RECAP: The Great Wall

The Great Wall (2016): Yimou Zhang

Two thousand years ago, in China’s north, a meteor crashed into a mountain, turning it an ominous green. It also created and unleashed the Tao Tei, ferocious creatures that prey on humanity. These creatures were sent to remind humans “what happens when greed is unchecked.” And also to eat them.

Fortunately for humanity, the Tao Tei only descend their mountain in 60-year intervals. The Great Wall of China was built for many reasons, but keeping out the Tao Tei was the big one.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: The Great Wall, the soldiers guarding it, and Matt Damon protect China from being eaten by space monsters. 

Hero (5/10)

Centuries ago, some Europeans tried to enter China and steal a perhaps-mythical substance known as “black powder.” Chased by local hill tribes, the Europeans encamp in a desert, with no food, medicine, or maps to escape their predicament.

It’s bad times for the European named William (Matt Damon). (If you can tell me where Matt Damon unearthed his accent I’d be in your debt.) It gets worse that night, when an unseen creature attacks William and his traveling companions, which William kills with a few sword slices, leaving only its clawed arm. The arm is enough to allow William and his friend Tovar (Pedro Pascal) entrance amongst the Nameless Order, an enormous army patrolling the Great Wall of China, and an audience with its general.

China’s greatest hero

William walks alongside the Order’s top brass, though no one trusts him far enough to throw him off the wall. He’s in chains when the monsters first attack, but through guile and world-class archery accuracy he gains some admiration of the Chinese.

The Great Wall is immediately Damon’s movie, if only by contract and not by force of acting. Again, that accent is something else.

I guess we have to pretend William is the hero. He soon becomes the apple of the eye of Lin (Tian Jing), for reasons unknown. Lin distrusts William from the moment she spots him, yet she keeps him in mind throughout the movie. It seems that Lin wants to learn more about this strange white man.

After the first battle William and Lin eat in the large mess hall inside the wall. She asks him what he fights for. First it was food, then money. That’s about it. As Lin puts it, he has fought “for many flags.” Later, shows William that one can fight for trust, fight for one’s country. “Trust is our flag,” Lin says. William counters, “I’m alive today because I trust no one.”

That conversation changes William’s views. He and his buddy Tovar are wrapped in a plot to steal black powder and escape the wall while another battle rages. It’s a very bad plan, yes, but that’s not why William abandons it. During the battle, he walks away from the wall’s ramparts, but he pauses, contemplates this moment, when he will make a life-altering decision. William chooses to stay, and the battle is partly won.

William might be the protagonist, but he is not the hero. Commander, and eventually General Lin is far more heroic than anything William has ever achieved. Stone-faced in the midst of a deadly struggle, Lin never shows fear, never questions authority, and always knows exactly how best to face danger.

Wait, actually China’s greatest hero.

Lin speaks English, helpful for the audience, because a 25-year English resident taught it to her. She opens the movie leading the all-female branch of wall divers who leap from platforms 60 feet high, armed only with spears, and attached to the wall only with pulley-affixed ropes.

For reasons of casting and finance, Lin takes to William. Perhaps also because he singlehandedly killed one of the ferocious Tao Tei ravaging northern China. And like William, Lin has fought in armies since age 5. Well, not armies but the army, preparing since she could speak for the coming Tao Tei attack. “We are not the same,” she coldly tells William.

Lin seeks to change William’s attitude, and she succeeds. She shows him what her wall diving guards do. They leap into the enemy’s maw because they trust that someone else will pull them back up. Her flag is trust.

After the general dies, Lin becomes general of the entire army protecting the wall. She does not waver in her charge. No fear of command here. Her first day o the job calls for black powder weapons, the world’s most frightening, to be used against the Tao Tei, and only to capture one for study.

Lin’s commitment and fearlessness attract William to follow the side of good, and not the side of greed. She’s the true hero.

Villain (2/10)

Deep in the mountains north of China’s imperial capital lies the stronghold of the Tao Tei queen. With unquestioned, total command of tens of thousands of green quadrupeds as tall as a man and twice as long, she seeks, like all living creatures, to feed. She controls her brood through sound, vibrating a flap of tissue wavering between two horn atop her head.

We only know what she’s about from the mouth of Strategist Wang, so we have to take his word for it. The queen feeds on anything living or dead (but apparently not her own kind), which gives her the energy to produce more Tao Tei. Sounds like she clones new Tao Tei. That’s a sweet gig.

Tao Tie queen, with sonic powers.

Every 60 years the Tao Tei descend their stronghold to feed on humans. The Great Wall depicts one of those times. It’s unclear, but perhaps the queen rests and reproduces during the six-decade interlude. Whatever she does, she spends the time wisely. Several characters discuss the evolution of the Tao Tei from the previous encounter. Never mind that “evolution” is not a term they would know three centuries before Darwin.

The queen, presumably, is the creature that cooks up the battle plan. All the attacks in The Great Wall are distractions for the Tao Tei tunneling through the rock beneath the wall. The humans discover this far too late to do much about it, when the queen and her crew are galloping toward the capital, only a few hours away from it and unending nourishment.

Action/Effects (6/10)

The battle starts early along the Great Wall. The white guys arrive and are immediately witness to the craziest battle in the world.

The scorched earth beyond the wall soon bears tens of thousands of screeching animals hurtling their bodies toward the thick stone wall that has harried their progress for thousands of years.

We’ve watched the Chinese prepare for battle, a battle they’ve prepared 60 years for, and now we get to see what they can do. The general orders the drums to sound for long range weapons. First to launch are enormous boulders covered in oil and lit on fire. These boulders are sent down a ramp into one of the dozens of catapults affixed to the back of the wall.

Flame balls streak into the ranks of the ravenous horde but it barely slows them. The first lines reach the wall, in range of the archers, who send thousands of arrows into the monsters. We get our first look. The Tao Tei are four-legged tanks with eyes on their shoulders and shark-like teeth. They bleed green, as the arrows make clear.

Now it’s time for the ladies under Lin’s command to go to work. These women dive and flip off the platforms and stab the creatures with their long, two-sided spears. Men on the wall crank a wheel to retrieve the women before they are eaten. They can’t get them all, and a woman becomes the battle’s first casualty.

The Tao Tei queen shows up, and the general, hundreds of yards away, recognizes her. Surrounded by dozens of larger monsters, the queen uses them for protection. The humans launch spiky flame balls at the queen, but her retinue protects her using their neck frills to form a shield wall.

The creatures pile upon themselves to climb the wall. The women are still diving and flipping into the maw, slicing whatever’s in range. The drums signals close combat. Now the purple troops can shine. They come together to form their own shield wall.

The first monster on the wall kills maybe a dozen troops before anyone can do anything about it. It’s time for William and Tovar to shine. Freed by the other white dude (whitey gotta stick together), the Europeans step into a groove. William finds a spear and impales the rampaging Tao Tei. That only angers the beast, who knocks William back 20 feet. When William shoves the spear back into its mouth, the creature again pushes back, forcing William, feet planted, to slide backward.

Tovar finds a shield that he tosses to William, and he tosses William into the Tao Tei–the spear still in its mouth–like a WWE move. The shield knocks the spear deeper into the mouth. [1 creature or 2 on wall?]

But look out, there’s another monster on the wall. Tovar, a Spaniard, finds a red cape and shakes it at the monster. He removes the red curtain in time to reveal William kneeling behind it, an arrow nocked on a makeshift bow, and shooting that arrow into the creature’s eye. Killing the eye kills the creature.

Tovar in there

After William kills another by sliding beneath it, the queen is like, “Hell naw, they got white dudes?” and she orders a full retreat. The Tao Tei retrieve their dead and return to their mountain home. William wonders if they’ll be hanged for escaping their bonds. “I could use the rest,” he says.

Sidekicks (2/8)

William’s buddy Tovar is a Spaniard, which is clear because he uses a red cape to bull fight a Tao Tei. Tovar is more invested in the black powder-stealing plan than William, but he still wants his buddy to leave with him. After William commits to fighting the Tao Tei and not to escaping the wall, Tovar leaps to his rescue and saves his life, but only so “I can kill you myself.”

These guys make a great fighting team, belying William’s claim that he trusts no one. Tovar trusts the only other European in the wall, and it nearly gets him killed.

Much of the crew

Lin’s back up is the entire northern army. These troops are legit, and easily the world’s most formidable fighting force. Were they not preparing to fight otherworldly monsters, they could have conquered the planet.

Standing out are the colors. The women diving over the wall wear blue. The archers are dressed in red. Pikemen wear purple, and the foot soldiers sport black. Few armies are so arrayed, but who cares? This is a movie.

Henchmen (3/8)

The queen sends tens of thousands of screeching creatures to kill humans, and they are formidable. Green, long, and angry, these creatures are sprinting chewing machines. Chameleon-like, their eyes are on their shoulders, though unlike those lizard their eyes do not move independently and are closer to human eyes, limiting their visual range, surely.

These creatures are ferocious. The first one to reach the top of the wall kills at least 10 humans before it’s killed. In short, no army could possibly defeat them. At least not 500 years ago.

Note the eyes on the shoulders

A small group of larger Tao Tei protect the queen. armed with powerful frills, these creatures can extend them to create a shielded dome surrounding the queen. She needs this protection many times, and the wall seems impenetrable.

The Tao Tei are defeated by simple magnets. The magnetism affects their ferocity and their communication with the queen. Metallic rocks are hard to come by, but the one William found was large enough to destroy the entire species.

Stunts (3/6)

There’s some solid stunt work in The Great Wall. Much of it comes during fights with Tao Tei, especially the tag-teaming the Europeans do. But I have to credit the graceful dive-stabbing of the ladies’ regiment of the Nameless Order. These ladies stand on platforms a few stories above the stony, blood-soaked earth.
The coolest characters were the platform divers, presaging China’s dominance in Olympic diving.

With rings affixed to their waists, they stand rigid and catch spears flipped toward them. When the Tao Tei attack, they are the first soldiers in the line of fire (so to speak). Slashing their spears and dashing back up the wall, thanks to the men cranking them up, they rearm and strike again. I’ve never seen gymnastics in a fantasy, premodern war movie, and I loved the ingenuity here.

Climax (2/6)

With the Tao Tei on their way to the capital, the only hope for China, and the world, are the eight or nine balloons floating toward the imperial palace. Also, there’s the captured Tao Tei, fortunately debilitated by the empire’s lone magnet. Until it’s not, thanks to an imperial asshole who lets it wake up. The creature signals the queen, and now she and her army are running in the correct direction.

Moments later the Tao Tei are in the capital and leaving scorched earth behind them. Lin and William, in separate balloons, are moments behind them. Others are being eaten by the Tao Tei running atop the palace. Soon Lin is on the ground. With her spear she kills a Tao Tei through its eye, but soon a half dozen surround her.

Here comes William to save the moment. He offers his hand from a balloon platform. Lin does a pole-vault and flip to slap the pole into William’s hand. She dangles as Tao Tei snap at her legs. William drops a lit grenade to her, which she drops into a creature’s mouth. BOOM.

The queen is stopping her attack while she feeds. Lin uses the moment to land and address the emperor. This boy is hiding behind the imperial throne. Forget him. Let’s kill the queen.

Lin leads troops on a secret march beneath the city. Through a gorgeous, red-walled tunnel, she and her retinue march the captured Tao Tei closer to the queen. The creature is strapped with grenades. They have a plan.

There’s some trouble in tunnel. Nothing William can’t fix with an opportune toss of a sharp shield, with which he literally disarms two Tao Tei clutching soldiers through a grate in the tunnel’s ceiling. Soon they reach the tunnel’s end and a chance to enact their crazy plan.

Strategist Wang removes the magnet so the Tao Tei can awaken. It does, and it gorges on the meat provided it. Full of meat, the creature walks toward the queen, bombs strapped to its back. The queen’s guard allow it to enter her inner circle, where it will regurgitate the meat for the queen.

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Tao Tie feeding humans to the queen

William and Lin ascend a stunning rainbow stain-glassed tower, where they expect to shoot the grenade-laden Tao Tei. William takes the first shot. He lights his explosive arrow using the wrist flint and fires toward the queen. The queen’s guard are alert and activate their shield frills, sending the arrow harmlessly away to explode in the air.

The queen dislike being nearly killed, and she signals her troops to climb the two towers, knowing the shooter is in one of them. Wang, on the ground floor, is the next casualty, but he lives long enough to throw the magnet up to Lin, who catches it with her spear tip.

The pair climb higher, William shoots again, the arrow is again blocked. Now the queen knows which tower he’s in, and she sends all her guys that way. And wouldn’t you know, they have one black powder weapon remaining. William is about to take the last shot, but Lin overrules him. “I’ve trained for this my whole life,” she says.

As the monsters flood the tower, Lin loops a rope around the outside. She and William swing outside like a carnival ride. William throws the magnet at the frill shield below, and it opens a hole wide enough and for long enough to let Lin’s explosive spear pass through.

The queen chomps at it, perhaps knowing what it is, but to no effect. The bomb explodes; the grenades explode; the queen dies.

William dangles from the roof after the rope swings him and Lin back. With little effort she pulls him up. The Tao Tei bodies crumble away, and now mankind’s greed can expand unchecked forever. Hooray!

Back at the wall, Tovar is in chains. William, given the chance to leave with all the black powder he could carry or all the Tovar he could carry, chooses Tovar. “I don’t even know you anymore,” Tovar says, and is exactly correct. William experienced character development.

Lin, general of the northwest territory now, agrees. “Perhaps we were both wrong,” she says. They are more similar than she thought. Thanks to you, Lin, thanks to you.

Jokes (0/4)

William and Tovar have some cute banter between them to start, but tamp it down when the blood (red and green) starts flying.

Setting (3/4)

The Great Wall shows off its terrific set design. An early shot moves up four levels of the walls inside, showing water wheels and crank-activated elevators. The wall is tall and expansive, perhaps three times the actual wall’s height. I enjoyed seeing what the wall could do. Dozens of catapults were affixed to its interior side. The best moment occurred when the wall lifted to reveal swirling blades that cut any Tao Tei bold enough to climb it.

Interiors are also expansive. Hundreds dine in the large, clean mess hall. A long take reveals several levels of the Great Wall’s guts, featuring a water wheel that elevates a cage from the bowels of the wall to the ramparts. The camera takes great care to show the set design.

Commentary (1/2)

A European might be the main character in The Great Wall, but he’s also their to adhere to the rightness of the Chinese way of life. William is a killer, a thief, and liar–that’s how his best and only friend describes him–and he kowtows to the Chinese idea of trust and patriotism.

Lin knows that her (Chinese) worldview is superior to William’s (European). The army’s cohesiveness, fearlessness, and ingenuity are marvels of the pre-industrial world. You might watch this movie and think that it’s about how great white people are. You’d be wrong. It’s exactly the opposite.

The white characters in this movie travel tens of thousands of miles to trade for/steal a substance called black powder, which mint not even exist. It exists, in spades, and the Chinese already fear it as a terrible weapon. The leader of the human race’s best fighting force, opposing its most dangerous enemy, fears the power of gunpowder. That’s a remarkable outlook for the time.

About the Tao Tei. They are sent to remind humanity of the dangers of unchecked greed. They do this by having unchecked greed. The Tao Tei, it’s implied, could expand forever if they ate enough humans. For this reason the Tao Tei should be destroyed. So that humans can expand unchecked.

Offensiveness (-2/-2)

The Nameless Order (which has several named characters), shows advanced wokeness. An entire branch of the army is comprised only of women. I found this an ingenious way of injecting females into a medieval war movie (always a difficult task). The eventual leader of this army is a woman. She is never questioned by her underlings, though William seems to think he’s the shit. Amazingly, Lin, and not the movie’s star, makes the kill shot that defeats the Tao Tei forever.

Still, Matt Damon is the star, and that just don’t seem right.


  • The Great Wall is one of the legends about the great wall, not one of the truths.

Summary (25/68): 37%

The most expensive movie ever shot entirely in China, The Great Wall represents a bold maneuver and a colossal mistake. The Chinese movie industry wants to expand into the US, and it probably will, but not if it continues to cast American actors in starring roles.

The Great Wall would have been awesome without the white people. I’m sorry, but they distracted from the narrative. The production team nailed the sets, costumes, and fight scenes. There’s much potential here, but it’s lost when Matt Damon steps onto the screen.