Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto
How accurate is the cinematic fantasy, Apocalypto, a film by Mel Gibson that presents his version of the end of Mayan civilization? Scholars on the Maya and other Mesoamerican civilizations are not holding their breath. Despite the Hollywood movie’s dazzling look, the film contains numerous factual errors. If you want an accurate examination of Mayan civilization, there are many absorbing scholarly books on the topic written by experts, but if you don’t care about facts and will settle for an action adventure set in an exotic location – Apocalypto is for you.
Apocalypto presents the viewer with Gibson’s take on the fall of Mayan civilization, and he attributes this collapse to corrupt rulers desperate to hold on to power by any means. According to Gibson, Mayan elites used religion as a means to control and manipulate the people, and the film focuses on the director’s view that the practice of ritual human sacrifice – which the movie depicts as having been performed on a massive scale, was one of the primary reasons for the downfall of the Maya. That is what raises the eyebrows of archaeologists and scholars – since there is absolutely no evidence that the Maya practiced human sacrifice on a massive scale. Gibson’s contention reveals his religious bias, he sees the Maya as victims of a controlling religious cult – but sees his own religious dogma as “the one true faith.” The film’s official website even uses the tagline, “When the end comes, not everyone is ready to go”, which can also be construed as a clear reference to the end times and one’s acceptance of the Christian savior.
It is well understood by the scientific community that the Maya did conduct rituals involving blood as a supplication to their gods. In prayer, Mayan priests and political elites pierced their earlobes, tongues, lips and even genitals, offering the drawn blood to favored deities. Everyday worship also involved making prayers to agricultural gods and goddess, providing deities with offerings of food, flowers, and other forms of tribute. During special observances or events, individuals were sacrificed by priests who cut out the hearts of the victims – but this practice was limited and not conducted to the magnitude depicted in Gibson’s film. While Archaeologists agree that warfare played a major role in the life of Mayan Kingdoms, they also agree that Mayan religious practice played no significant role in the collapse of their civilization. Gibson’s assertion to the contrary is pure conjecture on his part – and further evidence of his own zealous religious beliefs.
The Walt Disney Co. is the distributor for Apocalypto, and they are investing big money into reshaping Gibson’s public image from and insensitive fool to a sensitive master film director. An aggressive promotional campaign for the movie began Thanksgiving evening, when Gibson appeared on the Disney owned ABC network with Diane Sawyer in an hour long special on the film. Sawyer abandoned the role of journalist to become one of Disney’s marketers – politely asking Gibson softball questions that would allow him to promote his film. At one point Gibson said the local amateur Mexican actors and stand-ins he worked with were ashamed to speak Mayan Yucatec (the film is being shot in Veracruz, Mexico), but then arrogantly proclaimed that he had “made the language cool again” – a supposed fact that inordinately pleased him. With an equally bigheaded attitude, Gibson explained that he taught the actors, many of them descendents of the ancient Maya – how to dance like their ancestors. Where Gibson was schooled in the art of ancient Maya dance and how he became an expert in the field remains a mystery.
Diane Sawyer’s co-host was John Quinones, who reported from the Maya heartland of Guatemala in a series of remarkably uninformative and misleading “special reports.” In one such commentary focusing on the squalor and poverty suffered by large numbers of Maya in Guatemala, Quinones actually said their misery was due to the “excesses of their ancestors.” That utterly despicable remark fits the imperialist pattern of blaming the oppressed for their own misery. Quinones’ reports did not mention the Spanish invader’s murder and plunder of the indigenous peoples that truly did take place on a massive scale, nor did it mention the indigenous being ravaged by small pox, venereal diseases, and other plagues introduced by the Spanish conquerors – afflictions that took the lives of hundreds of thousands. The entire legacy of a brutal colonial rule was ignored. In passing, Quinones did mention that in the 1980’s over 200,000 Maya were killed by the Guatemalan army during the nation’s bloody counterinsurgency war, but he didn’t mention the U.S. arming, financing and training of the Guatemalan army. At any rate, his mention of the massive number of deaths that occurred during the genocidal war of the 1980’s was simply a footnote, as if it had little significance to the Maya and their way of life.
The Walt Disney Co. has intentionally aimed Apocalypto at Latinos. Disney spokesman Dennis Rice said: “We think this movie plays to a wide audience and that there’s going to be a tremendous amount of interest generated from the Latino community, especially the Mexican community, because this is a story about their ancestors.” The elite sector of Latino politicians and businessmen in Los Angeles have been invited to advance screenings, including L.A.’s Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The omnipresent Chicano actor, Edward James Olmos, attended a screening, and gave the film a good review.