Apocalypto: Maya culpa

Mel Gibson's action-adventure depicting the fall of Mayan society is an anxious allegory about humanity today.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Culture

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There are two things you should know about Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. The first is that it’s set at some point during the death throes of the Maya civilisation. And the second is that knowing this is not as important as you’d think. For Apocalypto is very much a film of, and about, the present.

The narrative centres upon a young tribesman named Jaguar Paw, whose peaceful, primitive existence is shattered by an attack on his village by a troop of Mayan warriors sent from the Maya city. Their purpose is to capture its female inhabitants for slavery, and the males for sacrifice. Before they are able to trap Jaguar Paw, however, he manages to hide his pregnant wife and young child down a well. Unfortunately, the rope with which they could then climb out is cut by one of the warriors. This sets the narrative in motion: Jaguar Paw must escape his captors’ clutches, and somehow get back to the well before it rains, and his family drown.

Such a plot sketch, however, does not do Apocalypto justice. There’s much more to savour, such as the frenetic bustle of the opening tapir hunt. Or, indeed, the epic forest chase at its close that both reverses the roles of hunter and hunted established in the opening scene and surpasses it in visceral energy. And in between there’s the magnificent rendering of the Maya city itself, an infernal portrait that gains in power by being gradually revealed through Jaguar Paw’s innocent eyes, from the brutalising mines on its outskirts, to the monumental pyramid at its heart.

While Gibson’s film has won critical praise, there has also been no shortage of detractors. The charge ostensibly levelled at it is one of historical inaccuracy; human sacrifice was not common practice for the Maya, belonging more properly to the Aztecs and Toltecs; the tribespeople’s forest village bears little resemblance to the agricultural existence then prevalent; planting decapitated heads on sticks was actually the speciality of the conquistadores. The list goes on.

But while criticism of its historical accuracy might be justified on the basis of the film’s pretension to verisimilitude, indeed, authenticity, from the use of Yucatec Mayan dialect to the largely indigenous cast, the criticisms rarely stop there. Instead, they seem intent on identifying a residually colonialist, if not openly racist, intention behind this misrepresentation, arguing, for instance, that it reinforces stereotypes about the barbaric nature of Maya culture – in other words, precisely those views held by their Spanish conquerors. Ignacio Ochoa, director of the Guatemalan Nahual Foundation (responsible for promoting Mayan culture), captures this attitude well: ‘Gibson replays, in glorious big budget Technicolor, an offensive and racist notion that Maya people were brutal to one another long before the arrival of the Europeans and thus they deserved, in fact, needed rescue.’ (1)

In the context of art, such charges invariably miss the point. It’s the equivalent of complaining that Macbeth exaggerates the prominence of witchcraft in eleventh-century Scotland. That’s not to put Mel Gibson up there with the Bard, but simply to point out that Apocalypto, like Macbeth, is better understood on its own terms. After all, it is those terms that yield most insight.

On one level, then, it is a conventional action-adventure story with mythic overtones. As such, it is never less than engrossing. But there’s also the sense that it is trying to do something more ambitious. Why else preface the film with a rather grandiose quote from the historian Will Durant: ‘A great civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.’ Perhaps, then, it is as an allegory of human history that Apocalypto actually makes sense, one that compresses the fates, indeed, the facts, of disparate civilisations into a particular but universally significant narrative.

The numerous historical anomalies begin, therefore, to make sense. The killing field from which Jaguar Paw makes his escape, for instance, or the mass grave of naked bodies into which he stumbles while doing so, not only evoke decadent Rome and the Holocaust respectively, but are inserted into a context in which they can then be used to signify the self-destructive truth of all human civilisation. Just as Heart of Darkness used Africa to dramatise the dissolution of the moral claims of imperialism, so Apocalypto uses history to dramatise the self-destructive trajectory of all social development.

The impulse is indubitably current. In a Time magazine interview from March 2006, Gibson and his co-writer Farhad Sarfinia explained how they’d been fascinated by the story of the Maya’s fall while working on the Mirador basin project in Guatemala. Sarfinia continued: ‘The parallels between the environmental imbalance and corruption of values that doomed the Maya and what’s happening to our own civilisation are eerie.’ (2) These concerns infuse Apocalypto’s allegorical vision. Concluding an Adamic fable in which the animals each give man their chief quality in the hope that it will sate his longing, the teller, a tribal elder, states that ‘he will never be happy, because there’s a hole in man that causes him to take all that he can until the earth can give no more’. What makes us human becomes our pathology. In this moralising framework, the Maya city, a symbol of human industry and achievement, is cast in a baleful light, wracked by disease and starvation.

But if a current notion of ecological collapse informs Apocalypto’s vision of humanity, it is not the only contemporary source. From the moment Jaguar Paw’s father urges him to expel it from his heart lest it eat away his inner peace, fear too becomes a prominent motif. For the civilisation that Apocalypto depicts is one in which fear is manifest. Hence, as they lose faith in themselves amidst illness and deprivation, they invest that faith externally, transforming natural phenomena into portents, and Jaguar Paw into a symbol of a whole civilisation’s inexorable decline. If the self-doubt that begins to afflict the warriors after hearing a small girl’s prophecy inclines them to perform their pre-destined defeat, it enables Jaguar Paw to act out their worst fears.

With the fall of civilisation portrayed as inseparable from the reason for its rise – the ‘hole in man’ and the fear induced by the inevitable ecological collapse – it is a vision of societal collapse that takes its bearings from the anxious present. That the only positive portrayal of humanity in Apocalypto can be found in the primitive, stagnant existence of the tribal village is testament to how thoroughgoing is its distrust of ‘all too human’ aspiration.

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(1) ‘They’re nothing like us’, Daily Telegraph, 1 Jan 2007

(2) Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto Now, Time, 19 March 2006

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