Skip to comments.Brutally Honest (Apocalypto)
Posted on 12/15/2006 7:04:47 AM PST by Valin
Brutally Honest The multicultural set doesn't like Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto" because of its depiction of Mayan brutality.
MEL GIBSON'S Apocalypto is one of the few films that can rightly be described as a journey. The viewer is snatched from the confines (and comforts) of a Hollywood movie and thrown deep into the jungles of Central America. The film itself is a visual masterpiece; shot entirely in a Mayan dialect, Gibson flexes his visual muscles to show rather than tell.
Billed as a historical drama, Apocalypto is actually part revenge flick and part chase flick. After being brutally taken from his idyllic home (where his beloved father's throat was slit by the cruelest of his captors), the hero, Jaguar Paw, narrowly escapes having his heart torn from his chest as part of a human sacrifice. He then leads his tormentors on a harrowing chase through the jungle, utilizing his knowledge of the familiar terrain that surrounds his village to pick off his enemies one by one.
The plot itself is almost secondary, and little more than an excuse for Gibson to show off his phenomenal film making talents. In addition to the stunning jungle scenes, Gibson treats us to a view of what life in a vast Mayan city may have been like at the height of its culture. Immense pyramids rise out of the foliage; prisoners are sold as slaves and sacrificed in incredibly brutal ways; those not sacrificed are used for human target practice. If you can handle gore (and really, the movie is no more violent--and in some ways, far less so--than, say, Braveheart, which took home 5 Oscars, including Best Picture), do yourself a favor and see this innovative, unique movie.
AS INTERESTING as the film itself has been the reaction to it by film critics and historians alike. Those who praise the movie almost uniformly mention, if not condemn, Gibson's infamous anti-Semitic outburst (in the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote that "say what you will about him--about his problem with booze or his problem with Jews--he is a serious filmmaker").
Other critics have, curiously, dismissed the film because it doesn't inform us about some of the accomplishments of the Mayans. "It teaches us nothing about Mayan civilization, religion, or cultural innovations (Calendars? Hieroglyphic writing? Some of the largest pyramids on Earth?)," Dana Stevens wrote in Slate. "Rather, Gibson's fascination with the Mayans seems to spring entirely from the fact (or fantasy) that they were exotic badasses who knew how to whomp the hell out of one another, old-school."
This is a strange criticism. If you were interested in boning up on calendars, hieroglyphics, and pyramids you could simply watch a middle-school film strip. And who complained that in Gladiator Ridley Scott showed epic battle scenes and vicious gladiatorial combat instead of teaching us how the aqueducts were built?
AND THEN there have been the multi-culturist complaints. Ignacio Ochoa, the director of the Nahual Foundation, says that "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 Europeans." Julia Guernsey, an assistant professor in the department of art and art history at the University of Texas told a reporter after viewing the film, "I hate it. I despise it. I think it's despicable. It's offensive to Maya people. It's offensive to those of us who try to teach cultural sensitivity and alternative world views that might not match our own 21st century Western ones but are nonetheless valid."
Newsweek reports that "although a few Mayan murals do illustrate the capture and even torture of prisoners, none depicts decapitation" as a mural in a trailer for the film does. "That is wrong. It's just plain wrong," the magazine quotes Harvard professor William Fash as saying.
Karl Taube, a professor of anthropology at UC Riverside, complained to the Washington Post about the portrayal of slaves building the Mayan pyramids. "We have no evidence of large numbers of slaves," he told the paper.
Even the mere arrival, at the end of the film, of Spanish explorers has been lambasted as culturally insensitive. Here's Guernsey, again, providing a questionable interpretation of the film's final minutes: "And the ending with the arrival of the Spanish (conquistadors) underscored the film's message that this culture is doomed because of its own brutality. The implied message is that it's Christianity that saves these brutal savages."
But none of these complaints holds up particularly well under scrutiny. After all, while it may not mesh well with their post-conquest victimology, the Mayans did partake of bloody human sacrifice. Consider this description of a human sacrifice from the sixth edition of University of Pennsylvania professor Robert Sharer's definitive The Ancient Maya:
The intended victim was stripped, painted blue (the sacrificial color), and adorned with a special peaked headdress, then led to the place of sacrifice, usually either the temple courtyard or the summit of a temple platform. After the evil spirits were expelled, the altar, usually a convex stone that curved the victim's breast upward, was smeared with the sacred blue paint. The four chaakob, also painted blue, grasped the victim by the arms and legs and stretched him on his back over the altar. The Nacom then plunged the sacrificial flint knife into the victim's ribs just below the left breast, pulled out the still-beating heart, and handed it to the chilan, or officiating priest.
That exact scene, almost word for word, takes place in Apocalypto.
After the Spanish conquest, the Mayans adapted their brutal methods of pleasing the gods to coexist with Christianity. Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517-1570 contains the following description from a contemporary source of a post-invasion sacrifice:
The one called Ah Chable they crucified and they nailed him to a great cross made for the purpose, and they put him on the cross alive and nailed his hands with two nails and tied his feet . . . with a thin rope. And those who nailed and crucified the said boy were the ah-kines who are now dead, which was done with consent of all those who were there. And after [he was] crucified they raised the cross on high and the said boy was crying out, and so they held it on high, and then they lowered it, [and] put on the cross, they took out his heart.
As for whether or not there have been any murals found portraying decapitation, as Prof. Fash complains, heads were certainly cut off in ceremonial fashion by the Mayans. Again, The Ancient Maya: "The sacrifice of captive kings, while uncommon, seems to have called for a special ritual decapitation . . . The decapitation of a captured ruler may have been performed as the climax of a ritual ball game, as a commemoration of the Hero Twins' defeat of the lords of the underworld in the Maya creation myth."
The protestation against Mayan slavery, is also off the mark: The Ancient Maya repeatedly refers to the purchasing of slaves. The first European contact with the Maya resulted, ironically, in the Spaniards being enslaved. After a shipwreck, Spanish
survivors landed on the east coast of Yucatan, where they were seized by a Maya lord, who sacrificed Valdivia and four companions and gave their bodies to his people for a feast. Geronimo de Aguilar, Gonzalo de Guerrero, and five others were spared for the moment. . . . Aguilar and his companions escaped and fled to the country of another lord, an enemy of the first chieftain. The second lord enslaved the Spaniards, and soon all of them except Aguilar and Guerrero died.
And it should be remembered that when the Spanish arrived in force, they had little problem recruiting allies as some Mayans fought with the Spanish against their own Mayan enemies. Matthew Restall's Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest reports that
what has so often been ignored or forgotten is the fact that Spaniards tended also to be outnumbered by their own native allies . . . In time, Mayas from the Calkini region and other parts of Yucatan would accompany Spaniards into unconquered regions of the peninsula as porters, warriors, and auxiliaries of various kinds. Companies of archers were under permanent commission in the Maya towns of Tekax and Oxkutzcab, regularly called upon to man or assist in raids into the unconquered regions south of the colony of Yucatan. As late as the 1690s Mayas from over a dozen Yucatec towns--organized into companies under their own officers and armed with muskets, axes, machetes, and bows and arrows--fought other Mayas in support of Spanish Conquest endeavors in the Petén region that is now northern Guatemala.
WHICH IS NOT TO SAY that Gibson's film is an entirely accurate portrayal of life in a Mayan village. As they say in the business, for the sake of narrative, certain facts have been altered. The conflation of showing massive temples and then depicting the arrival of the Spanish at the end of the film is almost certainly anachronistic. Though Apocalypto is purposefully vague about its time frame, the appearance of Spanish galleons and conquistadors at the end of the film (as well as the sight of a little girl who might be suffering from small pox) suggests the action takes place in the early- or mid-16th century. But according to Sharer, "by 900 . . . monumental construction--temples, palaces, ball courts . . . [had] ceased at most sites, as did associated features such as elaborate royal tombs and the carved stone and modeled stucco work used to adorn buildings."
Almost any historical drama will contain such problems. That being said, it is specious for professional historians and grievance groups alike to argue that Apocalypto is a wonton desecration of the memories of the Mayan people. While it may be an inconvenient fact that the Mayans were skilled at the art of human cruelty, it is, nevertheless, a fact.
I want to see this movie.
Yeah, I want to see this one too.
I'm going to see the movie this weekend after hearing favorable comments from people that have seen it already. They stated that it is powerful and graphic, but no more than "Saving Pvt. Ryan" or "Band of Brothers". The Standard report is well written and articulate. Very rare for news media these days.
More impressive were the number of natives living in absolute squalor in the area. It's not often that you see a culture regress.
The same conclusions can be reached about many (if not all) pre-Columbian American civilizations. The Aztecs, Incas and other native american cultures were brutal and violent. Of course the same is true of many cultures in our world. The noble savage myth is just that.
I've torn the hearts from a few wonton.
Pretty decent jungle movie. I liked it.
(Comment given in the spirit of Mark Twain who, when asked to review a book, wrote "This is a good book. People who like good books will like this book.")
I can't wait to see this.
This one film will undo decades worth of the school disinformation campaign regarding the Mayas and Aztecs.
Ochoa knows better - but he also knows that plenty of white liberals are credulous enough to buy this line of BS.
So much for the "noble savage". I mean there's a reason they were/are called savages.
Julia Guernsey, an assistant professor in the department of art and art history at the University of Texas told a reporter after viewing the film, "I hate it. I despise it. I think it's despicable. It's offensive to Maya people. It's offensive to those of us who try to teach cultural sensitivity and alternative world views that might not match our own 21st century Western ones but are nonetheless valid."
If "alternative world views that might not match our own...are nonetheless valid" then why does she consider an alternative world view of Mel Gibson despicable and offensive?
Ritual decapitation, human sacrifice, cannibalism, and slavery are "valid", but a Mel Gibson MOVIE is "despicable". Go figure.
Gee, Ya think it's because they were, brutal to each other?
That whole cutting the hearts out thing was just a mininterpration, what it was, was an early experiment in open heart surgery.
Newsweek reports that "although a few Mayan murals do illustrate the capture and even torture of prisoners, none depicts decapitation" as a mural in a trailer for the film does."
Temple paintings at Bonampak depicting torture and slaughter aside, anyone who has ever been to Chitzen Itza and seen the decorations in the ball court, in which a ball player is decapitated, knows that is completely wrong.
"I hate it. I despise it. I think it's despicable. It's offensive to Maya people. It's offensive to those of us who try to teach cultural sensitivity and alternative world views that might not match our own 21st century Western ones but are nonetheless valid."
Translation: this will make it harder for me to lie to my students about how horrible Westnern culture is and how sweet and innocent the pre-Colombian peoples were, views which are not based on any factual evidence whatsoever.
It's quite gruesome, but absolutely brilliant.
>>Yeah, I want to see this one too.<<
Not me - its a rare foreign language movie I want to see but you sure can see the crtics projecting their own bias -like this quote from one of the PC crowd.
>>"And the ending with the arrival of the Spanish (conquistadors) underscored the film's message that this culture is doomed because of its own brutality. The implied message is that it's Christianity that saves these brutal savages."<<
The Spanish conquest was brutal - we know that. That doesn't mean its wrong for Gibson to examine aspects the civilization that was there before that are often overlooked.
The brutality of American Indians toward each other and outsiders continues to this day. Just watch the documentary, "Beyond the Gates of Splendor" and the movie based on the same events, "The End of the Spear".
One of the primary objections to "Apocalypto" put forth by film critics is that it is overly violent. This from the same crowd that nominates "The Departed" for a Golden Globe and who always fawn over anything by Scorcese, Peckinpah and Tarantino -- the gorier, the better for them.
I won't see this movie as I'm particularly squeamish about gore - shouldn't have gone to "The Departed", but son wanted to see it. I averted my gaze for half the film.
I hate to admit it, but I still haven't watched "Saving Private Ryan".