If our hands are bloody through needless wars and dehumanization, despite all our advances in science and human understanding, if our own sense of right and wrong is ambiguous as it was since man began, why expect the Maya to be any different? Regardless of the controversy surrounding the alleged historical inaccuracies, I liked the film. It had me on the edge of my seat, I liked the characters I was supposed to like, hated those I was supposed to hate, and I would certainly recommend the film to anyone, particularly the squeamish and anyone prone to faint at the sight of blood. Muahahaha.
This is a film about a history that remains largely unknown, by anyone, so unknown we don’t even know what led to the collapse of the Mayan civilization in terms of their abandoning the great city-states they had created. That said, any self-styled authority on the topic must be taken with a grain of salt, and any claim to racism on Mel Gibson’s part is asinine and slanderous. If it is any comfort to the modern Maya, there is nothing their ancestors did or could have done to match the brutality and sadism of the modern white man, as we’ll soon discuss. The plot, briefly, is this: A tribe is attacked and enslaved. Our hero, Jaguar Paw, also is enslaved but his wife and child escape, albeit both become trapped in a deep, narrow pit. Once he is taken to the city, he has to escape in time to save his wife and child. Though the latest Mel Gibson flick has been attacked as being historically inaccurate, critics seem to have forgotten the fact Apocalypto is not a documentary, it is an action-thriller with little room for narration, stills, archival footage and interviews with archaeologists. It is fantasy, it is just a movie and it makes no pretense of adhering to any standard of accuracy other than having the actors speak in the Mayan tongue.
The most common fault cited by critics is the anachronisms in the film, such as the timing of the arrival of the Spaniards and a wall mural that is new in the film, but which was actually drawn 1,000 years earlier. Don’t come into the theater expecting a screen treatise on ancient South American history, and you will probably not be disappointed…
As for the anachronisms: it’s stuff only archeologists would notice, since that is their job. It’s not like there’s a scene where the commanding screen presence of Rudy Youngblood (Jaguar Paw) is overshadowed by the anachronous Ipod on his arm. The alleged anachronisms don’t take away from the plot or action. Gibson humanizes the peaceful rural Maya, and creates a shocking vision of the urban Maya in the city states. Does one focus on the atrocities? yes, inasmuch as you want the protagonist to escape them and get back to his wife and child. It’s a cinematic tool.
Were the atrocities inaccurate? probably. Unlike World War II, we don’t have any living witnesses of Mayan wars. Unlike the Civil War, we have no photographs or a wealth of written documentation and contemporary periodicals. We are dealing with a largely mysterious past, and what we do know is that the Spaniards made a very successful effort at wiping out the written history of indigenous peoples. They burned their written history, and we know as much about them as we’d know about a book which had its pages torn out. We get a hint of the subject by the title, perhaps, or a cover illustration, but nothing more.
If our hands are bloody through needless wars and dehumanization, despite all our advances in science and human understanding, if our own sense of right and wrong is ambiguous as it was since man began, why expect the Maya to be any different?
Whether a man is disemboweled by the bayonet of a modern soldier or the knife of an ancient one, the result is the same. Beheading is nothing new to the western man. It was a Frenchman who invented the guillotine because he sought a more “humane” means of execution, and Adolf Hitler used it to behead prisoners on a mass scale as late as WWII. More recently we invented some very creative and horrific means of destroying the masses, slowly and painfully.
We have napalm, we have land mines that kill and maim children many years after a war is over, we have chemical and biological weapons. The capacity to dehumanize and butcher one another is not something unique to primitive or ancient cultures. It is an ugly and shameful condition common to all ages, to every culture. The reasons for the carnage of war change, perhaps, but little else does. In the past blood was shed to appease a sun god, for example; and these instances often included an element of political machinations that favored the interests of a corrupt leader or king.
Today, blood is shed in outwardly religious wars that attract the faithful and naive, with religious rhetoric to inspire violence against innocents and cloak the political machinations of interests seeking power through the control of territory, and all it encompasses: oil, gold, or other natural resources. Once people killed for the sun god, today people kill for Allah and God, so not much has changed. And even in the case of atheism, millions of people were killed for science- the concept of man as god- in death camps from 1940s Germany to 1990s Bosnia; for racial purity and eugenics, and through the state-mandated atheism of Communism. Even without a god, it is in our nature as humans to kill one another for being different.
Perhaps 1,000 years from now, if the human race is still around, people will look back on the 21st century in pity and say: “Wow! now those were savages! nothing like the Druids, Romans, or Aztecs who killed each other in relative moderation!” The mark of a good film is that the “gore” and “violence” you see stands out, and upsets you, because you like the characters. If we compare the characters in Apocalypto to the cardboard cut-outs in SAW III, for example, we might see some parallels in the amount of sadistic violence portrayed. However, you don’t really care what happens to the victims in the latter film. They are too poorly drawn to garner the sympathy or even interest of the audience. Gibson made the victims on the temple altar real, created empathy in viewers. If this is what he is doing wrong, I applaud it. It will surely translate into ticket sales, and perhaps a a renewed interest in learning from the mistakes, and surprising achievements, of this mysterious Mayan people.