THE GREAT WALL – Ramin Djawadi
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
The Great Wall is a Chinese action-fantasy movie directed by the great Zhang Yimou, the creator of such outstanding pieces of cinema as Raise the Red Lantern, Shanghai Triad, Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower. It stars Matt Damon as William, a mercenary who, along with his compatriot Tovar (Pedro Pascal), finds himself in China during the 11th century searching for gunpowder. Circumstances lead the pair to a fortress along the Great Wall of China under the command of General Shao (Hanyu Zhang), Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), and acrobat-warrior Commander Lin-Mae (Tian Jing), who are preparing to do battle with the Tao-Tie, terrible creatures which attack the wall every 60 years. William and Tovar become embroiled in the desperate defense of the wall knowing that, if the Tao-Tie should breach the fortifications, all of China – and, eventually the world – would be threatened. It’s a fairly simple story which is steeped in Chinese mythology, and features some staggering action sequences, but its strength is in its visual splendor. Zhang is famous for his astonishing use of color, and The Great Wall is no exception; from the armor of the various different platoons of the Nameless Order, to the pageantry of the festivals and ceremonies, to a spectacular fight sequence in a tower made of stained glass, the whole film is a feast for the eyes which begs to be seen on the big screen.
The score for The Great Wall is by Ramin Djawadi, the latest ‘Hollywood’ composer to tackle a big Chinese action film after Klaus Badelt and The Promise, Christopher Young and The Monkey King, and John Debney and League of Gods. Originally, James Horner was set to score the film, but unfortunately that was destined not to be, and after Horner’s shocking death in a plane crash in June 2015, Djawadi was hired as his replacement. It’s very interesting to me to have observed the development of Djawadi’s career over the last decade or so. When he first entered the film music mainstream in 2008 with his score for Iron Man, frankly, I didn’t think he was very good, and most of his subsequent scores didn’t do a whole lot to change my mind. Then, in 2011, he was hired to score the first season of HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones, and since then Djawadi has gradually transformed into a much better, more accomplished composer. His work on Game of Thrones gave him the opportunity to develop themes across multiple seasons, and I think this experience has in turn improved his big-screen work, especially his recent scores for films like House of Magic, Dracula Untold, Robinson Crusoe, and Warcraft. Everything has culminated this year; just as the most recent season of Game of Thrones is the best, musically, for me The Great Wall is his most accomplished film score to date.
The score is predominantly action-oriented, written for a full orchestra, and a full choir singing in Chinese, augmented by an array of regional Chinese specialist instruments to give it local color. Thematically, the score is built around three recurring motifs. The first is the Nameless Order theme, written for the elite group of warriors that guard the wall, and which is most often heard as a choral statement. The second is a motif for the Wall itself, a huge 6-note fanfare often propelled by hard, hearty brass. The third appears to relate to Matt Damon’s character, William, and reminds me of the ‘Rains of Castermere’ theme that Djawadi wrote for the Lannister family in Game of Thrones. This theme tends to be the most malleable, appearing both as a heraldic fanfare and as a battle cry, as well as in more subtle, introspective settings as the scenes dictate. It is from this core trio of thematic elements that the score emerges, and virtually every cue features a performance of one or more of them somewhere in its makeup, often juxtaposed against one another.
I’m especially fond of the Nameless Order theme. Long-time readers of this site will know that when Western composers combine a traditional symphony orchestra with Chinese ethnic soloists and a choir, I am in heaven, and this is certainly the case when Djawadi lets rip with his theme here; its performances in the opening “Nameless Order” and towards the end of “The Great Wall” are especially impressive, as is the militaristic variation in “First Battle”. The statement at the beginning of “The Great Experiment” is also clever because Djawadi subtly changes the final chord of the thematic line, giving it a sense of uncertainty.
The six-note Wall theme tends to appear in the most aggressive of the action sequences. It is introduced in the second cue, “Prologue,” surrounded by metallic percussion ideas, shrill ethnic woodwinds, bold horns, and aggressive war-like drums, and returns with notable impact in subsequent cues such as “What a Wall,” “First Battle,” “Captive Heroes,” “Fools and Thieves,” and more. I feel like I should mention the percussion writing at this point, because it’s especially impressive. Djawadi uses the percussion both diegetically and non-diegetically, meaning that it acts as underscore for the film, but is also performed on-screen. Djawadi’s percussion patterns change in each subsequent action sequence to mirror what’s actually happening in the battle, because the members of the Nameless Order use drum patterns to signal what type of combat tactic to use. When the members of Lin Mae’s Crane Troop dive over the wall in a bungee jump of death, Djawadi uses one pattern, when the archers in Commander Chen’s Eagle Troop let loose with a volley of arrows Djawadi uses a different pattern, and when the hand-to-hand combatants of General Shao’s Bear Troop enter the melee a third percussion rhythm is heard. This is a very clever idea, and by doing that Djawadi allows cues such as “The Great Wall,” “First Battle,” and “Fog and Fire” to maintain a distinctness that stops the score from becoming repetitive.
Thankfully, Djawadi does allow the score to stop and take a breath once in a while, and in these moments the score embraces some softer, subtler textures. In “Captive Heroes” Djawadi uses gentle woodwinds, string harmonics, and a statement of William’s theme to illustrate the respect between William and Lin-Mae. In “A Clean Start” William’s theme is lighter, more playful, with a notable dulcimer element. Later, “We Are Not the Same” offsets mournful cello writing against ethnic metallic percussion, making it one of the most traditionally Chinese-sounding cues. The serious lament of “Xiao Long, General” is quite beautiful, an emotional and tragic piece for searching strings augmented by gongs and glass bowls.
The final four cues, from “Bianling Boogie” through to “Xin Ren,” feature some of the most aggressive action sequences of the entire score, with Djawadi pitting all three of the main themes against each other. There is a more noticeable electronic presence here, as well as an especially great sequence of string rhythmic writing underneath the Nameless Order theme towards the end of “Bianling Boogie,” while the statement of the Nameless Order theme in “Powder Rangers” is stirring, slow, and majestic, with epic gong crashes, and a woodwind passage towards the end that speaks of relief, respect, and calm after the storm. The finale, “Xin Ren,” is quite beautiful, full of sweeping strings, elegant woodwinds, Chinese percussion, and an especially moving statement of the Wall theme as the heroes ride off into the sunset.
Some commentators have criticized The Great Wall for its over-reliance on action music, for its fairly simple and traditional orchestrations, and for its pervasive percussion, which some quickly found tiresome. While some of these criticisms do have merit, I personally found that they were all mitigated by Djawadi’s lack of cynicism, and the sheer bravado of it all. In other hands, this score could very easily have been cheesy and exploitative, but I never felt that. The dramatic sequences are appropriately striking and fraught with peril, the action sequences are bold and daring (and have more depth than might be immediately apparent), and the more contemplative moments allow for some periods of rest and reflection. This, combined with the straight-forward memorability of the trio of main themes, and the fact that I tend to adore anything that features Chinese instrumental and choral elements blended with a Western symphony orchestra, makes The Great Wall a winner all the way. Clearly, scenes of soldiers guarding enormous walls from the dangers beyond it inspire Ramin Djawadi to write the best music of is career.
Buy the Great Wall soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Nameless Order (4:26)
- Prologue (1:49)
- What a Wall (3:45)
- The Great Wall (4:29)
- First Battle (7:38)
- Captive Heroes (1:38)
- A Clean Start (2:27)
- We Are Not the Same (3:17)
- Xiao Long, General (1:33)
- At the Border (written by Zhao Muyang and Wang Leehom) (1:29)
- Foggy Loyalty (3:01)
- Fog and Fire (3:00)
- The Greed of Man (1:56)
- Fools and Thieves (3:15)
- The Great Experiment (2:53)
- Bianling Boogie (3:43)
- Tower Tactics (4:19)
- Powder Rangers (3:27)
- Xin Ren (3:55)
- Bridge of Fate (written by Wang Leehom and Tan Weiwei) (4:26)
Running Time: 66 minutes 26 seconds
Milan Records (2016/2017)
Music composed by Ramin Djawadi. Conducted by Gavin Greenaway. Orchestrations by Stephen Coleman and Andrew Kinney. Additional music by Brandon Campbell. Recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage and Chris Fogel. Edited by Alex Levy. Album produced by Ramin Djawadi.