A tale of a Mayan civilization in collapse — if Mel Gibson’s reputation doesn’t get there first
Initial release: December 2006
Director: Mel Gibson
Let’s not beat around the bush here: Mel Gibson is a racist tradcath maniac. His earlier film The Passion of the Christ was rightly criticized for being dull torture porn for antisemites; not long after that, he went on an antisemitic rant while being arrested for drunk driving. So it’s understandable that, mere months after his DUI bust, that people were a little leery about what he might have been attempting to say with his ultraviolent indigenous chase film.
Let’s start with the basics: Jaguar Paw is a young hunter in a Mayan forest tribe. When his entire tribe is the latest of the forest villages to be massacred and kidnapped by marauders from a nearby Mayan city for slaves and sacrifices, he manages to escape, and one by one takes down his pursuers and rescues his wife and children, all in the last days before the Spanish arrive.
If you know your Mesoamerican history at all, you’ve already spotted the problem here: the Mayans weren’t big on human sacrifice. That was the Aztecs, whose empire was still in full flourish. This forms the film’s core problem, one that isn’t allayed by Gibson’s attempt to justify it with arguments that it was based on the idea of a Mayan civilization in decline, that Aztec influence played a role in Maya’s collapse (and consequently would have been the cultural origin of the mass human sacrifices performed by the decaying city portrayed in the film, as smallpox and famine ravage the city and the decadent priests and nobles use sacrifices to trick the populace into thinking something is actually being done about it.) The film never actually discusses any of these factors, at least not explicitly. What is it that I always say? If it’s not mentioned in the actual story, it didn’t fucking happen.
So what we’re left with, then, is something that tries to tell a story with sympathetic characters, but is otherwise little more than a pile of “brute savage” stereotypes. As with Passion’s reliance on Aramaic dialogue, Apocalpyto is spoken entirely in Yucatec Mayan by an indigenous cast; Jaguar Paw and his fellow villagers are expert hunters, but they’re helpless before the merciless assault of the raiding party that descends upon their village. The marauders are brutal and cruel, wearing human bone as part of their costumery and coming from a city that has destroyed the land around it and filled entire fields with sacrificial corpses. The film lingers quite a bit on sacrifice, in a lengthy sequence in which the men of the village are lined up, their hearts and heads removed; only the timely arrival of a solar eclipse saves Jaguar Paw, giving him an opportunity to escape later.
Of special note is the ending; the last two pursuers catch up to Jaguar Paw on the beach, the three of them staring in awe at something behind the camera, which slowly turns to reveal the Spanish ships making landfall. Given the context of the film, it’s not hard to see how some chose to interpret this as a repeat of the old colonialist idea of the Spanish bringing “civilization” to indigenous people; this, at least, the film tries to get ahead of by having an unnerving scene about midway through the film where a little girl, sick with smallpox, curses out the raiding party upon their return to the city and makes an eerily prophetic proclamation that essentially lays out the plot of the rest of the film, culminating in a reference to those who would “scratch out the earth. Scratch you out. And end your world.” Doesn’t sound very flattering to the Spanish, right? Still, we’d have to ignore the fact that the film literally opens by quoting Will Durant:
A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.
So what the fuck is this film trying to say? I don’t know, and I don’t think Gibson knew either.
At least the cinematography is cool.