Something a bit off-topic, but maybe interesting…
Nearly a year ago Slate.com approached Steve Houston to pen a review of Mel Gibson’s 2006 film Apocalypto. Steve was kind enough to bring me on board as co-author, since I had seen an rough-cut of the movie the previous September here in Austin, and even had the chance to chat a few minutes with the Director himself. Long story short, days and weeks passed and the movie became “old news,” so our review wasn’t published. The anniversary of the release approaches now, so here it is, a “new beginning” for an old review…
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Life and Art
By Stephen Houston and David Stuart
The number one movie in America this week is Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto—a lavish vision of ancient Maya civilization “destroyed from within,” as the theatrical trailers have it. Like The Passion of the Christ, Gibson’s take on the Crucifixion, Apocalypto offers viewers bloody sacrifices, impassioned crowds, authoritarian rulers, and the evocation of an ancient world gone wrong. And like The Passion, it uses an ancient language—in this case, Yucatec Mayan—to lend an air of authenticity to the proceedings. But is the film an accurate portrayal of Maya culture?
Apocalypto is a dramatization of the Maya “collapse,” an enigmatic time in the 8th and 9th centuries A.D. Yes when many cities and royal courts emptied of people. Archaeology tells us that over-population, deforestation, warfare, and disease all contributed to the fall of great ancient kingdoms. Gibson runs through this checklist of disaster in Apocalypto, and for good measure adds the strong suggestion that the Maya were doomed by sheer bloodlust and generally savage behavior.
Scholars now know that the collapse was not as complete as Gibson suggests. Some parts of the Yucatan peninsula continued much as before, with robust construction of buildings and active trade of luxury goods and basics for everyday life, including salt, textiles, ceramics, and stone tools. Today, speakers of dozens of Mayan languages number in the millions, living in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. The surprising feature of the Maya is not the collapse of their Classic civilization, which Gibson highlights, but their astonishing tenacity after the Spanish conquest and, more recently, a bloody civil war in Guatemala during the 1970s and 1980s. American television has produced a version of the reality show Survivor in the jungles of northern Guatemala, but the real survivors are the Maya themselves, through centuries of tumult and abuse.
Gibson’s main vision of the Maya, as a people given to violence, fits squarely with a long-standing debate among scholars. Until forty years ago, the ancient Maya were perceived as peace-loving worshippers of time, a view consistent with the New Agers who have appropriated the Maya as mirrors of modern-day astrology and mysticism. (The Maya date of 2012 looms large even in a recent Colbert Report, thus finding a secure target of ridicule.) Decipherments of Maya writing and fresh perspectives on their imagery confirm that the Maya were a lot like other ancient people: they fought, loathed, and loved, built mighty cities, and created a courtly civilization that left thousands of inscriptions and sculptures. Their aesthetic sensibility parallels what we see in warrior societies like pre-Modern Japan, which also paid eloquent attention to the interplay of life and death, honor and dishonor. Most Maya, of course, simply farmed and hunted, having relatively little contact with the intrigues and artistic commissions of royal courts.
As a work of creativity and boldness of vision, which Apocalypto certainly is, Gibson’s movie ought to have leeway for historical liberties. If Kirsten Dunst can play Marie-Antoinette, as in Sofia Coppola’s new film, why not fashion an impossible Maya city that looks both like Tikal, Guatemala, and Uxmal, Mexico? But Gibson goes overboard, with inaccuracy piled on inaccuracy. Epigraphic studies prove that the Maya of the great dynastic cities mostly spoke a Mayan language called Ch’olti’an, not the Yucatec Gibson chooses to use. No director of historical movies in Europe or the US would have Aristotle rub shoulders with Henry VIII. The set designers of Apocalypto seem to care little for such niceties. To cite one weird example, reproductions of the San Bartolo murals, from about 100 B.C., occur in a set supposedly meant to be 1600 years later. San Bartolo’s imagery not gory enough? Replace an animal sacrifice in the murals with a human body. The same in the Bonampak paintings of Chiapas, Mexico, perhaps the greatest set of images in the Pre-Columbian world, reproduced in part in Apocalypto. The ruler depicted in Gibson’s version of the murals holds a pulped human heart where none appears in the original.
Our concern is that, for the public, Apocalypto crafts an odd and warped view of Maya civilization that will take years to reshape and correct. Gibson offers disturbing, simplistic and, we fear, enduring views of the Maya. In this movie, the “good Maya” are humble and tranquil forest dwellers who live in the most rudimentary fashion imaginable, despite using badly mangled versions of royal names attested in Maya inscriptions. “Bad Maya” are, for Gibson, crazed and blood-thirsty city-dwellers, eager for cruel sacrifice by cynical kings. In other words, they belong to a civilization that deserves to die, soon to be reborn with the arrival of the Spanish and Christianity. (Gibson states that he chose the Greek word as his title because of its supposed meaning, “a new beginning.”)
Gibson’s compelling understanding of action may excite the audience, but his narrative, indeed, the very excellence of the cinematography in this electric “chase movie,” manage to dehumanize one of America’s most splendid civilizations of indigenous origin. Scenes of domestic family bliss, such as when the villager hero lovingly strokes his pregnant wife, serve mostly to contrast with an archaic view of Native American ritual as performed by mindless savages. Heads sliced from captives bounce down pyramid steps, their bodies still twitching in unpleasant fashion. The eager audiences for such spectacles seem to be doped up and disoriented. The hero escapes from the horrors of this dynastic city by clambering over bodies laid out in Auschwitz-like trenches. The scale and fury of the violence are unlike anything ever documented for this civilization. The Maya may not have worshipped time, as New Agers still believe, but nor were they such an embodiment of collective evil.
Some decades ago, the ancient Maya were perceived as peaceful, and that was wrong. As in all human societies, violence was present and real but, in this case, operated within reverential systems of belief about the need to feed and tend gods and to test the honor of noble captives. Violence, a controlled, constrained violence, had purpose and meaning, however unpleasant those beliefs may seem today. But Gibson has transformed the ancient Maya, for decades to come, into a people given to capricious sadism and cruelty. The Maya past and present do not deserve this Apocalypto.