15 years ago, Mel Gibson directed an apocalyptic thriller with racist overtones

The start of Apocalypto opens with the following quote: “A great civilization is not conquered from the outside until it is destroyed from within”.

The little girl prophesies the end of the Mayan world as their society continues to crumble due to corruption, poverty and disease, not so subtly implying that people are behind the demise of their company. The raider who meets the little girl is clearly pissed off and later expresses his concern that the end is near.

Of all the scenes of Apocalypto, this one encompasses the best film. It’s not the most exciting, action-packed, or violent like most movies, but it sums up the underlying theme of the film that seems particularly relevant in America today: A society will destroy itself from the interior, above all, strength can succeed in conquering it.

Before we go any further, we need to tackle the anti-Semitic, racist and misogynistic elephant in the room. Apocalypto will be forever remembered as Mel Gibson’s last film before the world saw him for what it really is, though this revelation barely dampened his ability to make films in Hollywood.

Always, Apocalypto marks the end of the era when Gibson was universally regarded as a credible and respected director and actor. So knowing what we do now with the director of the film, how this film hold out fifteen years later?

Apocalypto takes place during the decline of the Mayan civilization, around 1502. The story centers on Jaguar Paw, a member of a tribe from a hunting village deep in the jungle. His tribe is attacked by looters from the Mayan city where many of his fellow villagers are cruelly slaughtered – the rest are captured to be sold as slaves or used as human sacrifices. Before being captured, Jaguar Paw is able to hide his young son and pregnant wife in a pit, saving them from looters. The rest of the film is a race against time as he attempts to escape his captors and return to his wife and son before they perish.

The construction of the world is remarkably well done. Apocalypto sets in very early, making it easy to follow the characters and understand their world. We know who Jaguar Paw, Sky Flint, Blunted, and Seven are, and we get to know them just early enough to empathize with them later.

He also carries all the hallmarks of a Mel Gibson movie: graphic bloodshed, at least one stupidly violent man-child villain, and the supposed ordinary hero who inexplicably seems stronger, smarter, and somehow better at murder. that everyone (see: Brave Heart and The Patriot). However, Jaguar Paw is a protagonist pleasant enough to be considered both the luckiest and the least fortunate guy in all of this civilization.

Jaguar Paw, Seven and their familyBuena Vista Pictures

The casting is also made up of all Native American and Mexican Native actors. Considering that even today, diversity in Hollywood movies is such a serious issue, it’s actually pretty impressive for 2006.

The use of the Yucatec Mayan language (which is the modern approximation of the Mayan language) also adds to the experience. Just hearing the close equivalent of the Mayan language sounds much more natural than if the actors spoke English.

There’s another not-so-positive side to this though, and that’s where historical precision comes in.

Human sacrifice as shown Apocalypto is generally not considered historically accurate – the practice as described has been attributed more to the Aztecs than the Mayans.Buena Vista Pictures

it’s quite normal so that historically based films deviate from real history. However, Apocalypto takes a lot of liberties with the history of the Mayan civilization that it could be seen as detrimental to the descendants of its people. An example? The representation of human sacrifice in the film.

While the Mayans certainly did indulge in human sacrifices, there is no evidence that they did so on a scale as large as that depicted in the film – this was a practice associated with the Aztecs. The Mayan civilization was incredibly advanced for the time with remarkable achievements in astronomy, architecture, engineering, medicine, etc. Sadly, we don’t see any of this reflected in the movie.

While it seems admirable to choose actors from the appropriate cultural background and use a close Mayan language equivalent, it would work much better if the Mayan civilization was not portrayed in such a terrible light. Considering what we now know about what Gibson thinks about people of other racial backgrounds, the relentlessly cruel, sadistic, and historically inaccurate images of the Mayan people seem a bit more deliberate.

The Spanish conquistadors arrive, armed with swords, guns and diseases. Buena Vista Pictures

At the end of the film, after much prophecy and speculation about the end of the Mayan world, the Spanish conquistadors are already on their way with their steel swords, guns and diseases.

The message is not subtle: the Mayan civilization caused its own downfall long before the arrival of the Spaniards.

Apocalypto is certainly a film well done. It tells a simple story with interesting characters that the audience can invest in. The film works like a high stakes chase. However, it is very difficult to shake the shadow of Mel Gibson’s malicious and racist tirades. And this knowledge makes it hard not to assume that Gibson is operating under the belief that the Mayan people essentially “brought him in.”


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