Alternate history is fascinating – it takes condiments from the most significant events in recorded history and often provides an outrageous yet thought-provoking perspective to the cause of those events, integrating them with facts in such a manner that the events align perfectly with those well-known historical antecedents. This is why Alternate History is to history what Alchemy is to Chemistry. Even though, the former counterparts usually find their basis outside the realm of science and facts, they provide you a window to possibilities. One of the most sensational Alternate History claims is about the Pyramids of Giza, Egypt. Built around 2600 BC, ancient Egypt did not have any of the modern construction tools or material that are used today or even during the medieval times. And yet, they were somehow able to construct edifices and monoliths which were hundreds of feet tall in near perfect geometric shapes, building them block by block each weighing somewhere between 25 to 80 tonnes. Such was the impossibility of this venture that, alternate historians started this speculation that the Ancient Egyptian Civilization was simply not capable enough in terms of engineering prowess to pull off such a feat. They would most certainly have had some kind of help, more specifically “extraterrestrial help”.
Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall is based on another popular piece of alternate history. Since the Imperial era, China has been the cradle of enormous engineering feats, driven by some of the fiercest rulers who were hell-bent on keeping the Chinese territory immune from any external forces, earning Beijing the nickname – ‘The Forbidden City’. It was not only their cities which were guarded like Fort Knox itself but also their borders, the shining example of which is no other than The Great Wall of China. The Great Wall has since become the very symbol of China’s juggernautical progress and continues to be so.
Yimou explores a very interesting facet of the Wall through a premise which has all the elements of an effective and consistent alternate history theory but ‘ll come to that in a bit. The story revolves around two western civilization bounty-hunters/traders named William (played by Matt Damon) and Tovar (played by Pedro Pascal aka Oberyn Martell from the Game of Thrones franchise), who are chasing the rumour of a certain “black powder” which, apparently, has the ability to level whole armies in one go. Trying to trespass into Chinese territory at night, they come across an unknown assailant who swiftly kills off their co-travellers and turns on them. Through sheer skill and a bit of luck, William is able to kill that assailant with his sword. Although the perpetrator falls over a cliff into darkness, a hand is left behind cut off by William. And it is the hand that no “human” can possess. Traveling through the desert, they are soon captured by an Army and taken to the Great Wall which is reminiscent of The Wall of the Nights Watch from Game of Thrones except with a huge battalion of soldiers, archers and spear-heads on alert as if waiting for the biggest battle of their lives. However, William and Tovar soon learn that its not a human army they are facing but something much more evil and visceral. The intrigue is perfectly captured by Tovar’s remark [not sic]: “What kind of army are they so nervous about with a wall this high ?”
The Great Wall is a treat to watch in Real D 3D ! The visual effects are beautifully executed as the heat of the battle is portrayed with flying fire-balls and a barrage of thousands of arrows descending upon the enemy. The sequences are infused with symbols of ingenuity that Imperial China possessed even then – mechanical flame-throwers, self-loading machine-gun like bows, etc. Even though many of them would be part of lores and not actual facts, the scene gathers a lot of authenticity through the way it is brought alive on screen. The bright montages of red, blue and green throughout the film give an anime like character to the production. Jing Tian as the Commander is a strong-willed female warrior who leads a regiment of other women like her. Her personality stands out even among her male counterparts. Damon and Pascal share a comic camaraderie, bringing in some serious archery and combat skills. However, the mythic attribute of the script does not hold much scope to showcase their performance as Damon did for The Martian.
Yimou’s understanding of the essence of the Chinese culture is evident from his film. He integrates this inherent knowledge with the biggest symbol of China, showing the Wall like we had never seen before – the magnificent work of architecture and engineering that it is. The film is a living, breathing portrait of production design with bright hues shown in the surrounding landscape and some breath-taking scenes where the army stands guard against an unknown terror that lurks in the mists and the mountains, the red ribbons on their staffs dancing in the wind.
However, The Great Wall falls short in its treatment to the story. It becomes so self-obsessed with creating the alternate history angle that it forgets to narrate a nuanced, sustained story which is self-sufficient. The mesmerizing first-act takes you to such a crescendo that the under-written second act feels like a diluted monotone with nothing more to offer. The outcome could, obviously, not have been used as an element of surprise ’cause we all know that China survived. The trick would have been to bring in some kind of a wildcard which would perhaps save them in the nick of time from eternal ruin. The enemy could have been explored a bit more, perhaps, by sending the “hapless prisoners” to do their bidding. That would not only have allowed Damon and Pascal’s underutilized screen time some leeway but would also have created an atmosphere of realism and factualization rather than keeping it as a supernatural phenomenon which is conveniently taken care of at the end.
Yimou is a director to watch out for. Even though some people would argue that he is commercializing chinese mythology through a Michael Bay-esque treatment of the stories, I would give him full marks for ingenuity. We can never have enough of alternate history. With a tiny bit of work on the script, the very premise would carry itself making it a memorable experience.
gobblpoint: Some of the best visuals we have seen this year as yet. The battle scenes are captivatingly choreographed and the story is a well-paced thrill of a ride.
Disclaimer: The images in this post are the sole property of the makers of the film and are not owned by us in any form whatsoever.