Though Matt Damon is the nominal protagonist in the new movie The Great Wall, it turns out that, after months of controversy, his character isn’t exactly an agent of whitewashing. Instead of invading a foreign culture and “sanitizing” it for American audiences, Damon winds up functioning as Hollywood clickbait. The Great Wall may be a period action movie starring another white man on the surface, but it’s really a preview of a near-future in which China, soon to be the world’s largest movie market, has gained control over mainstream corporate Hollywood.
Below, you will find spoilers for The Great Wall, which was directed by Zhang Yimou, co-produced by the state-run China Film Group and Legendary Entertainment, the American studio that was recently bought by Chinese mega-conglomerate Dalian Wanda. Incidentally, Dalian Wanda also owns 20 percent of the world’s movie theaters and is run by Wang Jianlin, the richest man in Asia and one of the most powerful people in China.
Keeping in mind that we’re dealing with historical fantasy, here’s the setup: Damon’s character, William, leads a team of white men from Europe on an expedition east, to find and plunder a mysterious and elusive black powder that promises to make them rich (spoiler alert: it’s gunpowder). The trip is exhausting and dangerous, and by the time the movie opens, only a few men have survived. One night, they’re attacked by some vicious monster, and by the time William can kill the thing, he has only one companion left, the wise-cracking Tovar (Pedro Pascal). Luckily, they’d set up camp right beyond the Great Wall, and are taken in by the Chinese army brigade based in one of its outposts.
The language gap is bridged by the Lin Mae (Tian Jing), the brigade’s second-in-command; she was taught English by another European, a weasley guy named Ballard (Willem Dafoe). There’s some in the brigade who want to execute William and Tovar, but their story about the monster buys them some time. They’re told the truth: The Great Wall was built to keep out a gigantic hoard of mutating monsters that attack every 60 years. And here’s the craziest part: Time’s up, they’re attacking now!
William is a killer with the bow and arrow, so he proves quite useful during the first wave of attacks. But his impressive archer skills are but a trifle compared to the power and skill of the Chinese army. They’re color-coordinated, in sync in all their motions, acrobatic, great drummers, technologically advanced, and entirely devoted to the cause.
“Look at this army,” he marvels to Tovar. “Have you ever seen anything like it? Incredible!”
William begins as a thief, and his obvious hero’s journey is toward something more noble and sympathetic. And for anyone in the audience that doesn’t quite pick up on that, Lin Mae makes it very clear that the Chinese provide the example from which he must learn: “We fight for more than food or money … we fight for each other.”
William finds himself impressed over and over with both the ethics and ingenuity of his nominal captors; later in the film, they fly on gigantic lanterns to the capital city, an exaggeration of history worthy of both this fantasy and a love letter to the country where it is set. Damon doesn’t even save the day in the end, but simply helps his Chinese friend take the big shot.
The movie is more or less light propaganda, as the American actor is set on a more moral path by the disciplined, technologically advanced Chinese military. An American finding his way in a more upstanding culture is not a new cinematic theme, but it has generally played out in foreign films, or little indie movies. The Great Wall, however, is a $150 million blockbuster being distributed by Universal, one of the six big American film studios, which just so happens to be owned by Comcast, the largest cable media in the country.
Whether we see more movies like this will in part depend on whether President Trump carries through on his campaign promises to renegotiate the United States’ relationship with China. The President has everyone in Hollywood nervous about what that might mean for the film business, which has received substantial investment from China over the last half decade and is negotiating this year to increase the number of films allowed into the country.
Sony, Paramount, Warner Bros., and Lionsgate have big financing, production, and distribution deals with Chinese companies, and the industry’s growth in what will soon be the largest movie market in the world could be at risk. In fact, the sheer prospect of Trump’s interference has already moved China to stop some of the outward flow of investment into Hollywood; Wanda’s $1 billion purchase of Dick Clark Productions, which owns the Golden Globes, has been delayed for the moment.
If Trump was to see The Great Wall and actually understand that it comes as a product of Dalian’s purchase of Legendary — and Hollywood’s relationship with China more broadly — it would likely drive him insane. He ran on a campaign of strict nationalism, and watching a movie extolling the virtue of the U.S.’s main competitor may just drive him to push harder in a deal to Make Movies American Again.
Strangely, the good news for the studios may be that it looks like The Great Wall will not be particularly successful at the American box office. It also failed in China, which just goes to show that extreme nationalism at the expense of character and story don’t sell with audiences these days. Trump may throw a wrench in that and is unlikely to worry about pleasing Hollywood, big media conglomerates, or China. No matter what, The Great Wall will wind up being a time capsule, an example of early Chinese attempts to win over an American audience. Just how much they’ll have to change that approach, or if they’ll be able to do so at all, remains to be seen.