“A White Man Set Them Free”

By  · Published on August 2nd, 2016

The Paths Connecting Matt Damon, China, Global Capitalism and Franz Kafka.

Late last week, the first trailer for the upcoming blockbuster U.S./China co-production The Great Wall, being about the building and purpose of the structure of the same name, was released. Film School Rejects’ own Rob Hunter wrote about it, duly noting the involvement of director Zhang Yimou, stars Andy Lau and Jing Tian, as well as . . . Matt Damon. This last bit, to put it mildly, is odd. The history of the Great Wall is a bit muddled, mainly by the number of disparate sources required to piece together a complete account, and how often those sources are in conflict. One might even go so far as to say compiling the historical record is a feat within its own field equivalent of building the Wall itself. But one thing we can say with certainty is the chances of white soldiers being the key reason for the Wall’s completion are nil. Even if there were, the movie’s basing the Wall’s necessity on carnivorous monsters of the eldritch fog, and if it can imagine that, it can imagine a non-white hero. (Constance Wu’s take on this subject is more expansive and worth considering than mine.)

The movie industry’s steadfast devotion to the White Savior as both icon and narrative axis has been protracted to the point of absurdity, and at this late date it’s difficult to find anyone who will still actively defend it from a perspective of any other kind than commercial. White stars, so the thinking goes, are a necessity for box office success, as an immutable decree of the invisible hand of the free market. There are many convincing arguments that this is bullshit – because it is – but it remains, adamantine, as timeless and imposing as the Great Wall of China. I gained some insight as to how this came to be from an unexpected source, one that Google searches regarding The Great Wall tout as the literary basis for the film. Curious to determine the link, I read the story, which will highly disappoint anyone looking for Matt Damon or monsters (at least on a literal level) but provides a certain insight into the motion picture business. Without further ado, “The Great Wall of China,” by Franz Kafka:

The story is narrated by a man recalling his youth, during which he was essentially conscripted to work on the Great Wall after graduating from school. The essential fallacy of building a wall to keep out invaders in pieces rather than at once becomes apparent to him immediately, and while practical justifications come to mind the entire enterprise, it is clear, is completely absurd to the narrator and beyond his means to imagine. The ways of the ruling classes are a mystery, and indeed the people agree that there is an emperor – whom they may never in their lives see – and that the emperor rules, even though he has no direct means by which to control them, because it is easier to take this as a given rather than risk questioning. The fallacious Wall, which never fulfilled its literally stated purpose of keeping out invaders, served instead as a symbol unifying the emperor, the land, and the people. Why this is so is something the narrator hastily ends the story before exploring, rather than face the idea’s full absurdity.

The Great Wall Trailer: Even the Biggest Walls Need White Men to Defend Them

The Great Wall of China,” befitting a story that contains a parable within it about the recursive eternity of the emperor’s palace, is itself a parable for the folly born of endless, unquestioning perpetuation of the whims of “the leadership.” So is the building of a wall over the course of almost two thousand years, in a manner that virtually guarantees that it will not achieve its stated purpose, is joined with the practice of sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into a film about Matt Damon beating Marco Polo to China by a quarter-millennium and fighting dragons with swords, that is somehow resting its authority on the idea that it’s based on a true story (and, simultaneously, on Franz Kafka).

There’s a lot of racism going on, and the surprising thing is that turning the movie into a White Savior picture, one of racism’s great bastions in the culture, might not be the biggest culprit. Consider first that the Chinese government openly practices censorship. I think they shouldn’t, but the point is less that they do than that anything that gets by the censors is, it follows, approved. So, reading not too terribly deeply, it’s celebrating the building of a wall to keep out the people on the other side, only substituting monsters because the amount of subtlety one can afford is inversely proportional to a film’s budget. This kind of thinking – that everyone the next country over are a bunch of man-eating demons, not critical interpretation – gets us nowhere. I don’t think that it necessarily warrants getting angry about, but it’s stupid to play into lowest common denominator stereotypes, and it’s a moral lapse to consider profiting off those kinds of stereotypes to be good business, because it’s not.

I don’t know if anyone in the movie business actually knows what good business is, anymore. The inertia that causes studios to make the safest bets possible based on received wisdom whose provenance cannot be checked is awfully close to the thinking behind Kafka’s Great Wall. But safe bets lose sometimes. Such is the nature of gambling. When one of the variables involved is the kind of thing audiences want to see, it’s essential to remember that social mores evolve, and that “the way things have always been” is an illusion, a hallucinated eternal present tense. Everything that is now an accepted fact of reality now was first done by someone who was defying precedent at the time.

Zhang Yimou’s Great Wall is an unknown to me, and the dumb, big-opening-weekend face the trailer puts forward may not be an accurate reflection of the whole. The above should not be taken as film criticism, because if it was intended as such it would be lousy. I’m just really confused as to what Matt Damon is doing in the middle of all this. We may find out, in one sense, when the movie comes out. In another sense, it may be a mystery that lingers on, unknowable for time eternal.

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Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all