Apocalypto Reveals More About Mel than the Maya

by Shlomo Svesnik

Here we go again.

Mel Gibson’s 2004 surprise mega-hit The Passion of the Christ was all the more unlikely a success because the dialogue was entirely in Latin and Aramaic, a pretension intended to portray an air of exacting historical authenticity. Astute critics, however, pointed out that the film deviated sharply from both history and scripture. And the linguistic affectation was not even accurate: the Roman troops and administrators in Judea more often spoke Greek than Latin, and the dialect of Aramaic was wrong.

Now Mel turns his obsessively sadistic cinematic eye on the fall of the Maya civilization in Apocalypto—this time with the dialogue completely in Maya, conveying a similar air of pseudo-didacticism. Yet Apocalypto deviates even further from historical truth than its predecessor. There was much public concern that The Passion of the Christ would stir up anti-Jewish sentiment. Will there be an equivalent outcry over Apocalypto‘s warped and jaundiced portrayal of the Maya?

First, let’s examine how the film falsifies history. One could dismiss this as mere pedantry if it weren’t for Apocalypto‘s implicit claim to accuracy. Called out on Apocalypto‘s distortions, Farhad Safinia, who co-wrote the script with Gibson, said: “The film is an all-out entertainment thrill ride, and that is what it was always designed to do. It is a work of fiction.” But mere entertainments are not generally filmed in an obscure language with subtitles. And the Will Durant quote which opens the film also provides unequivocal evidence that Gibson and Safinia have an ideological agenda: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it destroys itself from within.”

Once again, the film’s most ostentatious claim to veracity is actually an embarrassing howler. For all the effort that went into coaching the cast in a Maya tongue, Mel got the language wrong—and this is tied to the larger historical errors.

The Maya language used in Apocalypto is Yucatecan. Yet the film is obviously set in the “Classic Maya” era, as both the lush rainforest setting and the architecture and costumes of the sets indicate. The language spoken in the Classic Maya city-states was Cholan, not Yucatecan. These are not merely different dialects of the same tongue, but distinct if related languages (like, say, Spanish and Italian). There are far more Yucatecan than Cholan speakers today, making use of Yucatecan more convenient for contemporary movie-makers. But, worse, the linguistic error is compounded by a blatant glitch in elementary chronology.

It was necessary to place the action in the “Classic” era in order to have the highly cinematic spectacle of elaborate stone city-states in the jungle. But the Classic civilization flourished from roughly 300 to 900 CE—making nonsense of the film’s premise of the Spanish conquistadors arriving to deal a declining civilization a coup de grace. After the decline of the Classic city-states in what is now the Peten rainforest of Guatemala and Chiapas (Tikal, Palenque, Uaxactun, Yaxchilan, Bonampak), there was a “Late Maya” renaissance in the Yucatan Peninsula to the north (Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Mayapan). The Late Maya would have spoken something akin to today’s Yucatecan. But the environment in the Yucatan is savanna, not the lush jungle portrayed in the movie. And Mel’s sets are clearly modeled on the Classic sites of Tikal, Palenque and Bonampak—not the more rigidly geometric Late Maya cities, influenced by the Toltec culture which had assumed power in the high plateau of central Mexico. Furthermore, the Late Maya cities also collapsed after around 400 years—that is, at least a century before the arrival of the Spanish. In short, there were no major Maya ceremonial city-states still inhabited when Cortez appeared on the Yucatan coast in 1519.

Putting aside the chronological error (the Spaniards don’t show up until the film’s final scene), Apocalypto is still basically unworkable from the standpoint of actual Maya reality. Apocalypto engages in both of the historic stereotypes about indigenous peoples—the first merely patronizing, the second downright sinister: the noble savage and the blood-thirsty savage. It concerns a noble hunter-gatherer band deep in the jungle which is abducted en masse by blood-thirsty warriors from a Tikal-esque city-state, to be ritually sacrificed in blood-drenched pyramid-top ceremonies. This is completely implausible on many levels.

For starters, when the Peten rainforest was the seat of the Classic Maya civilization, it was intensively managed and nearly all of its inhabitants (outside the elite priestly and warrior castes) cultivated maize. There were few if any hunter-gatherers, and they certainly would not have been as isolated as Gibson’s band of noble savages. More importantly, Apocalypto‘s portrayal completely misconstrues the political logic of Maya human sacrifice.

War was largely a choreographed and symbolic affair for the Maya. It had more to do with establishing the hierarchy of city-states according to agreed-upon rules than it did with territorial conquest in the western sense. War was determined by a precise calendric system based on the movements of the stars, so the kind of surprise attack Gibson portrays was virtually impossible. And the aim was actually to avoid shedding blood on the battlefield, so that the captives could be brought back alive for ritual sacrifice, and sometimes torture and humiliation, in the ceremonial center of the victorious city-state. So, in contrast to Gibson’s portrayal, villages were not put to the torch, lands were not ravaged. And peasants (much less largely non-existent hunter-gatherers) were not the victims. The whole point was ritual degradation of the kings and high-ranking warriors of the vanquished city-state to establish symbolic dominance. It was not the mere arbitrary sadism of Apocalypto.

Indeed, one theory on the still-mysterious demise of Classic Maya civilization holds that the abandoning of this finely-tuned system of ritual warfare in favor of fight-to-the-death campaigns of simple territorial conquest (possibly due to the influence of central Mexican peoples who began to penetrate the Peten) upset the political balance in the rainforest. This is especially argued by Linda Schele and David Freidel in their 1990 book A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya, one of the first studies to break with the old “noble savage” image of the Classic Maya in favor of a more realistic view. Ironically, Jaguar Paw, the “noble savage” protagonist of Apocalypto, seems to take his name from one of the first Maya kings to break with the system of ritual warfare. Schele and Freidel point to the victory of Great Jaguar Paw, king of Tikal, over the forces of Uaxactun in 378 CE as an unprecedented step towards a more ruthless and territorial notion of warfare. But this also meant the abandoning of human sacrifice as a central aim of war. So, counter-intuitively, the system of human sacrifice seems to have had a stabilizing and sustaining effect, channeling aggressive tendencies into controlled ritual form; it was the erosion of this system which may have precipitated the Classic Maya collapse.

By the time the Spanish landed, the center of Mesoamerican civilization had shifted decisively to the high plateau of central Mexico, where the Aztecs (who were really but the ruling dynasty in what was more accurately known as the Mexica empire) actually did engage in something closer to what Apocalypto portrays—with countless victims, commoners as well as nobles, sacrificed in endless processions that left the pyramid steps slick with blood. No previous Mesoamerican people—not even the militaristic Toltecs, the earlier dynasty of central Mexico—had taken human sacrifice to anywhere near these lengths. But here too there was a political logic: the need to appease the insatiable sun god, Tonatiuh, with sacrificed war captives fueled the Mexica’s incessant campaigns of conquest, thereby expanding the empire and the wealth of the capital, Tenochtitlan. (Its another howler that Gibson has the Maya priests beseeching the sun; Maya cosmology was more enamored of the moon and the planet Venus, and had no grand tradition of sun-worship.)

For the Mexica, unlike the long-gone Classic Maya, the arrival of Cortez really was viewed as the fulfillment of an apocalyptic prophecy, as Gibson portrays (although the Mexica were at the peak of their power then, not in decline). For Gibson, the “savage” Maya (stand-ins for the Mexica in his garbled version of reality) were about to get what was coming to them in the Conquest, while for the “noble” Maya it would simply be a change of masters. This presentation is a disingenuous moral equivalism.

The Mexica never committed genocide, never exterminated another people’s culture, never destroyed cities or wreaked irreparable ecological damage. The conquistadors did all of these things. The Mexica’s “conquest” of subject peoples meant little more than demanding tribute (mostly in the form of cacao beans, sea shells and quetzal feathers, the currency of the day), and didn’t interfere with local political autonomy. Even the human sacrifice, admittedly a very grisly affair, probably didn’t come close to claiming the number of lives (much less social or ecological chaos) that Europe’s endless wars did in the same period. Mexica society was arguably more stable than that of contemporaneous Europe, and was certainly far more advanced in its understandings of mathematics and astronomy. Tenochtitlan was far larger than any European city and (again, contrary to Gibson’s version) comparatively free of pestilence. All this was recognized by no less a personage than the Bishop Bartoleme de Las Casas, who made a lonely crusade against Spanish genocide of the Indians his life’s vocation, and called the Mexica empire “more felicitous than Spain” in his first-hand work, The Destruction of the Indies: A Brief Account.

The Spaniards deforested the land, redirected water from ancient agricultural communities in the fertile valleys, razed all the cities, slaughtered and enslaved the populace, and spread disease. Indigenous language, culture and religion were banned, populations deported and worked to death in the mines whose wealth made Spain (if briefly) the most powerful state in Europe. The population of Mesoamerica dramatically crashed, reduced by sixth-sevenths within a century of 1519. The point here is not to exonerate Mexica human sacrifice. But it was in no way comparable with the social and ecological disaster that was the Conquest.

It is also telling that the evidently Christ-obsessed Gibson failed to note even in passing the legend and cult of the Feathered Serpent (Quetzalcoatl for the Mexica; Kulkulkan for the Yucatecan Maya), the fabled Toltec king who was thought to be the incarnation of a god of the same name and became a reformer of his own religion, briefly abolishing human sacrifice before he was brought down and martyred by the priestly elite whose power he threatened. The story was such an obvious parallel to that of Jesus that it aided the conversion process, with Mexica and Maya alike transferring their devotion from the martyred Toltec god-king to the Christian salvador. But an acknowledgement of nuance or moral complexity in the civilizations he caricatures seems to be beyond Mad Mel.

One embarrassingly clear indication of how little Gibson understands the waters he is swimming in here is the scene in which Jaguar Paw is spared being ritually sacrificed on the pyramid-top by the timely and unexpected intervention of a solar eclipse, which throws the crowd of blood-thirsty spectators into a panic. This is the oldest trick in the book. Gibson appears to have lifted it wholesale from Prisoners of the Sun, the 1948 adventure comic in the Tintin series, in which the intrepid boy reporter and his companions are to be sacrificed at a secret surviving Inca city-state they discover high in the Andes. Tintin implausibly outwits the Incas by pretending to command the sun to hide its face. Tintin’s Belgian creator HergĂ© got the idea, in turn, from Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, in which the protagonist similarly outwits a clueless Merlin who had sought to dispatch him as a human sacrifice. Now, if we can suspend disbelief over the time-travel premise, it is plausible that a European court of the Dark Ages could get bamboozled by an eclipse. It is considerably less so that the Incas, who were master astronomers, would fall for such a trick. It is utterly preposterous that the Classic Maya would—they were obsessed with the accurate measuring of time, and their ceremonial centers were actually “calendar cities,” with each pyramid and temple precisely aligned with the movements of the heavenly bodies whose passages dictated when to plant, when to harvest, when to wage war. There is no way they would have been taken unawares by an eclipse.

Even when writers and film-makers have the best of intentions, deeply-ingrained racism can warp the final product. Thus Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness sought to expose the barbarity of Belgian colonial rule in the Congo, but instead created a tale in which European conquerors are seduced into atavistic primitivism by the people they conquered. Gibson inherits Conrad’s tradition via the medium of 1979’s Apocalypse Now, in which Francis Ford Coppola similarly sought to expose American barbarity in Vietnam. If Gibson has any good intentions in Apocalypto, they are to warn of impending moral and ecological collapse in our own society by way of analogy to his imagined Maya. But, as with Conrad a century earlier, it backfires horribly.

Instead, Gibson has made a piece of propaganda for the ravaging of indigenous lands and culture. The Maya are still around. There are some ten million of them in the Yucatan, Chiapas and Guatemala—and they have been the victims of genocide as recently as the early 1980s. It was then that the Guatemalan military’s counter-insurgency campaign—complete with massacres, mass rape and forced relocations—reached its horrific climax. The 1999 findings of the UN-backed Guatemala Historical Clarification Commission estimated 200,000 dead in the civil war that lasted from 1962 to 1996, squarely accusing the Guatemalan state of “genocide.” Yet this genocide never came to the conscience of the world the way that in Bosnia just ten years later would.

And just as peace was finally coming to Guatemala, the Maya of Chiapas took up arms in the Zapatista rebellion to defend their lands from encroachment by the cattle oligarchy and to demand cultural autonomy. The paramilitary terror unleashed by the Mexican state in response has been an ominous echo of the Guatemalan genocide.

The disenfranchisement of massive numbers of indigenous and peasant peoples from their economic niche and landbase is a sort of spontaneously ethnocidal aspect of the normal functioning of the global capitalist system. When such communities start organizing to defend their turf, they are often targeted for explicit, intentional genocide—as was the case in the Maya Highlands of Guatemala in the early 1980s. Twisted portrayals such as Gibson’s serve as propaganda for both—justifying the economic ethnocide as “progress” and the military genocide as just retribution, in a perverse reversal of victim and oppressor.

Apocalypto is ultimately propaganda against not only the Maya but indigenous peoples worldwide. And while revealing nothing about the Maya (other than the sound of one of their tongues, presented out of historical and geographic context), it reveals a great deal about Mel Gibson—and our civilization generally.


Commentary on this review appears following the preview we posted to our weblog.

Also by Shlomo Svesnik:

The Wachowski Brothers Commodify Your Dissent—Again!”
WW4 REPORT #120, April 2006

A Look Behind the Headlines Reveals ‘The Passion of Christ’ as Propaganda for a Fascistic Cult”
WW4 REPORT #96, March 2004

See also:

Mexican State Plays Ethnic Divide-and-Rule in the Chiapas Rainforest”
by Bill Weinberg
WW4 REPORT #128, November 2006

From our weblog:

“Mel Gibson’s Holocaust series pulled”
WW4 REPORT, Aug. 2, 2006

“Guatemalan war criminal dies a free man”
WW4 REPORT, May 30, 2006


Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Jan. 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution