William has come to China for rumored gun power, but what he really needs is trust. Therein lies his vulnerability, even if he views it better not to trust. Yet it could be that he is just afraid; Commander Lin Mae thinks so. The protagonist wants one thing, but in order to get it he must overcome a critical flaw. This is the basic form, or dynamic, of a screenplay. I submit that because film is an excellent medium in which philosophical principles can be explored and wrestled with, the protagonist’s vulnerability, raised to a principle, can efficaciously be more salient in a film than merely in the immediate struggles of the protagonist. In other words, the principle at issue in the protagonist’s flaw can play a more expansive role in a film, deepening it in the process.
Trust, to have faith. Trust is our flag. “Trust in each other, in all ways, at all times.” This is what the Chinese army is about, Commander Lin Mae tells William. She asks him to do a physical task—essentially bungie jumping off the Great Wall—to show that he can trust. He refuses the request, retorting “I’m alive today because I trust no one.” Not trusting, in other words, has served him well. Lin Mae then declares, “A man must learn to trust before he can be trusted.” Yet Ballard trusts William and Tovar enough during the first battle to cut them loose from being prisoners. They prove trustworthy and fight with the Chinese against the beasts, saving the west turret. He earns General Shao’s praise. Implicitly at least, William values trust, or at least being trustworthy; he does not have to fight the beasts. Opposing Ballard and Tovar, William decides to stay and help the Chinese army rather than escape. The former thief, murderer and liar has a character arc—he is changing—and yet Lin Mae does not trust him. Such trust only comes when he takes part in the final battle, literally saving her.
I contend that The Great Wall (2016) could have played more with the issue of trust by teasing out problems with Lin Mae’s claim that a person must trust in order to be trusted by others. The film does not reconcile this claim with Ballard trusting William by letting him go even though he did not at the time trust. Furthermore, the film could have critiqued Lin Mae’s claim that the people in the army trust each other. In such a hierarchical organization wherein giving and receiving orders are the standard protocol, does trust go beyond mere self-preservation? Lastly, does the difficulty that Lin Mae and others in the army have in trusting William mean that the army cannot be trusted? If people in the army only trust each other, which is relatively easy, can they really be considered to be trustworthy? In short, film need not be so superficial concerning a basic principle underlying the protagonist’s flaw.