“The Great Wall”


            The Great Wall of China is simply magnificent to behold.  It stretches some 5500 miles, and was built, in sections and pieces, over a very long period, some 1700 years, through several Dynasties.  When we visited the Great Wall, our Chinese guide told us that it was not built to keep barbarians out.  That was impossible (because you couldn't possibly station sentries everywhere).  It was built in order to prevent the barbarians from taking anything valuable back with them (including horses).  Call it the world's largest anti-looting device.

            But of course The Great Wall is also the subject of much speculation and legend, and this movie freely acknowledges this, and tells us that it's telling the story of one of those legends.

            Somewhere in the vast reaches of China, sometime in Europe's Dark Ages, a couple of European mercenaries are on a quest of find the mysterious “black powder” they've heard so much about.  They figure if they can grab some of that magic stuff and take it back with them, they'd be set for life.  Trouble is, their little band has been beset by banditos, and while holed up in a cave, come across a kind of invisible monster that eliminates everybody else, except for the two amigos, William (Matt Damon), and Tovar (Pedro Pascal).  And while fleeing, they run smack into the Great Wall, guarded by an entire army of soldiers with bows, arrows, spears, and disciplined determination.  The two Europeans are taken prisoner, but a couple of the Chinese are able to speak English with them, because 25 years earlier, another European, Ballard (Willem Dafoe), had also come in search of the black powder, and he hasn't been allowed to leave.

            William and Tovar witness the incredible preparations of this vast army which has just been alerted that the enemy is coming, and the siege has begun.  While it's difficult to imagine what kind of enemy could defeat this huge garrison sitting atop this enormous wall, we soon learn that it's ancient monsters, who re-emerge every 60 years from their hibernation to assault the countryside.  They're dragon-like, four-legged creatures that look like a cross between a raptor and a crocodile.  They're big and they're mean and they're killers and there are seemingly unlimited numbers of them swarming into battle.

            The great thing about CGI in movies these days is that you can actually make this fantasy scenario credible.  The battle scenes are fascinating, because the tactics keep evolving.  The enemy first tries to scale the walls, and the defense involves blades, fire, and some very brave bungee acrobats with spears.

William just happens to be an incredible marksman with a bow and arrow, so he winds up helping in the desperate battle, which impresses his captors, particularly the bilingual Commander Lin (Tian Jing).Yes, there's just a hint of physical attraction there, but we're too busy saving the nation to have any time for that mushy stuff.  The enemy has been underestimated, it actually organized a feint/decoy manuever.  But it does have weaknesses:  a magnet will disrupt its communication system, and if you can destroy the Queen, the rest will perish.

            We root for William because suddenly he's fighting for something noble, rather than just enriching himself, though his buddy Tovar takes longer to get with that program, because he's enticed by the promises of Ballard, who's an even bigger scoundrel.  So what we have here is a kind of fantasy/fiction/sci-fi/historical drama with exotic locale and a strong hero/heroine motif.  It's a heady combination that can stir the imagination if you're willing to suspend the considerable disbelief.


Questions for Discussion:

1)                  Why do you think the Great Wall was built?  Did it serve its purpose?

2)                  What technology today presents a temptation for the unscrupulous to be outlaws?

3)                  What's the scariest creature you've ever encountered?

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association