Great Wall, The
Japan 1962
Directed by Shigeo Tanaka.

Clocking in at nearly three hours, this is a biopic to rival The Ten Commandments. I kept looking for Yul Brenner but he never showed. A classic.

If Cecil B. DeMille made a film about the First Emperor, this is exactly what it would have looked like. Except Charlton Heston would have been in there, somewhere. As it is, though, this Japanese production directed by Shigeo Tanaka stars Shitaro Katsu as the First Emperor and tells the whole story, from his early years as a general to his later years as an immortality hunting psychopath.

But which events in his life does the film focus on? Well, why focus on one event, when you can have them all? Would The Ten Commandments have been the classic it is today if it just focused on the relationship between Moses and Pharoah? Of course not! Though it would certainly have been shorter. As it is, when I fall asleep while watching it, as I inevitably do, I half expect to wake up the next day and see the film still in progress, and a descendant of Moses running around shouting "Soylent Green is made of people!"

The Great Wall is that kind of an epic: long, and episodic. I can't possibly write any spoilers in this review -- the movie stays pretty true to the histories and legends it is based on. And the whole audience would know the general outline of the story, excited only to see how it will be executed in this particular film. To call anything here a spoiler would be as if, right before seeing The Ten Commandments for the first time, someone were to say to you: "Moses parts the Red Sea so the Israelites can escape Egypt." It isn't a spoiler if you're supposed to know it ahead of time. (The Soylent Green joke above, however, really is a spoiler. Sorry.)

Every epic must have a beginning, and this one begins with war, the constant battles of the Warring States period, and Ying Zheng is a general, leading his troops in combat. He is close to his troops, he inspires their loyalty, they believe in his cause. He is shown as a noble figure, saddened by the plight of the peasants and the constant warfare, he promises to put an end to it and bring peace to the world. One of his men, Li Tang, loses an arm for him, and he doesn't soon forget that.

But enough of this! The narrator quickly moves forward to 221 BC, when King Ying Zheng has united all the states, and becomes Emperor. This film moves fast, and if you don't keep up, you get left behind. The Emperor presides over a council of Ministers, where he explains that he plans to create a new kind of state. Minister Li Si stands up, and in one sentence, explains the need for a common currency, measuring system, and language. They also agree to abolish the feudal system of fiefdoms in favor of the provincial system. All of that in a single meeting! Then he greets the six state's former Kings, and explains there will only be one King from now on. And there, he meets his arch-enemy, Prince Dan of Yan (Ken Utsui). It turns out they were both hostages together as children, but now that Zheng is King he behaves like a complete bastard and the Prince can hardly contain his fury. But his time for revenge is not yet -- this is a long movie, after all, he's got time. And meanwhile, the life of the First Emperor continues to unfold, episode by episode.

Xianyang Palace

The troops are returning home, all the peasants are hopeful for better times. The Emperor enthrones himself in his palaces at Xianyang. The Records of the Grand Historian, or Shiji, describes the scene:

Rich and powerful families from all over the empire, 120,000 families, were moved to Xianyang...From Yongmen east to the Jing and Wei rivers, mansions, elevated walks, and fenced pavilions succeeded one another, all filled with beautiful women and bells and drums that Qin had taken from the feudal rulers.

The Emperor decides to have a concubine talent contest, each of them presenting a special skill to him, to see which will be the first in his bedchamber. One of them, Princess Chu (Fujiko Yamamoto) demonstrates an assassination attempt, but fails, which is apparently right up the Emperor's alley and he chooses her. She keeps a dagger under her pillow, hates him because he ordered the death of her family. But this part must have been written by an author of taudry romance novels, because she falls for him anyway.

Lao Ai and Lu Buwei

The Emperor is still trying to win over his new love when his Ministers discover Lao Ai going to the Queen Dowager's residence for late night dalliances. He is scrambling to put his clothes on when the Emperor arrives. His men discover that he is not an eunuch, and Lu Buwei is incriminated as well. Lu Buwei pulls his usual Darth Vader routine (i.e., "I am your father, Luke"), this time even with flashbacks of Buwei and the Queen when they were young and in love. He sends them all packing and, broken hearted by this deep betrayal, finds his old troops, and finds comfort sitting with them and sharing a meal.

Jing Ke, the Assassin

The story of Jing Ke takes no more than ten minutes, this time, but follows the story in the Shiji quite closely. His friend Tian Guang visits him, and tells him of the mission, afterwards killing himself to spur Jing Ke to action. Jing Ke (Raizo Ichikawa) meets Prince Dan, who urges him to do the deed. The assassin readily agrees, and for once doesn't idle around like a loafer waiting for something to happen. Instead, we skip right to the good stuff, as in the Shiji:

If I could get the hea of General Fan and a map of the Dukang region of Yan, and offer to present these to the king of Qin, he would certainly be delighted to receive me. Then I would have a chance to carry out our plan.

The General happens to be overhearing the conversation and agrees to give him his head right there and then. Armed with the map and head, he is ready to set off to kill the Emperor, but the story does not move so fast that they don't have time to include his famous farewell song, which he sings:
Winds cry xiao xiao,
Yi waters are cold.
Brave men, once gone,
Never come back again.

When the Emperor receives the head of his traitorous general, he throws it down the stairs, shouting "Bastard!" And Jing Ke, employing the old knife-in-the-map trick, is unable to succeed in his assassination attempt, and loses his life. This makes the Emperor and Princess Chu get a little frisky, but he has little time for that, because now he is ready to punish the Prince of Dan for sending the assassin.

The battle between the troops of Qin and of Yan is a classic. Footsoldiers, calvalry, and war chariots clash in a violent and bloody battle. Prince Dan and Emperor Zheng practically joust with one another, one on his horse the other in a chariot. The hate on these men's faces is palpable and the chariot fights are enough to give Ben Hur pause. The score for this battle is particularly memorable, a grand and melodramatic march which simply has to be by Akira Ikufube, Godzilla composer extraordinaire. I kept expecting a giant foot to come down and crush a few chariots, or maybe just a shot of some miniature tanks rolling into position, but nothing of the sort occured. For once, his music was the backdrop for something as intense and dramatic as the music itself.

The Rong Barbarians

While the Emperor is dealing out punishment on the battlefield, the Northern barbarians swoop down into Xianyang and sack the capital. When the Emperor returns, and sees all the broken, dead bodies, he is consumed with fury, grief, and just a little divine madness. He immediately calls up Meng Tian, the General.

The First Emperor thereupon ordered General Meng Tian to call out 300,000 troops and lead them north to strike at the Rong barbarians. The general invaded and seized the area south of the bend of the Yellow River.

And that's not all -- after driving the barbarians back, Meng Tian is instructed to build the titular Wall.

At last, ninety minutes into the film, the Great Wall has arrived. Hundreds of thousands of people are sent to work on the wall, work until they die. The poor, the peasants, the criminals, the soldiers, all in ragged clothes, dirty, toiling on the wall, dragging brick after brick up and putting into place, until one man rises up and cries out, "Let my people go!" -- no wait, that's not quite right. Actually, the scholars start complaining.

The Burning of the Books

"We often have a tough living," a scholar complains. "The world is of peace, the war is over, why can't we have a happy life? Why are we worse off than ever? We are living under cruel management! No one can stop the king now. The politics is really a piece of shit." As he finishes his tirade, he is led off.

As a result, Li Si recommends that all the books are banned, and the scholars executed. The Shiji records the incident, one of the most infamous of the First Emperor's career:

...He then ordered the imperial secretary to subject all the scholars to investigation. The scholars reported on one another in an attempt to exonerate themselves. Over 460 persons were convicted of violating the prohibitions, and were buried alive...word of it being publicized throughout the empire so as to act as a warning to later ages.

A student of one of the executed scholars tries to go into hiding with some of the books, and runs smack into one of the most famous legends concerning the Great Wall, called the Tears of Meng Jiangnu. It is an adaptation of this story which brings this epic saga to a close.

The Tears of Meng Jiangnu

The legend of Meng Jiangnu does not appear in the Shiji, but appears to be of later origin. The earliest copy of it comes from the Tang Dynasty. The story in The Great Wall follows the tale pretty closely. When the scholars student scrambles into a private garden to seek shelter from some passing guards, he spies a beautiful young woman, naked. She immediately informs her parents. Rather than being scolded, however, they arrange a marriage. But before long he is sent to work on the Great Wall. The legend continues:

The lonely Meng Jiangnu longed for his return. She made warm clothes for him for winter, but he did not return to claim them. At last, she thought she would find him and give him the clothes herself.

She went to the Great Wall and searched everywhere for her husband. After asking many workers, she found one who was acquainted with him and he explained his fate. Working on the wall is harsh, and he died some time ago, of exhaustion and hunger, like so many others. His corpse was buried within the Great Wall.

Heartbroken by the news, Meng Jiangnu knelt in front of the Great Wall and wept. She cried for many days and nights, and her tears formed a pool, which eventually became a stream, then a rushing river. The river shattered a section of the Great Wall, revealing the bones of thousands of men underneath. She bit herself on the fingers, and trickled her blood on the bones. She knew which was her husband's bones when her blood was soaked up by the skeleton.

She retrieved the bones of her husband and gave them a proper burial, then killed herself to join him in death.

Interestingly, this Japanese version of the classic Chinese historic tale of the First Emperor concentrates, more than any other version, on the events themselves, without attempting to make any sort of political allegory. Seperated from modern Chinese politics, The Great Wall is able to tell the story straight, without subtext, and allow the drama and interest to come solely from the events and characters described. Also, since the film was made in 1963, the Terra-cotta warriors had not been found yet, so most all costuming had to be made up from other, less complete, records. So the costumes are unique (and inaccurate) here as well, making it look different from other Qin Dynasty films.

The Great Wall is a pretty fun and exciting picture in the tradition of the Hollywood epics of old. This is a portrait of a leader, who in this movie at least is not the monster he can sometimes be made out to be. Instead he is a man who loses what he loves, and along with that loses touch with what the common people want. He feels he is making the world a better place, but no one understands him. He has the vision of a great man, he says, and is hurt by the way he is called the 'Cruel King' by his people. Shintaro Katsu is very good as the Emperor, and portrays him as a general first and the Emperor second. It is easy to imagine him leaping on his horse at any moment to lead his men into battle, which in fact he does on several occasions. It is on the battlefield, with his men, where he is at his best. It is on the throne, making policy, where he is at his worst. "Am I a Cruel King?" he asks at last to Xu Fu, the scholar, before sending him to find the herbs of immortality. Xu Fu doesn't answer, out of fear perhaps, which is in its own way an indictment of how cruel he has truly become.

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on May 01, 2004.

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