How the Gloriously Goofy ‘Great Wall’ Both Embraces and Subverts the “White Savior” Narrative

The controversy over the ultimately silly multi-national monster epic reminds us that context matters.

When the initial photos and trailers for The Great Wall were released last summer, they were quickly eclipsed by complaints that, yet again, a story of people of color was being told through the eyes of a white protagonist — in this case, star Matt Damon. Fresh Off the Boat star Constance Wu led the charge, tweeting, “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that [only a] white man can save the world. It’s not based in actual fact. Our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon.” To the casual observer (and, y’know, most of us are), this looked like yet another Exodus: Gods and Kings “white-washing” situation, in which a white director cast white actors as Egyptian prophets and pharaohs, and shrugged it off as the necessities of the marketplace. But it turns out The Great Wall controversy is much more complicated than that – because of the filmmaker behind it, and the kind of film he chose to make.

That filmmaker is Zhang Yimou, the visionary director of Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower – ornate, beautifully designed, period Chinese-language epics, often with a martial arts element. And it is indisputably his film; one of its greatest pleasures, for those familiar with his filmography, is how much fun he’s clearly having playing with all his expensive toys. It’s a pleasure to watch him orchestrate these giant set pieces of gorgeous pageantry, organized attack, and pounding drums (à la his acclaimed Beijing Olympics opening ceremony).

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From that description, it sounds like a fairly typical Zhang movie, so if we had, say, a Curse of the Golden Flower with Matt Damon in the Chow Yun-Fat role, that’d be cause for concern. And from the title and posters, you’d think it’s some sort of historical action drama about the Great Wall of China – based, as Wu put it, “in actual fact.” So if you’ve not seen the trailers (as I somehow hadn’t), you might surprised to learn that this is the story of Damon assisting Chinese warriors in the destruction of a giant army of green lizard-like monsters. No, I’m not kidding. The more I think about this entire package – an expensive Chinese-American co-production that’s as reminiscent of Godzilla as any of Zhang’s previous work – the less I can believe it actually exists.

But it does, and once you grant the film its fundamentally ridiculous premise, it becomes so much more enjoyable than some artful, respectable epic. It’s a B-movie – a mega-budgeted, multi-national Roger Corman production. And it’s got all the inherent attributes of one: pricy yet somehow chintzy-looking effects, goofy and overdone 3D whammys (they don’t just give you arrows, blades, and axes flying directly from the screen, like it’s Comin’ At Ya or something; there’s a moment of 3D back-clop dirt under a horse’s hoof), cornball dialogue (“I set you free.” “And here I am”), and gory monster deaths. And, particularly in the witty banter between Damon and buddy Tovar (Pedro Pascal), it has a sense of humor about itself. I mean, how could it not?

So how seriously do we take such a controversy when it’s attached to a film this silly? In many ways, the casting question goes to a bedrock principle of criticism: what exactly was the filmmaker trying to achieve? In this case, Chinese director Zhang has made his intentions clear: “a film deeply rooted in Chinese culture, with one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled, is being made at tent pole scale for a world audience… As the director of over 20 Chinese language films and the Beijing Olympics, I have not and will not cast a film in a way that was untrue to my artistic vision.” That seems like an perspective that should matter.

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But the question persists. If he’s not technically “whitewashing” – the role Damon plays is that of a white outsider, and per Zhang, “There are five major heroes in our story and he is one of them, the other four are all Chinese” – is Zhang’s film perpetuating the “white savior” trope in the pursuit of the worldwide dollar? It’s an easy case to mount; after the first attack, one Chinese soldier literally tells Damon, “Thank you for saving my life.” But you can also read a moment like that as a wink. As film critic Bob Chipman notes, it absorbs the white savior tropes, all the while slyly indicating that Damon’s character is overwhelmed by this Chinese army’s skill, strength, and innovation, and that it’s both to his own personal benefit and that of said army when he jettisons his Western individualism and becomes part of their cohesive whole. He may be the star of the movie, but Tian Jing’s Commander Lin Mae is its hero, a brave, selfless, and brilliant warrior surrounded by advisors and soldiers (including Andy Lau, Hanyu Zhang, and Lu Han) of the same temperament. Damon, on the other hand, is a greedy and dishonorable soldier-for-hire (albeit a redeemable one, this being a movie); the only other white person in the movie is Willem Dafoe, who in a shocking twist on his usual persona, turns out to be not entirely trustworthy.

Your mileage will probably vary as to The Great Wall’s overall quality. It is, as mentioned, a mighty silly and indisputably predictable bit of business, and while visually arresting, it’s also often too choppy and overwhelming for its own good. But it’s ultimately a good, goofy time, and a reminder that in this era of Problematics, context matters. It is, obviously, important to view mass art through the lens of representation (I’ve written those pieces; we all have). But much of what’s written – or, at least, read – about mainstream cinema as of late bends to the troubling trend of viewing art solely through that lens, without considering the kind of movie that is being made, the kind of filmmaker that’s making it, or the kind of audience it’s reaching (Chinese moviegoers, for the record, don’t seem to mind Damon fronting the picture; he’s as big a star there as he is here, if not bigger). If we’re not weighing all of those questions equally, we’re not writing commentary, or even criticism. We’re ticking off boxes on checklists.

The Great Wall is out Friday.