Mel Gibson's bloody Apocalypto argues some empires are better than others.

| December 14, 2006
Run through the jungle: Rudy Youngblood stars in Apocalypto.
  • Run through the jungle: Rudy Youngblood stars in Apocalypto.

Leave it to Mel Gibson, that musclebound papist, to make a history flick in which the conquistadores are the good guys.

I don't want to ruin the end of Apocalypto, Gibson's blood-drenched, two-hour-plus epic, so I won't tell you how the Catholic Church saves the day. Suffice it to say that if you paid attention in World History class, you'll see the end coming from across the Caribbean Sea.

On its face, Apocalypto is a classic chase film, set in Central America at the onset of the European conquest. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) is taken captive by marauding Mayan warriors, who raze his peaceful village. Butchery ensues, but Jaguar Paw hides his pregnant-to-bursting wife (Dalia Hernandez) and son under considerable duress. (It's obvious whom we're supposed to root for: Mr. and Mrs. Paw have benefited nicely from ancient Mayan dentistry.) As wife and child tremblingly await his return, Jaguar Paw and the other villagers are herded toward a grim fate under the cruel eye of their captor, Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo).

Fair warning: Gibson hasn't lost the subtle touch that brought us Passion of the Christ: You'll see a jaguar tear open a human face, and blood spurt from a head wound like water from a balky faucet. One of Gibson's camera angles is from the POV of a severed head. It's about as subtle as a blowjob joke made in the film's exposition.

But I'll say this for Gibson, who directed, produced and co-wrote: He knows how to stage a chase. Jaguar Paw's attempt to escape Zero Wolf is fraught and taut. And though the action relies way too much on lucky breaks, I'll let that slide in exchange for the movie's breathless pacing, and its lush depictions of the Mexican landscape.

The captured villagers, meanwhile, only gradually realize where they're headed. It's perhaps hard to believe they'd be ignorant of their own centuries-old cultural practices, but their dawning horror does add dramatic tension. And along the way, they will see the cruelties of empire: deforested jungle, emaciated slaves, and of course the money shot of a Mesoamerican history flick: the bloody sacrificial rite, complete with still-beating hearts and heads bouncing down the stairs.

Throughout Jaguar Paw's odyssey, Gibson's camera jumps from mystifying barbarism to mystifying barbarism, playing up the alien aspect of each. As a result, Mayan culture seems befuddling both to Jaguar Paw and to us. Much has been made of the movie's largely native cast, and the fact that its dialogue is in Yucatec Maya (with subtitles). But in the ways that count, Apocalypto is told from a European, rather than a native, point of view.

Because, see, Gibson wants to make something more than a mere actioner. As he says in the film's PR, "[M]any of the things that happened right before the fall of the Mayan civilization are occurring in our society now." (I can already hear the pro-life crowd comparing abortion to blood offerings atop the Temple of the Sun.) And lurking behind the foliage, along with the tree frogs and the snakes, is the history lesson Gibson wants to teach.

To an extent, he succeeds. In one of the film's more insightful moments, a Mayan priest confesses that his people are in "days of great lament" -- with plagues spreading and crops dying. But against this harsh reality, the priest offers a triumphalist rhetoric that might sound familiar: "We are a people of destiny," the priest proclaims, before performing a feat of astronomical prowess to prove it. Suddenly, the meaning behind these rituals becomes clear: We see them in terms of a politician's pandering ... and a people's desperate need to feel in control.

Clearly, Gibson wants to examine both the cruelties and insecurities of empire. It's a subject he's considered before, as in Braveheart, and there's no debate that Mesoamerican cultures were capable of barbarism. (In fairness, though, Mayan rituals were less egregious than those of the Aztecs and other nearby cultures.) There's really no place for PC fables about native cultures living in harmony with nature or each other. As the film suggests, pre-Columbian societies were capable of despoiling the environment on their own, thank you very much.

So, yeah. I could almost embrace Gibson's larger message ... except he keeps loading the dice. The film begins with an epigraph that claims empires can be destroyed only if they weaken themselves first. (It helps when the other guys have all the guns, of course, but the quote doesn't say that.) Gibson's narrative includes a suspiciously Messianic prophecy told by a disease-ravaged girl, and concludes with a deus ex machina denouement.

By that time, the Mayan empire has been rendered so vile that even smallpox is transformed: It's no longer a disease Europeans unknowingly bring with them, but a New World strain of the Seven Plagues of Egypt. By implication, the Spanish conquest is not just one empire outdoing another's rapaciousness, but the instrument of God's will -- dispensing justice to savages who richly deserve it.

That is, of course, exactly how the Spaniards saw themselves ... and much damage was done thereby.

Gibson would acknowledge that, I'm sure. He's described the anti-Semitic passages of Passion as reflecting on the sinful condition of all people, not just Jews. So no doubt he'd say this film's lessons apply to any empire -- even those that espouse Christianity.

Still, don't expect a sequel to pick up where Apocalypto leaves off.

Comments (3)

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You dont have understood a shit about the movie nor the end. The end show that the spanish were no better than the Mayan, even if they appeared 300 years after that the Mayan empire was completely inexisting. You are also wrong regarding culture and sacrifice: it was unususal to Mayan to use human sacrifice in their golden period, those shows on the movie relate to the later period when they had completely degenerated due to illnesses (a FACT PROOVEN BY ARCHEOLOGY, READ YOUR BOOKS!) and to children born with physical malformations. ´They killed hundreds of people a week sometimes so they were violent but the Paw is not a Mayan you idiot!!! he is from another tribe and another culture living far away from the mayan city but Mayan begin to invade others territory in search for food after they had destroyed their own soil through deforestation. Again, read your books or rent them. The prisonners didnt knew a thing about the Mayan, like you do not, and like american will not know a thing about irakian stuff havent it been for this war. You dont know a thing about history nor archeology and have just miss a unique chance to fill a wide lacune on your general knowledge by meeting the teacher with such presomptuous "I know it all I might even teach you and correct you " attitude combine with head strong prejudices and certitudes. Your article is to be laugh at. Think that knowing so little you didnt even read your collegues articles who might have teach you some... Let remind you that Apocalypto is a unique pearl in cinematography as a movie genre never been tried before in Hollywood, and a new way to make action movies, with a very high qulity of picture and movie making who is very refreshing compare to the rest. Mel Gibson also used the first time ever tried Genesis digital filming, and in that regard too made a breakthrough in film making. The film want to underline the violence of human being no matter the egree of technology attained (as it was the case with the mayans) and the ritual do not compare to abortion but to the war in Irak, as a gun shot hardly stress anyone anymore, and the blood shed even of the explosion where 100 die, is hardly remembered, but 2 heart ripping stay in the memory for long, and thats the goal of the movie, have consciousness of what it is we do when we take life. So you were wrong all along. As for the conquistadore, mel Gibson show that one control freak replace the other and that one useless and unecessarry colonisation and sacrifices in the name of a deity is quicly replaced by another, and ask if what could be obtain by that could justify the amount of blood shed caused by it, and the answer is clear: no. So you are still so centered on nailing the guy for antisemitisme that you forgot to watch the movie you were sensed and paid to comment and instead replayed you own last sommer movie. What a shame! Dont you think the tape is old now and that its about time to come back to reality and to stop blaming some guy for something he said while drunk, when you are doing the same but without alcohol and deliberatly: arguing through prejudices and viewing the world through prejudices and preconception of what the man ought to think and do. Thats discrimination! Try to zero in instead, and correct your errors. This article sucks by its total inacurracy and lack of knowledge to what it is suppose to speak about, being the movie, the film director artistic talents, and the mayan civilisation and the other tribes living in the same area at the same time. Dont write a guide to France when you have never been there, chances are you are going to make people laugh at best. My sincere condoleences on the death of your article.

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Posted by Ocean on 12/14/2006 at 1:18 PM

Thanks for sharing.

I’d like to respond at greater length, but I think the conversation would be a muddle, and not because I gather that English is a second language for you.

The problem is Gibson’s movie makes a horrible mishmash of Mayan culture and history. (I allude to this in the story, but I’m pretty sure he was thinking of the Aztecs, not the Mayans, when he created the sacrifice scene.) Gibson himself has said the film wasn’t supposed to be a historical document, so I didn’t dwell too much on the real whoppers …except to the extent that his obvious ignorance of Mayan culture turns into a judgment on it. So I don’t know why you seem to be making claims for the movie’s historical accuracy … when even Gibson doesn’t try.

You say that Jaguar Paw’s ignorance of this city and its practices is believable because: a) he’s supposedly not Mayan, and b) he lived far away from the city where such things are practiced. There’s lots I could say about these claims, and research I could cite. (I have a few books on Mayan history at home.) But to make things easy for both of us, I’ll choose just one source that you can find on-line. (I didn’t rely on this source, or even know about it until I went looking for it to respond to you, but it generally sums up the prevailing research on some of the questions you raise):

Note page 2, in which the Mayan history expert is asked whether it’s realistic that Jaguar Paw and other captives would have “never heard of such a place” as the city they are taken to.

The professor’s response:
[snip]“During the Classic period Maya settlement was so widespread that you lived at least within 10 to 20 kilometers [6 to 12 miles] of a large community. Pyramids were never more than 20 kilometers away from anywhere in the Maya world. There was a great sense of political connectedness between different groups. Even small villages in the hinterlands of large cities were connected to some political center.”[snip]

The movie itself is pretty murky on how removed Jaguar Paw’s village is supposed to be. Clearly, it’s close enough that he can reach his own village on foot — despite a wound in his side! — in time to save his wife. (As I recall, the film shows only a single night elapsing during his escape.) So I guess under your understanding of the film, Jaguar Paw lives far enough from this city to be totally ignorant of its location and cultural practices … but close enough to speak its language and reach his wife on foot with a gaping abdominal wound.

Let’s also not forget that both the villagers and their captors urge each other to “journey well” when they are at death’s door. I guess you’re saying they have these ritualized benedictions in common, but that only one group has ever even HEARD of sacrifice, etc.

If that’s your interpretation, you’re welcome to it. Just as you are welcome to have your own interpretation of the movie’s conclusion, and to like it better than I did as well. You should know, however, that I opposed the invasion of Iraq.

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Posted by Chris Potter on 12/14/2006 at 4:36 PM

Can we please stop arguing about things that don't make any difference to our lives or to lives of those around us. I love both of you and an very happy you took the time to talk to each other I just want you to be more nice and friendly and loving and encouraging and inspirational towards each other its the only way to succeed in the world, trust me I know, I am very successful I just want everyone else to be aswell, I always tried to help everyone and never very took part in any arguments, I debated a few times but only if it served a positive purpose for all involved, just make sure nobody gets hurt by your actions and remarks and you'll be fine. And learn to forgive, help those who hurt you you will impress people because of it, people are the most important hapiness tool you'll come across in your lives make them happy they'll make you happy, good luck.

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Posted by Maser 47 on 12/21/2013 at 10:17 AM
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