When I heard that Mel Gibson was making a movie about pre-Columbian, Mesoamerican culture, my reaction was probably not different from most: a deep, existential groan. The right-wing, anti-Semitic actor and filmmaker hardly seemed like the best candidate to create a thoughtful historical depiction of Mayan life on the eve of European colonization.
True, Gibson had just accomplished a certain kind of feat. His 2004 film The Passion of the Christ not only stirred profound interest in the evangelical community—some even carried their own crosses to showings—but it also became what might justifiably be called the biggest independent film of all time, earning an eye-popping $612 million on a $30 million budget. Gibson somehow got people to come out to watch an entire movie in Aramaic—a ponderous and belabored snuff film, perhaps, but still an unlikely box office hit.
As it turns out, 2006’s Apocalypto might be even more audacious than Passion, seeing as it lacked the built-in religious audience that flocked to Gibson’s Jesus epic. The film is spoken entirely in Yucatec Maya, a language local to the Yucatan Peninsula and Belize. It tells the story of Jaguar Paw, a young Mayan man who has to flee persecution and enslavement to try to rescue his wife and child. In effect, it is one long chase scene, as Jaguar flees his captors in a thrilling fugue of violence and daring. However, viewers are first introduced to the warm, convivial culture of the protagonist and his kin, before they inevitably face capture by nearby marauders.
It was hard at the time, and remains difficult, to understand exactly what Gibson was up to with the film, or why he decided to make it. Perhaps the film is simply the result of Gibson’s own obsession with persecuted figures, such as Braveheart and Jesus Christ—reflecting his own alienation as a conservative in Hollywood. Certainly, he seems to have had some ambition to show a culture on the verge of collapse—hence the name “Apocalypto”—one that is so riven by violence, injustice, and corruption that it was poorly positioned to withstand the coming onslaught of Spanish colonization. Indeed, the film opens with a portentous quotation from historian Will Durant: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”
Perhaps Gibson was truly prescient; in the age of Donald Trump and Paul Ryan, it hits uncomfortably close to home to think of our own society as rotting itself from the inside out. Undoubtedly, it seems that the director must have meant for the film to have some kind of contemporary social message for American viewers in 2006. (On at least one occasion, Gibson implied that the film was a comment on the folly of US foreign policy and the Iraq War.)
Of course, a portrayal of Mayan society as being weakened from within conveniently sidesteps the extraordinary and historically unprecedented devastation wrought by the introduction of pathogens from the Old World to the New, which wiped out vast numbers of indigenous people who lacked antibodies to resist infection upon contact with Europeans—to say nothing of the extreme violence and cruelty of Spanish colonizers. Historian Alfred Crosby described the impact of this “Columbian Exchange” in his seminal 1972 book of the same name, later describing the process as “ecological imperialism.”
Unsurprisingly, some scholars felt that the film unfairly portrayed the Mayan people. Despite Gibson’s effort to cast indigenous actors and voice the picture in a local tongue, it is easy to find fault with the film. Anthropologists Mary Weismantel and Cynthia Robin believed Apocalypto reinforced the worst kind of stereotypes about the primitiveness and degeneracy of traditional indigenous culture, depicting “the ancient Maya not only as bloodthirsty and immoral but utterly evil.”
The film is unquestionably violent, with graphic scenes of visceral brutality throughout. It also portrays practices of profound inhumanity ranging from slavery to human sacrifice. Yet I was surprised to read that the film received plaudits from the likes of Martin Scorsese (“a masterpiece”), Edward James Olmos (“the best movie I’ve seen in years”), and Robert Duvall (“maybe the best movie I’ve seen in 25 years”). Spike Lee has even included it as an “essential film” for his grad students at NYU. None of the above are scholars of Mayan history or culture, to say the least, but the film clearly made an impact on some talented artists, from an aesthetic or narrative point of view if not an academic one.
I have to say that Apocalypto is a singular and arresting work. The unflinching physicality of its violence—a very far cry from the cartoonishness of much of Tarantino’s work—and the uniqueness of its visual aesthetic is striking, as it both portrays an inescapably alien-seeming culture while telling an engrossing human story that transcends differences of language and history.
The film does not indulge in fantasies of indigenous moral superiority, whether the hoary cliché of the crying Indian by the highway or any sense of native people being particularly more pacific or ecologically attuned than the European invaders who were soon to come. Mayan society includes violence, conflict, exploitation, and greed, as well as kindness, compassion, solidarity, and mutual affection, just like any human community. Indeed, early scenes convey a deep sense of humor in portraying Jaguar in his village, as men play pranks on each other and fret over their own sexual prowess and virility. In contrast to the mayhem to come, these small human moments offer viewers something warm to connect with, however unfamiliar the culture depicted on screen might be. Indeed, their community is anything but “utterly evil,” even if the bad guys who come to attack them are, indeed, remorselessly brutal. The performance by Rudy Youngblood, whose face is a wonderful barometer of terror and anger and determination as Jaguar Paw, also provides an empathetic core to the film.
Overall, Apocalypto surprises in the daring of its historical and creative ambitions. It tries to reimagine a lost world—imperfectly, no doubt, but with a willingness to push audiences to places they might never think of going. The scenes in which Jaguar Paw and his unfortunate fellows are dragged into the city to be sacrificed are rich, colorful and surreal, unlike anything else in film—marrying the Mad Max’s bleak air of inequality and malice to the otherwordly vision of Star Wars and the madness of Aguirre, expressive, outlandishly strange, all soaked in a sense of menace and foreboding.
At the risk of spoiling the story, it’s fair to say that Jaguar Paw eludes the grisly fate that awaited him in the city, commencing a brutal cat-and-mouse game with his former captors through the jungles of present-day Mexico. Everywhere, the signs of a dark, looming fate are present—here and there, some are already stricken with plague, perhaps spread from other communities where Europeans have already arrived. The mood is thick and ominous throughout.
As director Alexander Payne once said, “you just never know when you’re living in a golden age.” The same might go for an apocalypse. Jaguar Paw and his community do not understand that a vast calamity is right around the corner, even if the occasional sign might be there. When he and his wife see a Spanish ship approaching in the waters off shore, Jaguar Paw resolves to retreat: “We must go to the forest. To seek a new beginning.” His courage and dignity sustained him this far, but the viewer is left wondering whether he or his family could possibly conceive of the enormity of things to come. Perhaps Gibson wanted viewers to ask whether they might also be unwittingly standing on a crumbling precipice—for reasons moral or economic or ecological, or something else.
Apocalypto may be a violent, ugly film, and it may not get everything right in terms of portraying pre-Columbian culture, but it is still a bracing look into a world most viewers know next to nothing about. And it is a bold attempt to reach across time and culture to tell a compelling human story—one that is all the more striking considering the flawed and troubled individual who dreamt it all up.
Note: I do not claim to vouch for the historical or anthropological veracity of the film. While Gibson apparently consulted with scholars and did at least some research to create this portrayal of Mayan society, he undoubtedly took creative liberties with it. A sharp critique can be found here.