The Great Wall

Feb 19, 2017 | Posted by in 2017, Movies
Great Wall

European Mercenaries find themselves in the midst of a battle between Chinese forces and a horde of creatures in Yimou Zhang’s The Great Wall.

There was every chance that this film would end up being remembered for being another offensive white saviour movie. It could easily have been a film about white men coming to a foreign land and teaching them their values while being heralded as heroes for solving a problem that only they could solve but this isn’t what this film is.

I won’t go into the details of the production and how this film came to be but the summary is that it was never supposed to be that sort of film and doesn’t come across that way at any point. There are prominent European characters in the film but broadly speaking the Chinese characters are the focus.

Interestingly, William’s (Matt Damon) character arc involves learning Chinese values. When we meet him and his partner Tovar (Pedro Pascal) they are completely self serving with a clear goal to get a hold of gunpowder to bring it back to the West. They are captured and William slowly learns the value of trust and teamwork in battle as a contrast to the broadly loner existence he had before. William does serve as the audience introduction to this story and offers a reason for Chinese characters to speak English.

Great WallThere’s not much more to him than that as the film isn’t really his story. He is an expert with a bow and arrow which earns him some respect but he isn’t the one to lead the army nor does he really save the day. Mostly he backs up the more interesting character Lin Mae (Tian Jing) and sits on the sidelines as she is elevated to General of the Army that defends the Great Wall.

The acting is fine but not spectacular but the writing just isn’t there for the characters to shine in any major way. Matt Damon struggles with his accent most of the time and Pedro Pascal doesn’t get that much screen time. Willem Defoe is here as well but also contributes little. Tian Jing has the most meaty character arc but even that is horribly truncated.

Depth of characterisation isn’t what this film is about though as most of the focus is on the action. The whole narrative is an alternative history story where the Great Wall of China was built as the first line of defence against a horde of lizard-like creatures who attack periodically. Most of the action is tower defence based like in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and it’s great. It looks incredible and there are a lot of creatively executed sequences that never stop being exciting. Seeing the way the defenders of the Wall strategically position themselves is impressive and there’s a lot of visual flair with colourful armour telling us exactly what the function of that particular group is. While all this is happening.

Each action sequence is designed to one-up the previous one and this is broadly achieved other than the final one which is really underwhelming by comparison. The film also suffers when there isn’t an action sequence because the character moments just aren’t strong enough to carry the story.

The creature design was something I really liked even if the horde of creatures wasn’t all that interesting as enemies go. A big problem was that there was no way to understand where they came from or what they really wanted because they were operating on an instinctive desire to feed. As fodder for action sequences they’re fine but the threat level wore off eventually because there was nothing new to be learned.


Despite the numerous flaws there’s a lot to like about this film mainly in the execution of some really creative action sequences and the compelling character played by Tian Jing. It’s also interesting to see Matt Damon’s character playing a supporting role and having his thin character arc defined by learning the Chinese values and applying them to himself. The creature design is cool but they are a bit limp as villains go because there was nothing more than instinct informing their actions. Nothing about this film will set the world on fire but it’s definitely fun while it lasts.

  • 7.5/10
    The Great Wall - 7.5/10


Kneel Before…

  • Matt Damon’s character learning the Chinese values and applying them to himself
  • Tian Jing’s character
  • well executed and creative action
  • interesting creature designs

Rise Against…

  • superficial characterisation
  • the lack of a strong villain
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