Last night I was able to see Mel Gibson’s Pre-Columbian epic Apocalypto at an advance screening for professors and students. The film tells the story of a young warrior called Jaguar Paw, whose village is razed by Maya raiders intent on capturing slaves for ritual sacrifice. After enduring a terrible journey to a Maya city state, he escapes and is pursued by warriors through the jungle, where he is able to turn the tide on his pursuers. The film is peopled with Mayan actors and all of the dialogue is in Maya.
Is it possible that the true inspiration of this movie is The Naked Prey, the 1966 movie starring Cornel Wilde as a barefooted, loin-clothed white man being pursued by Zulu warriors across Africa? The fact that Jaguar Paw and his tribe are noble savages while the Maya raiders are violent, blood-thirsty barbarians allows us to read the film along the same racialized schema as The Naked Prey. Moreover, both films make it a point to underscore the ways in which “nature” provides men the tools for survival and resistance against the pursuers who would kill them.
The film opens with the following quote from Will Durant: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.” The film stages this claim by showing, in scenes of violence that border on sadism, the cruelty of Maya on Maya oppression. Indeed, the Maya city state is ringed by slums and starving masses and the Maya city dwellers are going on a binge of human sacrifice because their crops are failing. Interestingly, in a scene that involves a solar eclipse, Gibson suggests that the priest caste is cynically using the fears of the people to control them. The Spanish may be on their way to conquer the New World, but through the story of the devastation of Jaguar Paw’s people Gibson underscores that Pre-Columbian America was already on its knees. The savagery of the Maya raiders makes the prospect of the conquest of the New World by the Spanish seem like a welcome development. In this regard, the movie has a reactionary feel to it.
Another set of themes has to do with heroic masculinity and virility. At the outset, the film emphasizes male genitalia, and the acquisition of the necessary virility to inseminate woman to “make babies.” I don’t know if Gibson means to use these tropes of infertility to suggest the weakness of indigenous culture. Be that as it may, most of the movie’s psychology is driven by the concept of fatherhood: a son who wishes to avenge his father, and a father who needs to avenge his son. Meanwhile, while the men struggle to assert dominance over one another, Apocalypto tells the story of Jaguar Paw’s pregnant wife and son, trapped in a deep hole in the ground. When this natural trap begins to fill with water, it becomes a powerful symbol of the womb. In a manner of speaking, the movie may be summed up as the journey of man from the womb and back.
I found the movie too violent, and the humor (in the first 15 minutes), too juvenile. Do we really need Mayan mother-in-law jokes? Come on! More troubling for the reception of this film next week when it opens, is how the over-the-top violence veers into laughter-inducing camp. The charisma of some of the actors, especially Rudy Youngblood as Jaguar Paw, deserves to be commended, and his final escape from the city is very exciting and well done, though hardly original from a story-telling point of view. Apocalypto will surely occupy the minds of scholars interested in the representation of the Conquest, launching a thousand monographs and book chapters, but as entertainment, I’m not sure the movie will go over real well. I prefer Malick’s The New World (2005), which, although a bit jumbled in places, is full of poetry, and Echeverría’s Cabeza de Vaca (1992).
Over at Ain’t it Cool News, other early reviews of the film are positive. Maybe I’m not as geeky as I thought, or the geeks over there don’t have very good taste. All I know is that at the screening I attended, alot of people were laughing… at all the wrong scenes!