The Great Wall: the Re-Education of the White Saviour

When the trailers of The Great Wall first hit, there was a great outcry about whitewashing and its possible use of the White Saviour narrative. But as others have pointed out, it’s a little more complicated than the prejudices of White Hollywood at work.

This is a Chinese movie.

Legendary was acquired by China’s Wanda Group and this was one of its first tentpole attempts. It is directed by legendary (small “l”) director Zhang Yimou. And for all that is has a great number of non Chinese names on its production, writing and story staff, many reviewers in China have detected the oh-so-subtle touch of Chinese censors. The People’s Daily have called out the critics and accused them of sabotaging the Chinese film industry[1].

But first, with all that context out of the way, is The Great Wall any good?

I saw it almost a week ago and I simply couldn’t get it out of my head. I ranted about it for hours and it was aggravating in how fractally bad it was. Half the costumes look like power rangers and the characters are paper thin. The tone is self serious and incredibly dour in the face of campy monsters and even campier weapons. Despite all the long, fetishistic pans of the Great Wall, the film lacks a sense of place to the point of being simply bewildering[2].

All of that would be fine far for someone to take a critical scalpal to. And someone should, but for me, what fascinates above all else is how The Great Wall interacts with the White Savior Narrative.

First, I should note that the film bears many of the trappings of a White Saviour Narrative. One might be forgiven for thinking this is another The Last Samurai. After all, the white characters (and the girl) are the only ones with meaningful personalities[4] and only Matt Damon’s William has much of a character arc to speak of.

The entire film does seem to hinge on William’s arrival and his daring ideas shaking up the rigid structure of the colour-coded army. He’s the one who suggests they should capture one of the monsters and it’s he who fires the final arrow that detonates the pile of explosives that they’ve managed to manouver next to the Queen Monster.

And yet, despite all that, I didn’t come out of the cinema dwelling on that. There’s been a lot of think pieces on how Chinese investments have been shaping Hollywood movies, and how Chinese actors and product placement begins seep in at the edges. And many have rightly asked, why are Chinese audiences content to be but side characters? Why does a Chinese face not helm Looper? Why does Summer Qing not get any lines as Joe’s wife?

And there are many answers to those questions. It’s a complicated issue. But to me, I explain it like this: the character they added to pander to Chinese audiences isn’t Summer Qing’s cameo. It’s Shanghai.

China itself is the character.

The Great Wall sets up a central conflict in which William’s world view is pitted against that of General Lin’s[5]. They are likened and contrasted from start, both being orphans raised by armies, but William is raised into a world of greed by the mercenaries. Lin is raised to trust and she is loyal without fault. She explains this very concept of trust to William with a Chinese term Xinren, as though it is alien to English.

Lin spells out the link between greed and the endless waves of attacking monsters. They are said to be a punishment for a greedy emperor, but their actions and their bottomless hunger is again likened to the greed of the non-Chinese world. When the two white captives of the army (who aren’t William) steal the gunpowder of China and run off into the hills, it is their greed that is their downfall as they abandon each other[6].

And thus, when William stays to fight the monsters with Nameless Army, he is fighting against that very greed that is in his nature. It is the killer’s redemption, of course, but it is also that he finds a flag that he is willing to die for.

It does not take a lot of squinting to see there a parable in which the white audience surrogate goes to China and learns of its wonders and converts to its philosphy.

In this light, the Chinese characters are flat because perfection is one dimensional. They are, each and every one, perfect and patriotic. They are the trusting soldiers. But they are not the characters that matter, China itself is.

The film is built on mythologising all the elements of that Chinese golden age that it is ever so proud of. The white characters, after all, are there to steal the secret of gunpowder from China, after having heard of its terrifying might. They are endlessly impressed by the army and its organisation. Their running commmentary makes it clear how awe-inspiring it is all meant to be.

This is a tale to glorify not the lives or the people within China, but edifice of the state itself: this is about the Wall, about the might of gunpowder, about the sheer size of the armies.

And yet between those lines again, it is also possible to squint harder and see an even differenter story. This is why the film won’t leave my brain. The Nameless Army is incredibly callous with the way it treats the lives of its soldiers. With the exception of its general who is mourned in the most dour, rigidly ceremonial manner, there is no lament for the dead. The monsters gobble them up and the camera lingers but a second on the pile of blood rings that used to have on them bungee-jumping warriors.

The soldiers pay the heavy, heavy pricef their incompetent leadership. The army is carefully structured, colour coded and inflexibly arranged. Its hierarchy in its missives and medals is show in an almost fetishistic manner. And still, their tactics are repeatedly ineffectual in the face of the monsters. They hold back the use of their most effective weapons for the reason that keeping them secret is more important than anything else. There is a scene where Lin makes the weighty decision to deploy the untested hot air balloons and hundreds die to get them off the ground. Instead of this being a great tragedy of their incompetence, the film frames this as heroic sacrifice.

To an extent this is all a byproduct of the wavering tone of the film. The cartoonishly coloured soldiers stand next to the brown realism of the foreigners and neither are willing to lighten the tone. Perhaps the casualties would work better in a film that is simply more cartoonish. But it’s not even that these soldiers are in vehicles that bloodlessly explode, they bleed and are devoured by the monsters[7].

There is a scene where the monsters drag the bodies of their dead back to their mountain lair and whilst I later learnt that they were actually feeding these bodies to their Queen, there something remarkably human and sympathetic about that moment. The humans of The Great Wall have no corresponding moment.

And much of this is probably also due to how much the film wants to lionise the military might of the motherland, but in doing that, it also betrays how little it cares for its own people. This is the building of a new great wall out of the willing bodies of its own soldiers.

[1] From the outside it’s not always easy to tell which are the fringe radio shockjocks and which are party mouthpieces. I mean, People’s Liberation Army Daily was accusing Zootopia of overturning the natural order of wolves eating sheep. But then, apparently that opinion piece was enough to get a review site to take down its “professional score”.

[2] I shouldn’t dwell on it but Matt Damon and friend arrive at the Great Wall chased by hill tribes[3]. They surrender to the army tending the wall. Fine. The army and wall are both there in order to fight the monsters. Also fine. But why do the monsters and the hill tribes never meet? 
Furthermore, if it was built against the monsters and the monsters all come from a specific mountain, why is the wall so long?

[3] This is not the place to complain about historical accuracy, I know. So I really shouldn’t harp on about how the Great Wall as we know it wasn’t really extant during the 11th century. It’s not more annoying that Dark Ages Knights in High Middle Ages armour, which is to say, really quite annoying. But crucially, it really isn’t the sort of thing that would break a film for me.

[4] The posters seem to imply such a huge ensemble cast of fascinating characters, doesn’t it? All those faces crowding in at the edges. Well, none of them really have much in the way of actual character. Even Andy Lau, with all his natural charisma, is reduced to nothing more than a mouthpiece for exposition.

[5] She’s the one in blue. Her all-female troops are the ones who suicidally bungee-jump off the wall’s platforms to fight the oncoming tide of monsters (because men are too heavy for this task). She eventually becomes leader of the entire Nameless Army.

[6] It’s a classic folk tale motif, which really shows how heavy the moralising is at this point.

[7] Not a problem unique to this film, of course. See: Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, etc…