This post contains spoilers for The Great Wall, as well as a young white man complaining about racism in films. You have been warned.

I don’t think it’s news to anyone, particularly after the Oscars this year, that Hollywood has a troubling relationship with race. It’s bad enough being subjected to year after year of films  about the struggles of African-Americans and the civil rights movement that continue to sell the myth that forward momentum was only achieved by the assistance of white people (The HelpThe Blind Side, even Forrest Gump all play on the myth that social progress is something white Americans “allow” to happen, rather than something minorities have to fight for decades to achieve). But there’s another version of this more keyed towards supposedly lowbrow cinema, action movies and the like, that is almost more disturbing – Hollywood’s archetype of the “Great White Savior”.

We see this trope in almost any action movie that aims towards an international, particularly Asian, audience – the shoehorning in of a white protagonist into settings that make absolutely no sense. Think of Keanu Reeves in 2013’s 47 Ronin, or Lucas Black in 2006’s Fast and Furious spinoff, Tokyo Drift – even Scarlett Johansson in the upcoming Ghost in the Shell movie. The tendency in these movies is for a white protagonist to be introduced to a foreign culture, and by the end of the film to have become better at that culture’s “thing” (being a Samurai, Tokyo drift-ing, etc) than the people who have lived there and been doing it their whole lives – usually by resolving a major conflict. The boiling-down of nuanced cultures to a set of easily-adopted traits must be insulting enough, but the colonialist attitude that only a white person (or at least, an American/European) can solve their problems is downright dangerous in an era when white nationalism seems to be making an ugly and unwelcome return to the political and social limelight. The latest film to spread this myth of the White Savior is the almost comically unselfconscious Matt Damon vehicle, The Great Wall.

Allow me to set the scene: Damon plays William, a mercenary who travels to China seeking black powder, which as yet is only a legend in Europe. Somehow, rather than travelling by boat or following the Silk Road, he finds himself approaching China through a desolate wasteland populated only by bandits, a mysterious green monster, and a really, REALLY big wall that apparently manages to sneak up on him – seriously, I have a feeling that a wall called the GREAT WALL would probably be visible for a fair while before you find yourself at the foot of it, and yet he and his companion manage to walk right up to it without noticing. Upon being captured by the world’s most stylish army, William finds out that the Wall was built to protect China from the aforementioned green nasty and its buddies, and is guarded by the Nameless Order – I suspect someone had been watching too much Game of Thrones before writing this.

The film starts to fall apart pretty early – during an attack on the Wall, while the entire army is engaged with repelling the army of green nasties, called Tao Tie, two manage to reach the top and commence wreaking havoc. They’re presented as being very difficult to kill – the massive army of guards needs a variety of entertainingly absurd devices to fight them off, since we’re repeatedly shown that even one Tao Tie can take out a squad of foot soldiers (who, remember, are explicitly employed and trained to fight them). And yet William is able to dispatch two with ease, aided only a little by his Spanish friend (played by Pedro Pascal). This is our first warning that White Savior storytelling is imminent. It’s then revealed that a magnet he possesses is the equivalent of Tao Tie kryptonite – but of course, his is the only one on the entire wall (why he has it is unclear – it’s not a compass, just a dirty great lump of iron that he’s apparently carried all the way from Western Europe). White Savior count two: He possesses the means of the poor foreign country’s salvation. By the end of the film, William saves the entire country (and, we’re told, the world) from the Tao Tie with the overwhelming power of his white-ness. Seriously, the army is full of skilled archers, strategists, generals – people who have been fighting these monsters for years, grown up hearing about them, seen them in action, and more importantly, have rooms full of explosives that could probably kill the army of monsters in jig time, but apparently none of them are capable of devising a better plan than “Wall” until White Saviour appears and shows them that actually, guys, blowing stuff up is great!

The film’s already been bashed extensively for this – ever since the first trailers came out, people have been making fun of its white savior/whitewashing complex. But now that I’ve seen it, I have to say, I’m even more disappointed because I can see what it could have been. The art direction and sound design are imaginative and fun, the stunts and fight scenes, with their background in Chinese cinema, create something a lot more exciting than the average Hollywood action movie – this might never have been a great film, but it could have been so much better if they hadn’t decided that Western audiences just wouldn’t see it if it didn’t have white people in it. Matt Damon especially has the curious ability to always be the least interesting person in any scene he’s in – and this is the person we’re supposed to relate to.

Hollywood, we’re told, is a bastion of America’s wishy-washy left-wing sentimentalists, a conspiracy of Political Correctness-mad filmmakers determined to inflict their liberal politics on good, honest, down-to-earth conservative bell-ends. I just wish they’d bloody well act like it and stop serving up this kind of colonialist nonsense.