History teaches us that the Great Wall of China was constructed to safeguard the empires from the rampaging nomadic groups that hailed from the Eurasian Steppe. But in Legendary and Universal’s fantasy blockbuster The Great Wall, director Zhang Yimou is poised to upend that common knowledge with an alternate history that features massive armies, monsters, and Matt Damon.
Indeed, it’s the casting of Damon – along with Hollywood cohorts Pedro Pascal and Willem Dafoe – that sparked cries of whitewashing soon after the arrival of last week’s reveal trailer, and in a statement to Entertainment Weekly, Yimou tackled those claims head on.
In many ways The Great Wall is the opposite of what is being suggested. For the first time, 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. I believe that is a trend that should be embraced by our industry. Our film is not about the construction of the Great Wall. Matt Damon is not playing a role that was originally conceived for a Chinese actor. The arrival of his character in our story is an important plot point. There are five major heroes in our story and he is one of them — the other four are all Chinese. The collective struggle and sacrifice of these heroes are the emotional heart of our film. 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. I hope when everyone sees the film and is armed with the facts they will agree.
By the sounds of it, Matt Damon’s character isn’t considered to be the de facto lead; instead, that explosive sizzle reel was edited in such a way to portray the Jason Bourne star as the movie’s focal point. It likely comes down to Hollywood suits nipping and tucking tentpole movies to be as palatable as possible – a tradition as old and seemingly unyielding as The Great Wall itself.
Set in 15th-century China, Damon, Pascal and Willem Dafoe are said to play three soldiers out on the hunt for gunpowder when the encounter the sky-scrapping fortification. It’s being built with haste and, as they soon learn, isn’t simply designed to keep out the Mongols. Big-name Chinese actors such as Andy Lau, Luhan and Jing Tian also star.
Held up as the most expensive film in the history of Chinese cinema, The Great Wall roars into theaters on February 17, 2017.