history of China’s partition, built in the seventh century b.c. and measured today at 5,500 miles, as the source of a fantasy narrative. A band of Western mercenaries, including Matt Damon as William and Pedro Pascal as Tovar, sneak into China, searching for black powder (“the weapon of my dreams,” as belligerent William describes the explosive that “turns air into fire”). They encounter a monster that attacks the Wall and the imperial court of the Song dynasty, whose elite military unit, the Nameless Order, is headed by Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau).

Bordering on Hollywood’s conventional, fact-based Oriental historical epics (55 Days at Peking, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, The Sand Pebbles), The Great Wall adds a supernatural monster element that also respects Asian sci-fi and supernatural conventions (Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host, Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West). The film is a model of that longtime business practice, the international co-production, which was common for several decades after World War II, as Hollywood sought to rehabilitate the European film industry and expand its own global market. The decision to co-produce was politically ingenious. East-and-West histories and antagonisms are resolved in the diplomacy of legend.

Protectionist ideology, older than any U.S. president and with ancient, global precedents, gets personified and made into a metaphor. The Tao Tei are mythic creatures whose rapacious claws William first severs and presents to the Chinese as evidence of a conquerable opponent. The Tao Tei are like Ray Harryhausen beasts, updated with digital technology reminiscent of other sci-fi ogres, from Godzilla to Alien. But the green-skinned and green-blooded Tao Tei makes for a wonderfully nightmarish foe, a political analogy that could have been envisioned by a wartime global economist: Its jaws and claws attack first, while its eyes are set back (foresight and reason recessed). The Tao Tei are explained as mutations from outer space (from the gods) sent to punish the emperor, but in fantasy movies monsters are always a reflection of one’s inner conflicts.

The monster-movie script by Hollywood hands Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy (from a story by Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, and Max Brooks) reflects a humanist agenda: The only thing that stops these masses of savages in their rampage is a magnetic rock that William claims for use as a compass. A symbol of what draws East and West together, it also holds all dangerous opposing forces in equilibrium.

Zhang’s deployment of realism and abstraction is a reminder that Peter Jackson’s standard-lowering Lord of the Rings F/X had no beauty.

As a hybrid of historical, fantasy, and political genres, The Great Wall requires a certain equipoise from viewers. The best thing about this hybrid is the decision by producers Thomas Tull and Charles Roven (who also produced Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) to enlist director Zhang Yimou, best known for staging the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a spectacle still unsurpassed. Zhang is also a true cinematic master (Hero, Curse of the Golden Flower, Coming Home, Raise the Red Lantern), who raises this film to a level that transforms its politics into pure vision and emotion. When the Nameless Order prepare to fend off the Tao Tei, the military phalanx, from drum corps to aerial soldiers leaping from towering parapets, are dressed in an array of colors that recall Kurosawa’s Ran, but perfected. Underground scenes of the army traversing caves dug by the Tao Tei combine the atmospherics of Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal with the tense pursuit of Alien. Images of the army’s hot-air-balloon squadron rising into dark skies for a nocturnal offensive are also dreamlike.

This era’s degraded movie sensations are part of our degraded social perception. Zhang’s deployment of realism and abstraction is a reminder that Peter Jackson’s standard-lowering Lord of the Rings F/X had no beauty. Zhang achieves visual splendor worthy of silent movies — Griffith’s teeming crowds, Fritz Lang’s geometric patterns — plus digital intercutting that makes images seem to burst before your eyes.

The greatness of The Great Wall’s action scenes — warfare as action-movie poetry — responds to William, the Western outsider, asking the Chinese: “What comes at you so hard you need a wall like this?” It’s a politician’s question, asked by an interloper whose own partner identifies him as “thief, liar, killer.” But this isn’t simply self-hating Western apologetics. Tian Jing’s Commander, who resembles a hot-chick ninja, explains the concept of xin ren (trust), which converts William from selfish conqueror to ally.

It is no coincidence that Damon’s bulked-up and full-faced appearance here recalls Brando (as both Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty and the mercenary William Walker in Gillo Pontecorvo’s anti-imperialist epic Burn!). In recent presumptuous political movies, Damon has lost the conscientiousness he first embodied as the contrite cavalryman of Walter Hill’s Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), but he shows faint memories of it here. Hollywood itself has become less scrupulous and offensively self-righteous. In these days when so-called resistance, from D.C. to the streets, uses dishonorable methods, The Great Wall offers a conscientious reminder of artistic principle, the respite of an aesthetically powerful comic book.


Paul W. S. Anderson’s Resident Evil: The Final Chapter shares with The Great Wall a gifted filmmaker’s signature sense of spectacle. Anderson’s set pieces get increasingly faster and imaginative, and his video-game-based franchise about the social effects of scientific hubris also employs political allegory. The apocalypse is Expressionistic symbolism for modern enmity. Milla Jovovich’s fierce Alice acts out the antagonisms of a world off its axis. She outruns zombies and fights off clones who desecrate what religion and capitalism used to mean. Extra fun: Anderson critiques his familiar paroxysms of violence when Alice dodges laser beams aimed by the Umbrella Corporation (best mock logo since Nashville’s “The Replacement Party”). It’s an organic genre-movie thrill like silent cinema’s Little Nell tied to railroad tracks.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.


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