“1700 years to build. 5500 miles long. What were they trying to keep out?”
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Starring Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau
In the 11th century, a band of mercenaries including the English (Irish? I’m not sure what he’s going for) William (Damon) and the Spanish (they keep referring to Spain, despite being some centuries before the formation of said Kingdom) Tovar (Pascal), is whittled down by bandits and finally all but the last two are killed by a beast which William kills, cutting off its clawed and scaled arm. Fleeing bandit reinforcements, the pair are suddenly faced with the Great Wall and its defenders, the Nameless Order, who ponder the possibility of killing them until they learn that he slew a ‘Tao Tei’ single handed.
The mercenaries are following the tales of black powder, a weapon which could make them kings, but when Strategist Wang (Lau) and Commander Lin (Jing) bring them to the top of the wall during an attack by the Tao Tei, they prove their value as warriors and William begins to waver from his course. While Tover and long-term captive/reason for some of the Chinese characters to speak English Sir Ballard (Dafoe) plot to steal powder and escape, William begins to work with the Nameless Order to devise a strategy to defeat the Tao Tei, an extraterrestrial scourge two thousand years old.
When Tover and Ballard make their move and the Tao Tei are found to have dug under the wall, a disgraced William makes one final attempt to redeem himself and his dishonourable former life by joining the Order in a desperate pursuit of the ravenous enemy.
What’s wrong with it?
I’ll address this more later on, but while I do not think that accusations of whitewashing, or even white saviour narrative are all that relevant in this case, the European characters are there to sell the film in the West and are frankly somewhat extraneous. In particular, while William has a role, Tovar and Ballard could have been largely dropped from the movie with no significant effect besides a minor loss of banter. Conversely, it might have been nice if the Moorish member of their little multinational mercenary coalition had got some lines.
I straight up don’t know what accent Damon is even trying to do. I thought English, but others have suggested Irish, so now I don’t know if I should tag this one lor blimey accents or sure and beggorah accents. I think I’ll put both.
The film takes the bold step of putting all its wares on the table very early on. There are essentially three patterns of Tao Tei – the soldier/scouts, the royal guards and the queen – and they all hit the field in the first battle. This does lead to a certain lack of wow factor late in the movie, which is not ideal for a film so heavy in spectacle.
What’s right with it?
William’s principal role is as western audience surrogate; he’s there so that people don’t have to explain the Tao Tei in words beginning with ‘well, as you know’. His superlative archery skills and sheer nerve win him a place among the defenders of the wall, but not an outstanding one; with the exception of Peng Yong (Lu Han), they’re all that badass. Especially Commander Lin, whose blue-armoured, all-female Crane Corps specialise in bungie-jumping off platforms on the wall to spear Tao Tei before being reeled back in.
As well as the Crane Corps being just as badass as the rest of the Nameless Order, the film is neither squeamish nor fetishistic about killing off women on screen.
Lin does not fall for William. There is no kiss, no hug; not even a headbutt of love. They connect as warriors, game recognising game, and another part of his role is to learn the value of the Nameless Order’s code of absolute trust in one another, rather than his selfish, mercenary creed (as shown when he chooses to have Tovar released at the end instead of taking a wagon-load of black powder back to Europe.)
The black powder weapons are depicted as awesome, but terrible, rather than wicked cool.
The pursuit of the Tao Tei is conducted in highly experimental balloons, with William joining the last flight from a launching ground littered with the blazing wreckage of the ones that didn’t hold steady enough. I like that this seems suitably desperate, and that the mysterious technology of the Chinese isn’t space age or infallible.
At the denouement, the last shot they have is with a spear. William is an archer; Lin is a spear fighter. Lin takes the shot.
I kind of love that the Tao Tei turn out to be from space.
How bad is it really?
To acknowledge the elephant in the room (happy birthday, Francine,) this film is a classic example of how a valid case can be damaged by picking the wrong fights. As soon as Matt Damon appeared in trailers for a film called The Great Wall there was a furore about whitewashing, but while whitewashing is a very real problem in Hollywood, it isn’t a big issue in this film. He’s not playing a character who should by rights be Asian, and is in fact largely in there to be the outsider to give a western audience an in to what’s going on (and to sell the film in the west, which is a whole different issue.) Not that this means there isn’t a problem; just that it isn’t whitewashing per se. What we have here is a borderline case of white saviour narrative, and even that only just. His stupendous slaying of a Tao Tei single handed proves to be a matter of luck, and even his superlative archery skills at best put him on a par with the insane level of martial excellence on display along the length of the Wall. Anyway, that aside, the claims of whitewashing have pushed the actually Chinese makers of the film to get defensive and the fact that they are inaccurate will be seen as evidence that whitewashing isn’t a thing, which it totally is. This is why it’s important to see films before you critique them. Last Knights is far more whitewashed than this film, despite being ostensibly set in an imaginary land. This is more like 47 Ronin, although William actually has much more reason to be white and there than Kai.
But apart from that, is the film any good? I actually rather liked it. It’s not perfect, and honestly we could probably have done without Ballard or Tovar for all that they actually did in the end, for good or ill, but it’s a more than serviceable tentpole movie and upholds Legendary’s superlative record for not throwing in pointless and inappropriate romance. Lin is a lifelong fighter who engages with William as a fellow warrior, not as an object of desire, and teaches him the value of trust instead of learning about this Frankish thing they call ‘kissing’. None of her fellow Commanders ever sounds off about her fraternising with the white boy or gets jealous or possessive. I wish this wasn’t such a big thing, but female roles that are not at all defined by romance are still few and far between.
Best bit (if such there is)?
As it should be, the climax of the film is superb, with Lin and William working their way up through the multicoloured light of a stained-glass tower to get a shot at the Queen past her royal guards and their bomb-proof neck frills.
What’s up with…?
- When exactly is this film set? The wikipedia summary puts it at the time of the Renzong Emperor. However, William’s claim that he fought for Harold against the Danes suggests post-1066 and the Renzong Emperor died in 1063. I guess he could mean Harefoot, or even Harald Hardrada, although he would likely have served the latter in his time as a mercenary leader rather than King of Norway and they’re talking about the flags he has served. Was that even an idea in the 11th century? Flag = Nation? Also, the Emperor’s youth in the film would put it early in his reign, around 1025-1030, which is too early even for Hardrada.
- Spain? William specifically mentions fighting for Spain, a kingdom forged from a number of Iberian states who, in the 11th century, would be locked in struggles with each other and with either the Caliphate of Cordoba or its fragmentary Taifa.
- The armour? I’m not really convinced either by the wicked awesome laminated armour of the Nameless Order, nor the mail of the westerners. On the other hand, it does look very cool.
- The Capital? You’ve had two thousand years of Tao Tei attacks and your major metropolitan centre is still within a day’s striking distance of a Mountain overrun by monsters that must never be allowed to reach a heavily populated area or the world is doomed. I call civic planning foul.
Production values – The film presents us with a well-executed and unique monster in the form of the Tao Tie, based loosely on a front-on design called taotie. Some of the landscape work is a little less impressive, but nothing is glaringly false. 6
Dialogue and performances – The dialogue is mostly functional and po-faced, with the bromantic banter between William and Tovar the nearest it gets to regulation action movie talk. The performances mostly involve being stoic, but god damn the stoic game on display here is on point. 8
Plot and execution – The main plot is decently paced and executed, but there are odd digressions such as the envoy taking the captive Tao Tei back to the Emperor and… well, everything involving Ballard and Tovar but not William, which do serious harm to the pacing of a movie that needs pace. 12
Randomness – Well, the Nameless Order’s infantry use shields which double as saw-edged frisbees of death. 8
Waste of potential – The film could definitely have been tighter, and Ballard and Tovar are something of a burden, but given what a lot of people thought this film was going to be, it could have been so much worse. 6