Theory Teacher's Blog

Reading Apocalypto

Last night I forced myself to see Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. As a specialist in the colonial period of American literature, I feel obligated to pay attention to Hollywood’s many renditions of that time period — from Pocahontas and The New World to The Crucible, The Patriot, and even National Treasure. Sometimes they are better than I expect them to be (as in the case of New World) and sometimes they are worse (as in 1996 version of The Crucible.) Of course, they always get their history wrong, but as a teacher, my hope is that Hollywood’s misrepresentations of history might at the very least be useful by giving me something to talk about in class. Interestingly, like me, Mel Gibson also seems also to have a special interest in the colonial period, since he was the voice of John Smith in the Disney version of Pocahontas, the patriot in The Patriot, and the producer of Apocalypto. I avoided Apocalypto after it came out in 2005 because I had heard terrible things about it, but I was finally compelled to see for myself. This is a hard movie for me to talk about, in part because the film reviews I’ve read seem to have covered almost everything I might say. So, what I’d like to do in this blog is move through a series of questions in order to consider several different ways of reading the movie.

First, one simple and obvious question is how historically accurate is the movie? As many scholars immediately pointed out, Apocalypto gets its history very, very wrong. The list of errors is far too long for me to recount in my little blog, and a few film critics [here] and [here] and a few anthropologists [here] and [here] have already thoroughly done so at length anyway. The most bizarre error is that actually the Mayan Empire began to shrink in the 9th century, but Gibson has them collapsing five hundred years later, at the moment Columbus discovers America. Also, the Maya were known for their extensive agriculture and complex social organization, but the film only shows us hunters in a jungle. The Mayan Empire is also well-known to have been one of the most culturally, technologically, and economically advanced civilizations in the world at that time, but Gibson’s movie presents them as sadistic, superstitious, and insane. One could excuse Gibson by saying this was just a movie, but in the special features of the DVD he claims he tried to make his movie as “real” and “true” as possible, and he even hired specialists and experts in Mayan history to help him with the many various details. Gibson’s attention to historical accuracy make all the glaring inaccuracies stand out. It is not enough for us to simply dismiss these errors as simple mistakes or as necessary for an exciting plot. If he misrepresented history, he did it deliberately. But why would he do that?

So, a more interesting question than the film’s accuracy is another question: was Gibson ideologically motivated, and what might his motivation be?

Many Native Americans were very angry at the film and accused Gibson of racism and of deliberately misrepresenting their culture. See, for instance, [here] and [here]. Beyond simple racism, others have argued that the movie seems to excuse European colonization. This criticism of the movie is based on its beginning and ending. The movie opens with the quote “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within,” and it ends with the arrival of Columbus, whose arrival the hero of the movie heralds as a “new beginning.” (In fact, the word apocalypto means “new beginning” in Greek, and this new beginning is symbolized in the movie by the birth of his son and baptismal water.) In other words, the movie seems to suggest that the arrival of the Spanish would be good for the Native Americans who suffered under a brutal and corrupt Mayan Empire. Of course, anyone who’s ever read a history book knows that the opposite was true and that the Spanish committed acts of genocide, slavery, murder, rape, and torture (often in the name of Jesus Christ) on a scale far, far worse.

In addition, one can make allegorical comparisons between the movie and the present moment. In 2005 when the movie came out, the United States was in the middle of conquering Iraq (also an ancient civilization like the Maya), and by analogy, one might compare the way Iraq was being represented in the mainstream media to the way the Mayan culture was being represented in Gibson’s movie. President George Bush II’s argument for going to war, after all, was precisely that the United States was liberating the Iraqis from a brutal, sadistic regime.

Of course, one of the interesting things about movies is that their ideological meaning is never fixed or determinate, since one could just as easily decide instead to compare the United States to the corrupt Mayan empire that constantly attacked and brutalized its smaller neighbors. If read this way, the message of the movie might seem to be that the United States ought not go the way of the Mayan empire. And in fact, Gibson did publicly state his opposition to Bush’s war in Iraq by explicitly comparing Bush’s behavior to the brutal Mayan regime in his movie. (See [here].)

So, if the movie can be read in opposite directions in relation to the Iraq War, it would appear that ideology is less clear than we may have initially thought. Stories and films can move audiences in different ways depending on the audience’s expectations and the stylistic elements of the film. And this leads me to a third question.

My third question is whether form and style have any relationship to ideology. Defenders of the movie (including Quentin Tarantino) — see [here] and [here] —  argue that the ideological content of the movie is less important than its cinematic style and technical innovation. But it seems to me that the artistic form is all too simple. The form is basically bad guys against good guys: act one being the attack, act two being the sacrifice, and act three being the escape and chase. To make this plot work, the Maya are characterized as irrationally and insanely brutal, and many of their actions are so disgusting and excessive that they don’t even make any sense as an expression or strategy of imperial domination. In contrast, the good guys are represented as relatively innocent and childlike. The bad guys are all bad, the good guys all good, and never do they ever have a conversation. Moreover, apparently, they had never had any cultural or commercial interaction before the attack — an aspect of the plot that makes no sense considering the size and proximity of the Mayan empire to this small tribe. How could the small tribe not be aware of the empire just up the river? The style follows from the form. This is quite possibly one of the most brutal and sadistic movies I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot), with almost two solid hours straight of graphic, pointless, and stomach-churning violence. I was barely able to sit through it, I found it so disgusting and offensive.

It is important to think about this non-stop violence as an essential characteristic of the movie, because it is possible to imagine a different kind of story. Consider how American and European cinema tends to represent its own empires. For instance, the drama Rome that showed on BBC and on HBO from 2005 to 2007 (about the same time as Apocalypto) and is also about the corruption of an empire. But in this show, we see a very elaborate and complex political organization with a variety of characters who may do bad things but are all understandable as human characters. In contrast to the characters in Rome, the Maya in Apocalypto are totally inhuman and have no personality other than pure cruelty. Thus, the form and style of the movie Apocalypto contribute to the racist ideology of the content. Point being that we can imagine revising the form and style of the movie to be more realistic and human, and in so doing the ideology would in effect also change. Form and style matter just as much as content.

OK, so far, I’ve criticized the movie pretty harshly. To be honest, it’s hard for me to find anything redeeming about it, but I’m going to try. What if we read the movie a different way? There are other ways this movie connects with its audience. For example, this is probably the first movie ever made entirely in the Mayan language, which is really cool and which is why some were excited about its production (see [here]). And gradually, the movie encourages the audience to identify with the Indian Jaguar Paw. And indeed, over the course of the movie, he becomes more and more likeable and cool. This is an interesting aspect, especially if we compare Apocalypto to the movie Avatar. Both movies are about empires destroying innocent nature people (and in both movies, the innocent victims are painted blue, LOL), but in Avatar the main character whom we identify with is an Anglo-Saxon American. (And you can read my analysis of Avatar [here].)

Along these lines, even though Apocalypto seems to its critics to ideologically present a justification for Spanish colonization, it also does something else — we in the audience feel some nostalgia and longing for the Native American way of life before they were attacked by the Mayan Empire. We have no emotional attachment to the ships of Columbus that we see at the end, and neither does Jaguar Paw, who turns away from them. (This concluding moment has actually confused some critics who assumed Gibson was making a pro-Catholic propaganda film and wonder why Jaguar Paw doesn’t embrace European Christianity at the end. See this rather strange Time Magazine article, “What Has Mel Gibson Got Against the Church?“) Jaguar Paw’s turning away from Columbus at the end suggests that Gibson’s real desire is something of a fantasy — a desire for innocence and purity in the context of a brutal and complicated world.

And so, in conclusion… I don’t know….

December 9, 2010 - Posted by | movies

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