Beautiful and Terrible: I Need to Talk About Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto

Happiest of Mondays, friends!

Let’s talk about one of my favorite films of all time: Apocalypto. I had to revisit it for a film class, and with the analysis paper I wrote still fresh in my mind, I thought I would share my thoughts with you all.

Apocalypto is a 2006 film from the *coughs* infamous and *coughs again* cOntROveRSial director Mel Gibson, featuring stunning performances from a purely indigenous cast (Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Raoul Max Trujillo, Gerardo Taracena, and others). The film is spoken entirely in the Yucatec Maya language (with English subtitles) and the narrative is set in the Mexican jungle around the time of the classic Maya collapse.

The story revolves around Jaguar Paw (Youngblood), a young man living in a remote settlement situated in the middle of the Mesoamerican jungle. When elite warriors from a Maya city pillage and burn his village, Jaguar Paw shelters his pregnant wife (Hernandez) and son in a cave before being taken captive by the warriors and marched to a grandiose Maya city for a frightening purpose: he is to be a sacrifice to the gods.

Inevitably, he makes a daring escape and is pursued into the jungle by a group of warriors, led by the formidable Zero Wolf (Trujillo).

Once in the jungle, Jaguar Paw finds himself in his element and takes courage, going from the hunted to the hunter. Aided by jaguars, poisonous frogs, quicksand, and tapir traps, the young man’s escape is a suspenseful, nail-biting epic.

Apocalypto is a brilliant, heart stopping film for several reasons, and it’s a crime how underrated it is. It’s such a unique film, chiefly because the story is set in pre-Columbian Mexico at the heart of the Maya civilization.

In the academic world, a lot of my fellow scholars don’t really love Apocalypto for a number of reasons that I can sort of understand.

Sort of.

For a lot of critics, Apocalypto is a white man’s (i.e. Gibson’s) overly brutal depiction of indigenous peoples.

Breaking News: White academics cry foul.

As a Mexican academic, this is where I have to chime in.

Because . . . I actually like this movie. Scratch that, I love this movie.

Now, look: I’m someone who was pretty offended by the big-nosed, sombrero-wearing Mexican bandits in Popeye the Sailor Man and even somewhat annoyed by Luis from Ant-man (as much as I love Luis to death, the “dumb Mexican crook” stereotype is disappointing. The one Mexican character in the MCU deserves better).

However, I wasn’t offended by Apocalypto. I’ve even spoken with other Latins who feel the same way as I do about this film. For a lot of us, it doesn’t feel offensive, it just feels honest. We accept that our indigenous past is full of beauty as well as terror, genius as well as gore, and art as well as blood. The Mesoamerican civilizations we come from were amazing, but just like every other human civilization, they weren’t perfect and had their own unique systems of brutality.

Speaking for myself, I was not put off by the film’s portrayal of ancient Mexicans. Is it 100% accurate? No, of course it isn’t. The historical timelines are actually pretty messed up (and the Spanish ships showed up like hundreds of years too early). Additionally, it’s worth noting that I don’t think we will ever get a fully accurate depiction of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures on screen. Pretty much all of their written records were burnt by the Spanish (lol thanks for that), so archaeology is our last hope for learning more about these once mighty empires.

All that to say, Apocalypto does tend to focus on the grittier (and by that I mean gorier) aspects of Mesoamerican culture. The main antagonists are city Maya. Religious rituals and human sacrifices play a huge role in the story, which both feature a lot of chanting, mask-wearing, and very, very bloody deaths.

Granted, the city Maya were perhaps slightly over-vilified for the sake of plot, but I would argue that every story needs a formidable villain (or villains, in this case) suitable to the time period. Plus, the sacrificial rituals were by no means historically far-fetched, and it set the beloved Jaguar Paw up against fearsome, brutal odds.

For me, Apocalypto doesn’t come across as anti-indigenous or anti-Mexican propaganda. And I didn’t feel like my heritage was being “despoiled” when I watched it. I would personally argue that the grittier aspects of Mesoamerican culture ought to be portrayed just as much as the brilliant ones (because they were brilliant). But every culture has beautiful and terrible facets, and every historical film tends to have an evil metropolis, whether that’s Rome, Babylon, Berlin, Vegas, or in Apocalypto‘s case, the Maya city (probably Tikal or Chichén Itzá).

Furthermore, the end of the film—where the Spanish ships are seen arriving on the shore for a brief scene—is not a justification of colonialism. At least, not the way I see it. After seeing the brutality and religious manipulation present in the Maya city, the arrival of the Spanish ships is not a “look, here come the Europeans to clean up Mesoamerica.” That’s the last thing I thought of, and I was surprised when I saw people ranting about it on the internet.

Instead, when I saw those Spanish ships (which is horribly inaccurate for the time period, by the way), I felt an intense sense of foreboding, especially since Jaguar Paw’s already been through so much with the city Maya and now he has to deal with European “Christianization” and colonialism. The Europeans are bringing the same kind of religious manipulation and corruption as the kind that’s present in the Maya city. They’re both the same forms of oppression, except the religions are different.

It’s like, don’t forget the Maya sacrifices and mass religious manipulation were also results of religion. It’s coming again with the Europeans, and this time, even harder.

I felt the Spanish arrival at the end of the film was more of an “out of the frying pan and into the fire” moment, much less a justification for colonialism. Besides, I would have hated the movie if I had gotten that vibe.

So yeah. I’m not really seeing the overt racist-ness of the film. As a Mexican descended from these same people of the past, I find it refreshing to see parts of my heritage portrayed on the big screen. I find a hero in Jaguar Paw and his beautiful, strong wife Seven. Seeing a Mexican man tear through the jungle shooting poison darts through a blow gun, running with a literal jaguar, and generally just Kicking Butt™ is so empowering to me. So no, I didn’t hate this movie.

In fact, I love Apocalypto because of the way it humanizes people who would have otherwise been considered “savages” in a different film. For all the heat this film got for making indigenous people look like savages, I actually got the completely opposite vibe.

Because the one thing that expertly demonstrates the humanity of the characters (protagonists and antagonists alike) is their familial relationships.

The fearless Jaguar Paw, his beautiful and spirited wife Seven, the wise and elderly Flint Sky, the sexually challenged Blunted, and even the terrifying Zero Wolf have their emotional points, all of which are rooted in their familial relationships with their kinsmen, spouses, and/or children. The main characters are relatable, and viewers can understand their familial affections as clearly as their own. It makes them human and lets the modern viewer see past the infamous “savage” trope.

Every character in Jaguar Paw’s village (before the city Maya attack) is written so well, and Gibson really captures the humanity of their familial relationships. The men play practical jokes on each other, the women laugh at their schemes, the elders tell myths before bed, and the people dance around the fire. The village itself functions like one big family. Historical records do tell us that the Maya loved to laugh and were good at pulling pranks, so the early scenes of the movie do very well at incorporating this.

Not only do they laugh, but they share heartwarming exchanges, talk about love, fear, the future, and the joyful anticipation of newborn children.

Granted, Maya villages during the film’s time period were mainly agricultural and not hunter-gatherer societies like Jaguar Paw’s village, but again, it’s still beautiful to watch. It humanizes the characters, allowing us to understand their love for their families and the humanity they share with modern viewers. Watching them really did put a smile on my face. These aren’t crazy Indians losing their minds in the jungle. These are people who thrive, laugh, and sing through life together.

And every word they say is spoken in Yucatec Maya. These characters do not even speak the same language as Western audiences, and yet Western audiences can still fall in love with them. If that isn’t brilliant, I don’t know what is.

It’s also worth noting that one of Apocalypto‘s primary antagonists, Zero Wolf (who is literally crazy), is humanized through a deep familial relationship of his own. In fact, he’s the leader of the Maya warriors who ravaged Jaguar Paw’s village. Nevertheless, Zero Wolf has a son: Cut Rock. Cut Rock is a teenage warrior with the same ambitions as a lot of modern boys, just in a different cultural form. He wants to make his father proud and to prove that he is a man just like the other warriors. We watch Cut Rock earn his manhood, make his father proud . . . and then die later in the film (I won’t say how because spoilers). Cut Rock’s death is a fascinating scene, because the formidable Zero Wolf—the cutthroat warrior—almost looks on the verge of tears as he holds his dying son.

And that’s the thing: Zero Wolf is a really scary guy, but when his son dies and you remember that he really loves his son, it shows the audience the similarity between the captor and the captive. Zero Wolf, although brutal, is still a human and still capable of feeling familial affection. He loves his blood relations just as much as Jaguar Paw loves his.

Arguably Apocalypto‘s central theme is that universality of the family, and it does an excellent job of communicating it across cultural boundaries.

I’d also love to just applaud the performances in this film. Every performer in this group of completely unknown, indigenous actors was spectacular. It’s been a while since I’ve watched a film with such believable actors.

The characters’ joy, their fear, their terror, their anger, and their triumphs are so well captured and played out by the actors, and I honestly forgot it was all a fictional story. It’s honestly such a shame that none of the cast ever received any kind of award for their breathtaking performances.

The entire film feels so real.

And then there’s the score. OH the score, people. James Horner once again mesmerizes the audience with his beautiful music. The woodwinds and metallic percussion really drag the viewer into the setting. Combining folk instrumentals with modern film score, Apocalypto’s official soundtrack is a gorgeous thing to behold. From the chilling “Sacrificial Procession” to the homely Forest theme, there’s a track that captures every emotion and setting. 

And don’t even get me started on the stunning visuals. The makeup. The costumes. That Maya city set with seven hundred extras, each decked in their own unique traditional facial markings and piercings. This film did win Academy Awards for the makeup and costumes, and that did happen for a reason.

So forget historical accuracy for a second. And forget Mel Gibson’s horrendous personal track record. This film—Apocalypto—did something that’s never been done before. It cast a set of unknown, indigenous actors in a film spoken entirely in Yucatec Maya to recreate a civilization that no one ever thinks to portray on the big screen and to tell a story that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Let’s just appreciate that for a second. I know I certainly have.

Apocalypto is a fully immersive experience, dunking the viewer in a multitude of glorious visuals, hair-raising scenes, and filling them with the emotional, familial plights of pre-Columbian Mexicans. While by no means perfect historically, Apocalypto challenges cinematic representations of Mesoamerican peoples and (in my opinion) triumphs as it portrays them in all their humanity, both beautiful and terrible.

Do check out the trailer before you depart! 😉

This is a film that’s difficult to forget.

Have you seen Apocalypto? Do you want to after reading this? Do share your thoughts below!

Emily 🙂

Nota bene: to the younger readers of my blog, please note that Apocalypto is rated R for gore (it’s honestly a very explicitly bloody film), non-sexual tribal nudity, and implied sex (including off-screen implied rape at one point). In this post I’m merely applauding the cinematic devices and storytelling, not necessarily the “family friendliness.” I’d be happy to answer any questions if you’re interested in checking out Apocalypto for yourselves. 🙂

5 thoughts on “Beautiful and Terrible: I Need to Talk About Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto

  1. This sounds so interesting! I don’t know that it’s a movie I’ll see anytime soon–especially since it looks like something that would frighten my mom to no end, haha. BUT I love your perspective on it as a Mexican academic!

  2. It’s one of my favorite films ever and I couldn’t agree more with your interpretation of its fairness towards the Maya. The small village in the beginning feels like an ideal, and it had to be intended as such, there is no reason for such a brutal, upsetting destruction of it otherwise. I can’t believe some people think the Spanish at the end are some sort of pro-colonial message. It just represents an irreparable break from the past, and it’s exactly what the William Durant quote at the beginning alludes to. Paraphrasing “you can’t be destroyed by others until you destroy yourselves” — that is the outline to the story, and the reason the ending had to be tragic. The destruction of the village by the warriors is the severance from the past that Jaguar Paw wants to undo, and very clearly believes he can undo if he rescues his family and begins anew. But he can’t ever go back, the Mayan life he enjoyed died with the village and despite how important his story feels, it really never mattered whether he lived or died, whether any spiritual intervention saved him, because the people have lost their way, and an powerful force is destined to arrive and take advantage.

    1. Hi Belisarius,
      I’m so glad you enjoyed this post! I mean, this is one of my all-time favorite films, and it feels like such a crime that it’s been so poorly interpreted by touchy critics. But I couldn’t agree with you more. The ending had to be tragic because of the overarching theme of self-corruption. Gibson even commented that he wanted the city Maya to sort of parallel the U.S. politicians in Washington during the time, further reinforcing his message that corruption starts from within even though sometimes a catalyst comes from without. Internal corruption is what lays the groundwork and destabilizes a society, making it susceptible to outside forces. Scholars have said the same thing about the fall of the Roman Empire, and I don’t see why it can’t be said about the Maya either. Seeing it as a pro-colonial message misses the point, because the Spanish were just as corrupt as the Maya, only slightly more powerful and capable of taking advantage of their morally declining society. The ending is somber, not victorious by any means. I’m glad to find someone else who enjoys this film as much as I have! Also, thanks for subscribing! Hope you enjoy future posts. 🙂

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