Who was the last Roman Emperor?

Well, that’s an easy question to answer, right? Just grab a list of all the Roman Emperors and see whose name comes last! Well, that’s easy… let’s see here… looks like it was Romulus Augustus who reigned from AD 475-476. Shortest Cat Flag blog ever!

Except, no, of course it’s not that easy. I wouldn’t have written this blog if it was.

History books count Romulus Augustus as the last Roman Emperor for three reasons. First, after reigning in Rome for less than a year, he was deposed by the barbarian leader Odoacer who decided not to become emperor or appoint a puppet emperor to rule in his place, and instead declared himself the first King of Italy. Second, it’s kind of poetic that the last Roman Emperor would be named after the founder of Rome and its first emperor. Third, tables, charts, and lists have to have a finite ending point, and they don’t handle complicated mitigating factors very well.

See, counting Romulus Augustus as the last Roman Emperor is a bit problematic. While he ruled in Rome – or rather, his father ruled in his name, as he was only a child at the time – his power was limited to Italy itself and his legitimacy as “emperor” is disputed. Historically, the Roman Empire wasn’t initially a monarchy in the modern sense, as the Romans had been a republic for centuries and had a distaste for kings. So while some emperors were able to pass power down to their sons peacefully, a few men became emperor through rebellion, military coup, or assassination. One guy even won the title at auction! Thus historians tend to consider emperors as “legitimate” Roman Emperors if they controlled the entire Roman Empire at some point and/or were accepted as emperor by the Roman Senate. Romulus Augustus could make neither claim; by these criteria, he was a usurper.

Indeed, the man he usurped the throne from, Julius Nepos, was still around, continuing to reign in Dalmatia (modern-day Croatia) as the accepted legitimate emperor until his death in 480. So it was Julius Nepos who was the last Roman Emperor, right? Well, he was the last emperor in the west. In the eastern half of the empire, though, it was another story.

Okay, I’m guessing by now you are totally confused. So, let me back up a bit and explain what’s going on. After the Crisis of the Third Century (short version: the empire suffered 50 years of civil war and anarchy as everyone and their uncle fought for power), a man named Diocletian took over and decided the best recipe for stability was to split the empire up between four “emperors” that were each responsible for one part of the empire. Under his plan, there would be two senior emperors and two junior emperors. When a senior emperor died or abdicated, his junior emperor would be promoted to senior emperor and would appoint a new junior emperor. This plan failed spectacularly, leading to even more civil wars that led Constantine the Great to reunite the empire under his rule. Constantine was most famous for doing two things: (1) beginning the process of converting the Roman Empire to Christianity, and (2) moving the capital of the Roman Empire to a city that was not Rome. This new city, built on the site of the ancient Greek town of Byzantium, came to be known as Constantinople.

After Constantine, the empire would be divided and reunified several more times until Theodosius the Great became the last man to reign over a united Roman Empire. When Theodosius died in 395, the empire was “permanently” divided into a western empire based in Rome and an eastern one based in Constantinople. The eastern empire is often called the Byzantine Empire by modern historians in order to distinguish it from the older empire it sprung off of, but at the time, people who lived there still called it “The Roman Empire”, considered themselves “Romans”, and considered their ruler to be the Roman Emperor.

So, it made sense that after Julius Nepos died, the emperor in Constantinople at the time, Zeno, simply declared the empire to be “reunited” under a single emperor (himself, of course) once again. Functionally, all this did was annex Dalmatia to the Byzantine Empire, as the rest of the west had now fallen to barbarian tribes and was divided into the proto-feudal kingdoms that would give rise to medieval Europe. These kingdoms still technically considered Zeno to be their overlord, but functionally they were independent.

This arrangement lasted for a few decades, but then a new emperor came to power in Constantinople:

Justinian may be listed as a Byzantine Emperor, but I would argue he was the last Roman Emperor in the sense we tend to think of Roman Emperors. He reconquer many of the Roman imperial lands that had once been lost to barbarian invaders, reclaiming North Africa, Spain, and Italy itself. He was the last Roman Emperor who actually controlled Rome. However, he also reigned during the first recorded outbreak of bubonic plague, AKA the Black Death, killing 25 million of his subjects and leaving the empire unable to consolidate his gains. In the centuries that followed, Muslims would conquer the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain while the Germanic Lombards would invade Italy and Slavic tribes would take over most of the Balkans.

Yet even though it was now much, much smaller, the Byzantine Empire would continue to endure to the very end of the Middle Ages, finally coming to an end in 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. This means that the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos, was the last man to claim the title of Roman Emperor.

Wait, no, that’s not right. Sorry, I forgot about the Holy Roman Empire.

In the late 8th century, the Vatican was in deep trouble. The Lombards were attacking and seizing control of Catholic land in Italy, and the Pope needed help. Luckily, the King of the Franks, a military genius named Charlemagne, was a devout Catholic and happily came to the Pope’s aid, crushing the Lombards and conquering Italy. Pope Leo III was so grateful for this service that he gave Charlemagne a surprise Christmas present: crowning him Emperor of Rome.

This wasn’t just a symbolic gesture, either. See, just three years earlier, a woman, Irene of Athens, took the throne of Constantinople and became empress in her own right. Until this point, the Popes had consistently accepted whomever was the reigning Byzantine Emperor as the legitimate Roman Emperor. But a woman? Perish the thought! By crowning Charlemagne, Pope Leo III was directly challenging Irene’s legitimacy. His hope was that Charlemagne and his heirs would restore the Roman Empire in the west and return Europe to its former glory.

Of course, this didn’t happen. As Voltaire famously said, “The Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.” In practice, it was a collection of petty feudal kingdoms, duchies, and principalities as well as some city-state republics in central Europe. Its “emperors” were just ceremonial figureheads elected by a collection of the most important nobles and bishops, known as the “prince-electors”. That’s not to say a Holy Roman Emperor couldn’t be powerful, some were very powerful, but their power was based on what realms they held in their own right apart from their fancy title. A Holy Roman Emperor couldn’t enforce his will on the other kings, dukes, or princes unless his armies defeated them in battle.

Still, on paper, these so-called “emperors” claimed to be the heirs of the ancient Roman Emperors of old until the whole thing was abolished by Napoleon in 1806, with the Austrian Hapsburg monarch Francis II being the final Holy Roman Emperor.

We’re still not quite done, though. Skipping back over to Constantinople for a bit, we soon find out that after the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453 they didn’t abolish the title of Roman Emperor. They adopted it for themselves. That’s right, for centuries, the Ottoman Sultans claimed to be the modern Roman Emperor, along with other titles they claimed like Caliph of all Islam and Protector of the Holy Cities of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. The Ottoman sultans loved long, fancy lists of titles. Thus, the last Ottoman sultan to claim the title of Roman Emperor was, well, the last Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed VI.

Right. Now we’re definitely done, right? Actually, you might be surprised to learn that, as I type this, there is actually a man, right now, who can claim the title of Roman Emperor. Yes, there actually is a current Roman Emperor! Here he is:

I am talking about King Felipe VI of Spain, whose royal title is a bit interesting. See, while he usually just uses the title “King of Spain”, according to the Spanish constitution, he has the right to use any other title that historically “corresponds to the Crown”.

The founders of modern Spain, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, may be most famous for sending Christopher Columbus on his journey across the Atlantic in 1492, but they did a great many other things during their reign as well. One of those things was help out Andreas Palaiologos, the nephew of Constantine XI Palaiologos, who was flat broke at the time. They purchased the Byzantine imperial title from him. Technically, no Spanish monarch has ever formally given up this title, meaning it is one of the titles that King Felipe VI is entitled to claim and use if he so chooses.

Who says the Roman Empire is dead?

A Promise Only Partly Kept

In my last blog post, I said that I would be going back to my usual articles about history. Well, it seems I’ve only partially kept my promise. I mean, I am reviewing a movie about history, and I have to talk about that history to explain the movie. That counts, right?

In a similar vein, The Promise was supposed to be Hollywood’s definitive take on the Armenian genocide, a horrible event in world history that few people know about, in large part because of a very successful century-long cover up by the Turkish government. It was supposed to go down as one of the great historical drama films, the 21st century’s answer to Schindler’s List. Instead, we got a movie that is definitely about the Armenian genocide, except when it’s not, and definitely a very good movie, but not a great one.

Odds are fairly strong that many of the people reading this blog had never heard of the Armenian Genocide, so I’m going to try to summarize the main points as well as I can.

The Ottoman Turkish Empire once dominated the eastern Mediterranean; in the 16th century, it wrapped around the coast from Algeria to Hungary, ruling over most of the Middle East, North Africa, and southeastern Europe. This empire was incredibly diverse, home to Arabs, Turks, Persians, Slavs, Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and many, many other groups. Islam was the official religion, and the Ottoman Sultan claimed the religious title of Caliph, or successor to the Prophet Mohammed and leader of all Muslims. However, there were also a great many Christians in the Empire, who only had limited freedom and were subject to discrimination.

In the 19th century, western powers such as Russia, France, and the UK began intervening in the weakening Ottoman Empire’s affairs, carving out valuable lands as colonies, helping minority groups such as the Greeks, Romanians, Bulgarians and Serbians achieve independence, and forcing the Ottomans to give Christian minorities greater rights. To save itself, the empire attempted to modernize, becoming a constitutional monarchy dominated by political reform movements such as the Young Turks. When World War I broke out, the Ottomans joined Germany and the other Central Powers, declaring war on the Russians, French and British. The Sultan, acting as Caliph, declared the war a jihad, hoping that this would encourage all Muslims from around the world to rally to the Ottomans’ aid. This didn’t happen, and the war went very poorly for the Ottoman military. Rather than face their failings, the Turkish leadership accused the Christians of the Empire of spying for the enemy, and began a series of mass arrests.

This was to be the start of a downhill slide into madness, as the Ottoman military rounded up millions of Armenians, Greeks, and other Christians. Many were forced to work as slaves, and most were simply massacred. Most scholars estimate 1.5 million Armenians, half a million Greeks, and 150,000 to 300,000 Assyrians were killed. Yet, more than a century later, the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge that this genocide ever happened. Generations of Turks have grown up being taught in schools that such talk is nothing but lies by anti-Turkish Westerners. Sure, Turkey claims, there were people killed on both sides, but nowhere near the numbers claimed. Investigative reporters and scholars who go to Turkey trying to dig up evidence of the genocide are penalized for doing so by Turkish authorities. As a NATO member, key U.S. ally, and one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations in the Middle East, Turkey has been able to bully many governments around the world from officially calling these events a “genocide”, including that of the United States.

Even Hollywood has been cowed by Turkey into remaining silent; prior to The Promise, two previous attempts by American filmmakers to make a movie about the genocide were shut down after Turkish pressure. Even The Promise almost wasn’t made. It was only through the intervention and funding provided by wealthy Armenian-American Kirk Kerkorian that it was able to be finished and released.

To its credit, the film does a remarkable job portraying these historical events. It is very intelligent and even-handed in its portrayal. We see these horrors through the eyes of ordinary people, caught up in events much larger than themselves that they can’t fully understand. We see both sides’ points of view, we see the life that Armenians had in the Empire before these horrible events, and we are shown that not all Turks supported the genocide, with some trying to do what they can to resist. We see how different people responded to being attacked by their neighbors and hunted by the military. We see tragedy and acts of heroism. It’s all very powerful, and I won’t deny crying during certain scenes.

Which is why it was so jarring and infuriating when all of it came to a screeching halt time and time again throughout the movie for the romance subplot. Look, I get that these horrors of history are very dark and very disturbing. Having something to break it up was important for the audience’s sake. But did they have to go with the love triangle? The most overused cliche in the past decade? It’s not even a well-executed or interesting love triangle subplot!

Our main character is Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac), an Armenian pharmacist in a small village who is able to go to medical school in Constantinople because of a dowry he received when he promised to marry a local girl (Angela Sarafyan). Upon his arrival in the Empire’s capital, he meets Emre Ogan, a young, privileged Turkish medical student (Marwan Kenzari); Ana Khesarian, a beautiful teacher who has traveled the world and is looking to settle down (Charlotte Le Bon), and Chris Myers, an American reporter (Christian Bale).

Ana and Chris are clearly an item, and they are clearly living together, even though they are not married. In 1914. Okay, that doesn’t ring true.

Then, Mikael and Ana fall in love. Mikael refuses to marry Ana because of his promise to marry the local village girl back home. But he apparently has no problem sleeping with Ana? Wait, what? And Chris seems to be mostly okay with this and is totally best friends with Mikael? None of this makes sense!

By the way, I’m not kidding when I say the film stops to focus on the love triangle. It literally feels like the movie is interrupting itself to say, “Oh, yeah, sorry, I know you just saw lots of people dying, but we need to drop everything so we can see how these lovebirds resolve their drama.” It’s just so frustrating, because the movie does so well when it’s focused on the main plot and so poorly when it’s focused on the subplot.

Look, I want to like this movie more than I do. It has powerful scenes, intense drama, well-executed action, good special effects, and great cinematography. Even the acting is exceptional from everyone involved. It’s just that the one subplot throws everything off. It’s like a rock chained to a bird’s legs as it flies, keeping it from soaring as high as it could.

The Promise is a good movie, but it just feels like it could have been a great movie if it weren’t for the one crucial flaw. But I’m not here to review what the movie could have been.

7 out of 10.

Lessons Learned from Moving

As I was growing up, my family moved numerous times, and I ended up living in four states. However, as I was starting my freshman year of high school, my family planted itself in coastal California and stayed put. I would live in the same house for the next 15 years. So, when the time came for me to move once again, it had been so long that I had largely forgotten many aspects of moving. Plus, I am now a full-grown adult and not a child, so my experience would be completely different anyway. It’s one thing to be moved, it’s another to be responsible for planning and executing every aspect of the move. Along the way, I learned a few lessons, and I figured I might as well share some of the things I learned.

It’s always a bigger job than you first assume

I knew, roughly, what I was going to be taking with me to my new place. My bed, some of my furniture, some art on my walls, my books, my clothes, and my computer and printer. Piece of cake.

Until I actually began to pack, and quickly discovered that I had far more to go through than I initially planned. No sooner had I started packing my books than I discovered I still had my old college textbooks, boxes (plural!) of board games I played as a kid, some golf equipment, an unused clarinet and book on how to play it, and even a whole collection of audiobooks on cassette tape!

Who here actually remembers these guys?

It was a huge job going through all of that and sorting out what I was going to keep and what I was going to put out for yard sale. Then it got worse. All of that digging through things I forgot I owned unleashed hordes of dust monsters across my room. I exaggerate, of course, but I ended up having to go through more than a dozen dusting cloths and vacuuming some hard-to-reach areas multiple times.

Eventually, I managed to get it all packed, loaded onto a U-Haul, and unloaded at my new place. That’s when the real job began: unpacking everything I had just packed!

I now had to find places for everything, and that proved to be an even tougher challenge. Even after downsizing as much as I could manage beforehand, I still was cramming things in odd spaces because I didn’t have room for them where I intended to put them.

For example, I got a new bookshelf from Wayfair for my books, but when I finished assembling it, I quickly discovered that my many larger-sized books simply wouldn’t fit on it, so I had to get creative about finding places for the big books. That’s why all of my cookbooks are on a shelf in my kitchen.

The aforementioned kitchen. And yes, I am using this blog post as an excuse to show off my new place.

Speaking of Wayfair…

I officially love Wayfair now

I didn’t just get my bookshelf from Wayfair, I got my desk and chair from them as well.

Yep. Still showing off my place.

In both cases, I picked Wayfair because of their low, low prices compared to brick-and-mortar furniture stores. I mean, have you seen how expensive furniture is? Wayfair’s prices were usually about half of what I was seeing at the furniture stores on sale. The things I ordered arrived in giant, heavy boxes wrapped in bubble wrap and stuffed with Styrofoam. They arrived in pieces and had to be assembled.

This is where those savings come in… the extra you pay at the furniture store goes toward your custom-built pieces being brought in on a moving truck as fully assembled furnishings. That’s why I decided to spend the extra to buy my sofa and dining room table at the furniture store. But a desk, chair, and bookshelf? Yeah, I figured, I could assemble those. The desk and chair came together quite nicely. The bookshelf, on the other hand, was missing an important piece. I went digging through all the boxes and all the Styrofoam, and still saw no sign of the missing piece. I had to put a stop to what I was doing and call Wayfair.

Customer service, in my experience, isn’t about what you do when things go right, it’s about what you do when they go wrong. I have to say, I was super impressed with how Wayfair handled my issue. They immediately shipped me the missing piece, and it arrived before the week had ended. I was thrilled to finally be able to assemble my bookshelf!

Contrast that with the furniture store. All I wanted was an estimate on when the sofa and dining room table would arrive. I ordered them in mid-March, and I waited until early April to ask. I called three times, and each time, I was promised that I would get a call back later that day or the next day. Each time, I never heard back. At last, I had to actually walk in the store again to get my answer. They still haven’t arrived, by the way. So, no, I think in the future I’ll be doing much more business with Wayfair.

You will always forget something

I had several people help me move, for which I an truly grateful. It would have been a much bigger, more difficult job without their help. One of the nice things my mother and aunt each did for me was help to make sure I was well-stocked with food and basic necessities (scissors, pens, paper, silverware, pots and pans, etc.) before I moved in. Add to that the various items I knew I would need and bought for myself, I was confident that I had everything I needed.

I was wrong.

It’s amazing the little things you take for granted until the moment you need them. About four days after my move, I noticed my fingernails were getting a bit long, and thought, “Well, I’ll just clip them when I get home.” Then I remembered… I have no nail clippers! So, I had to make a trip to the store. A few days later, I was getting ready to hang my TV wall mount and pictures up, then I realized I had no stud finder. Another trip to the store. While preparing to cook dinner one night, I discovered I was missing a particular size of pot that the recipe called for. And so on and so on.

Bringing a cat with is tricky… and heart-wrenching

Of course I was going to be bringing Winkin with me to the new home! I’m CAT Flag, after all!

Actually getting her here, though, was a challenge. Not in terms of putting her in a pet carrier and driving her over, that was easy. No, it was the fact that she meowed and howled the whole way. It was completely heartbreaking to listen to her panic like that. I felt like a terrible person! Here I was, taking her from the only home she had ever known and bringing her to a completely new and strange environment.

Luckily, my mother is something of an expert on cats, and I also was able to find helpful online guides on how to move cats. Some key pointers:

  • Have a designated “cat room” pre-prepared. This will be the room with the litter box, scratching post, food and water dishes, and other familiar cat things. Keep the cat in there at first, especially while you are going in and out with boxes and furnishings. The less commotion the cat has to deal with (and the less likelihood it will try to escape and run away), the better.
  • Keep as much of the cat’s daily routine the same as possible. Keep feeding it and giving it fresh water at the same time each day, change its litter at the same time each day, bring as many of the cat’s old objects as possible and don’t get new ones unless you must.
  • Spend time playing and interacting with the cat to keep it calm.
  • Let the cat out of the cat room gradually once the initial unpacking is done. Let it out a little at a time, letting the cat explore its new environment at its own pace. Encourage exploration, but don’t push things too fast. If your intent is to have the cat be outdoors, keep it indoors for a few weeks first to minimize the risk it will run away.

Even so, she spent the better part of a week acting like she was traumatized. She didn’t eat or drink for two days, and then she would only do so at night. She spent all day hiding under the bed or under the bathroom sink. I brought her a cat toy and went to play with her, and she even acted scared of that! I was very worried.

However, after about a week or so, she was feeling much more comfortable and I’m glad to say that today she’s back to her old, happy self! She’s eating and drinking like normal, she plays all the time (when she’s not napping), and she’s even taking a liking to sleeping on my bed. Or the middle of the floor.

I’ve now had a couple of weeks to settle into my new home, and I am really enjoying it. I think this move will prove to be a very positive step forward. It’s been a bit of an adjustment, but I’m already starting to feel like this new place is home. Once again, to those who helped with this big project, thank you. I really appreciate it.

Next time, back to odd historical facts!

Remembering Jellybean

My oldest cat died yesterday. His name was Jellybean, and he has been a part of my life for a decade. He’s the big black cat you see in the banner at the top of this blog. It was such a strange sensation this morning to wake up without hearing him howl for his food. Feeding him and playing with him was such a part of my morning routine that it will be a big adjustment not to have him here. It will be a big adjustment not to have him lying on my legs as I sleep at night.

He always liked using me as a pillow.

He was a five-year-old rescue cat when we got him. It was at one of those events where people set up in front of a store and bring a bunch of animals for customers to look at and adopt on their way in or out. Everyone else was fawning over the cute kittens, but my mom saw a lonely, giant, back cat sitting in the corner and felt for him. She was told he had been hit by a car, and a veterinarian managed to stitch him back together. He had spent a year recovering at a cage-free, no-kill animal rescue facility in our area called H.A.R.T., and it was H.A.R.T. that put him up for adoption as part of their mission to ensure all of their animals find loving homes.

Jellybean certainly had a loving home with us. As soon as we let him out of the pet carrier into our house, he started making himself at home. Jellybean definitely had an alpha male personality, not taking very well to being scolded for tatting on the sofa and refusing to let any other cats into his little kitty domain. When I went to play with him, he would catch the toy and then sit on it, immediately stopping the play session so everyone would know it was HIS toy, dang it!

Nothing annoyed him more than when I put the toy on top of him!

He was a fussy eater, too. If he could see the bottom of his food dish, he would start to go into a panic, like he thought we would never feed him again.

He was definitely a lap cat, though. He enjoyed jumping up in our laps and cuddling with us as we watched TV. Once he was comfortable, he would even bury his face in our bellies. I tell you, nothing tickles like a cat’s face rubbing your stomach. Another thing he loved was when my mother gently massaged his front paws. That would get him purring really loudly. So would lying on a batch of nice, clean, fresh-from-the-dryer clothes.

Things got a bit more complicated in 2012 when a feral calico cat had a litter of three kittens in our backyard. We started feeding these cats and giving them attention, and one of the kittens, Winkin, decided she really, really liked me.

This is Winkin. You probably recognize her, too, from this blog.

Winkin may have been born feral, but unlike her two sisters and her mother, she has basically become a domestic cat and my pet. This caused Jellybean to be jealous of the attention I was giving her, so I had to learn to balance my time and attention between the two cats so they would get along. Eventually, they did start getting along, so long as we kept Jellybean inside and Winkin outside. Whenever we had the front door open, Jellybean would sit by the screen door and hang out with Winkin, who would sometimes rub against the screen to greet him.

Jellybean was there all through my college years, lying on my bed as I worked on homework and greeting me when I got home from my first job. When my younger brother got home from work or school, he would greet him and then jump on my brother’s bed, and the two would hang out for hours as my brother did his homework or played video games. In the morning, he would wait at the door of every person in the house, in order, as we got up one at a time. If I had the door open already (which was most of the time), he would leap up onto my bed and sniff my face for a few seconds, then jump down. If I kept laying there and didn’t get out of bed right away, he would repeat the procedure.

I loved Jellybean very much. I loved feeding him, playing with him, petting him, and just hanging out with him. I loved his odd idiosyncrasies and his “I’m the boss” demeanor. I loved how easygoing he was with strangers, and how smart he would be when we set up puzzles for him, such as putting his toys under a box or behind a door for him to find. I feel blessed that he was a part of our lives for ten years, and I am glad we were able to make him happy and comfortable in that time. He will be missed.

Rest in peace, Jellybean.

This Movie Shouldn’t Be This Good

The Great Wall poster from Shaw Online

“It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.”

-Roger Ebert

In 2011, a movie came out with the stupidest premise of all time. That premise was right there in the title: Cowboys & Aliens. I thought to myself, “Are Hollywood producers getting their ideas from their six-year-old kids now?” There was simply no way that movie was going to be anything other than b-movie dreck, and the only entertainment value it was going to have was in pointing and laughing at how terrible it was.

Then I watched it. And I loved it. Cowboys & Aliens was actually a really good movie, in spite of its premise. It had really good characters, a compelling story, good acting, good cinematography, and good directing. I was pleasantly surprised.

I was thinking of Cowboys & Aliens quite a lot when I watched The Great Wall, a fantasy action film starring Matt Damon.

The Great Wall is actually quite an interesting cultural artifact; in a way, it is a symbol of how globalized the world’s media has become. Filmed in Qingdao, China, The Great Wall is the result of a partnership between the American and Chinese film industries that is, in essence, China’s attempt to have a breakout global blockbuster hit. The film was produced by Legendary East, the Hong Kong-based subsidiary of American film company Legendary Entertainment, which was itself bought by a Chinese company called the Wanda Group in 2016. The film was directed by Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers), and it was written by a team of Americans that included Tony Gilroy, who wrote the Jason Bourne movies. Apart from Damon, Pedro Pascal (Narcos, The Adjustment Bureau) and Willem Dafoe (Platoon, The Grand Budapest Hotel), almost all of the cast is made up of Chinese actors and actresses. This movie is the most expensive to ever be filmed in China, costing $150 million to make.

So, considering how important this movie is to the Chinese film industry, how expensive the movie was to make, and what a massive gamble this film represents, what was the premise they chose to go with for this would-be breakout global blockbuster hit? Ancient Chinese soldiers on the Great Wall of China fighting hordes of hideous green alien monsters.

Yes, really.

The Great Wall image from CGMeetup

I laughed out loud when I saw the trailer for this film. I simply could not believe my eyes. I thought to myself, “They have to be joking, right?” Surely, this was going to be an epic flop. It was going to be one of the biggest disasters of movie history, I thought, and decided that I had to see what a horrible atrocity this film was with my own eyes.

Once again, I was dead wrong.

Just as with Cowboys & Aliens, the movie took its patently ludicrous premise and ran with it. Somewhere along the line, Zhang Yimou and the rest of the team making this movie must have had a meeting and decided, “Look, this is a movie about fighting alien monsters on the Great Wall of China. But, darn it, we will make the best movie about fighting alien monsters on the Great Wall of China that has ever been made!” Boy, did they deliver.

It seems to me like the trick when dealing with a crazy premise like this is to focus on developing a very good core story and use the bizarre stuff as window-dressing. Cowboys & Aliens was, at its core, a really good Western that just so happened to have aliens in it. Likewise, The Great Wall is, at its core, a film about an outsider caught in the middle of something way over his head. The movie works because it grounds the human drama and makes that part so believable, you are willing to suspend your disbelief for the green monster parts.

Indeed, the movie takes great pains to make everything that happens on the human side “make sense”. What are two white guys doing in China? They are on a mission to learn the secret of gunpowder and bring it back to Europe. Why do some of the Chinese characters know how to speak English? Another European had arrived several years ago to do the same thing, and taught those characters English. The Chinese armies use all manner of fantastical weapons and war machines, but the film shows us how each of these machines works using technology that would have been available at the time. These may be minor details, but so many movies would have just ignored or glossed over them, the fact that this movie takes time to explain them shows a commitment to world-building that really pays off.

It really is the acting, though, that pulls the whole thing together. The sincerity in their performances really drives the drama and makes me willing to buy that they really are in a fight for their lives against an enemy they don’t fully understand. I was particularly impressed by the performance of Tian Jing (Special ID, The Warring States). If The Great Wall performs as well as its makers hope, she might start showing up in more Hollywood movies, and if so, she deserves it.

Of course, in a movie this expensive, one would hope the special effects are excellent, and I can assure you that they do not disappoint. If you like epic movies such as The Lord of the Rings films, you will find plenty to enjoy here.

If there’s one lesson to take away from all of this, it’s that you shouldn’t dismiss a movie out of hand because of its premise. Sometimes, a good movie just might surprise you out of nowhere.