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The Great Wall

The Great Wall: Chinese Filmmaking Meets Predictable Hollywood Treatment

  • Matt DamonPedro Pascal...
  • Action & AdventureDrama...
  • Yimou Zhang
reviewed by
Steve Noriega
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The Great Wall: Chinese Filmmaking Meets Predictable Hollywood Treatment

Like acting peers, Keanu Reeves and Tom Cruise, who starred in 47 Ronin and The Last Samurai respectively, Matt Damon has found himself neck-deep in the latest of Hollywood’s long line of whitewashing controversies.

The Great Wall, directed by the influential Zhang Yimou, has been accused by many of falling back on white saviour narrative in its often perfunctory and sometimes predictable fictional tale set during China’s Song Dynasty. That’s, actually, the film’s biggest problem, rather than the whitewashing issue. Mixing a historical fiction narrative with action adventure tropes and plenty of fantasy, producers have pointed to two things: firstly, Damon’s character was never conceived as a Chinese one and the film actually claims to have assembled the biggest Chinese cast of its kind.


In fact, Damon – the white saviour – spends most of the film being upstaged, outthought and generally schooled by the Chinese characters. Why and what about, exactly, isn’t completely clear. The film opens with Damon as one of several survivors of a European mercenary group who are in search of an explosive black powder. After evading the Khitan troops who killed the rest of the mercenaries, they come to be captured by Chinese soldiers along the Great Wall of China, who are preparing for a monster invasion. As one can predict quite early on, Damon’s character comes to earn the army’s respect as they repel the attacks, paving the road for self-improvement, self-realisation and other intangible epiphanies.


From a photographic perspective, The Great Wall bares the hallmarks of Zhang Yimou’s work – sweeping panoramic shots and intelligent use of colour are in abundance and, as a spectacle, this is certainly an entertaining film. But one of Yimou’s other trademarks in delicately building complex relationships and character dynamics is watered down for a distinctly more Hollywood-friendly piece. In fact, this is a worse crime than the perceived whitewashing – let’s call it Hollywood-washing: the act of stripping down a director or script of its pure elements of auterism for the sake of western box office success.


In this case, the auteur in question happens to be one of the most celebrated Chinese directors of his generation, whose 2002 flick Hero put him on the map in the west, while collecting plenty of acclaim and awards. While Hollywood jumping on foreign trends, actors and directors, is nothing new, the very essence that they’ve wanted to harness is diminished. With The Great Wall, Yimou’s vision descends into a watchable film, certainly, but one that feels all too familiar in its escalation. What of Damon? He’s naive, determined and heroic in all the right places and will hold your attention. So there’s that.

Like This? Try

Hero (2002), The Last Samurai (2003), House of Flying Daggers (2004)

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