Interviews & Editorials / Mel Gibson's Apocalypto

Mel Gibson's Apocalypto

Mel Gibson's Apocalypto

11 December 2006 Interviews & Editorials 26

As fellow gringos, we are more than a little abashed by Mel Gibson’s latest film, Apocalypto. We have spent the last few years studying Mayan and Mexican history (perhaps more than most gringos study their own history), but it would have taken Mel’s people only a few days to learn that his movie’s portrayal of 16th century Yucatan Mayan culture is, frankly, stupid.

Let’s say the Mexican film industry, which has produced a large and interesting filmography over the years, occasionally released a period drama depicting historic events in the United States with the same cavalier approach. Let’s say the Mexicans didn’t give a tapir’s ass how they portrayed U.S. history as long as the film “stayed true to their vision” and made a buck.

They could do an American Revolution film. The main character, of course, would be George Washington, a swashbuckling Scott with a thick accent who leads the rebellious Swedes to defend Minneapolis against an oppressive society of Quakers. Side plots would include the invention of braille by a blind Thomas Jefferson and the development of a secret nuclear weapon by a bohemian Benjamin Franklin whose preference for absinth leads him to write Song of Myself, the new National Anthem.

We have a feeling that most U.S. citizens might be a tad put out, perhaps even miffed. Heck, there would probably be disparaging editorials in all the major papers and a congressman or two calling for trade sanctions. Certainly, Bill O’Reilly would have something insightful to say about it.

Meanwhile, here in Yucatan, there is a teenage Mayan girl who will not speak the Yucatec Mayan language with her parents because it makes her feel like a hick. When Apocalypto is released, she will see it at the mall with all of her friends, who feel the same way. They will witness the “evil” culture of their ancestors on the big screen for the first time. How will that make them feel, we wonder? Ignorant? Confused?


Dios bo’otik, Mr. Gibson.

For further reading:

Apocalypto Tortures the Facts, Expert Say – National Geographic

Passion of the Maya – Times Union

Apocalypto Does Disservice to its Subject – San Francisco Chronicle

Is Apocalypto Pornography? – Archaeology Institute of America

Maya in the Thunderdome –

Whose Apocalypto? – New America Media

Apocalypto is Upon Us – Indian Country Today


  • geoffrey ellis aronson 13 years ago

    I´ve seen this movie too many times. It´s a wild adventure story, a concocted mixture of pseudo documentary and Indiana Jones. The fused genres don´t work as the story itself is so implausible that it defeats its primary origin, its documentary roots.
    Creating darts on the spur of the moment while being chased by the enemy was the ultimate absurdity. The hero of the film grabs a rain forest frog known for the venom on its skin, rubs it on a dart, rolls a palm frond from nearby and blows it at one of the passing enemies. Even Spielberg himself would not brazenly suspend belief over such an impossibility. Earlier, the hero had escaped his fate at getting his heart ripped out by the high priestess but is given a chance to run off by escaping thrown javelins from the bad guys. He gets hit badly in the leg, but manages to run through the jungle for the rest of the film at high speed. Yeah, very likely. Why not just turn this film into a cartoon and be done with it.

  • remthealamo 15 years ago

    I enjoyed the movie for at least showing much of the iconography and symbolism even as it was a mixture of aztec, maya and toltec. The jade worn by the high priests and the severely damaged forests used to constantly maintain structures was particularly meaningful as were the sores on the little girl's body and face which made me think of the west mexican pottery of the shaft tombs (nayarit, colima, jalisco) that often represented bodily sores in their pieces. I was disappointed that they did not attempt to use 'juego de pelota' or Pok Ta Pok.

  • sky 15 years ago

    Here´s a commentary by Nikolai Grube and others:

    It's a bit more than just "historical innacuracy [sic]"

  • Johnette 15 years ago

    I just watched the movie... For the record i am white...

    I thought some of the indians were just cruel. vicious. and historically, i bet some were BUT

    I thought the main characters representation was just as valid. He was a kind soul that his "non violent" indian peers mercilessly ridiculed. this happens in every society. It is not racist.. it is just really showing a side of human nature that is contemteble. i am physsically disabled and have been threatened physically, emotionally degraded. it is not any different in any race, some people are just plain asses. I think he probably would have more people standing up for him than one person though.. i mean a whole village gave him crud except ONE PERSON? No....

    I didn't take it as the Spaniards coming to rescue the Mayans.. Come on.. again I am a white girl... The rescuers raped and pillaged and threw you out of your own land...They are not the nice guys.. they went down in history as doing it for religious reasons but they weren't...

    Anywho, just my thoughts. I know the historical innacuracy burns you. I thought though the main character was just as strong a character of indians as the others..

  • Cuba1902 15 years ago

    I thought the movie Apocalypto was excellent! Loved every minute of it. This movie was one of Mel Gibson's better movies he has made along with Passion of the Christ. I don't think he left a detail out which is how all movies should be made. This production took some time to create and his direction was great! Keep it up Mel and bring more movies like this to the screen!

  • Karen Ferguson 16 years ago

    There was something about this movie that I knew intuitively was off. Thanks for the run down. I don't need *wrong* information before I start studying my Yucatan history on top of my Mexican history.
    Casi...thanks for the tip..I'm going to pick up Sliced Iguanas this week-end. I need something entertaining to read and it sounds relishing.

    Hasta Pronto and can't wait to return.

  • Working Gringos 16 years ago


    The Maya in Gibson's movie weren't "ancient". They were 16th century Maya - a mercantile society 500 years beyond events portrayed in the film. The first time evidence of the ritualistic sacrifices portrayed in the film were encountered by the Spanish invaders was on an island off Vera Cruz, which was not Maya, but Toltec. In fact, there is no historical evidence that these practices were ever Maya. They were imported to Yucatan by the Tolec during the so-called Classic Era.

    But that's really only a small part of the "insult to our intelligence" that disappoints us about Gibson's film. There are so many disconnects, it simply isn't something we can watch with a straight face. Imagine how put off Harry Potter fans would be if they left out Hogwarts or Dumbledore...

    Anyway, it really does help to read the Spanish histories instead of the Occidental theories in this regard. Most of the early archiologists' findings have been discounted, but unfortunately, their writings (and imaginations) live on...

    If there's any reason to deplore a "whitewash" of history, let's start with what the schools teach our children about U.S. history.

  • Grant 16 years ago

    Early mayan scholars (I'm thinking of Morley) tended to see the Maya as a pacific society of calendar-priests whose religion centered on the mathematical description of the stately progress of heavenly bodies. When later scholars (following Knosorov, Proskouriakoff, Coe) were able to better translate the remaining texts, it turned out that the Maya were at least as militaristic and bloodthirsty as most other widespread historical cultures. Their religion centered on propitiating the gods with human sacrifices.

    The ancient Assyrians maintained an empire based on violence and warfare, but we don't feel the need to blame or defend them, and no one connects their oppressive empire with their modern decendants in the middle east. They are so remote to us that we can deal with them without cloud of emotion. So with the Maya, we would do well to try to understand terror and glory of the ancient Maya clearly, without fearing that our assessment of them will reflect on their modern descendants.

    Every historical work involves interpretation and error. If Gibson's movie had been about the Assyrians, nobody would be worked up. Any errors of fact or character would have been a matter of academic dispute.

    It should make no difference that Apocalypto is about ancient Maya instead of Assyrians. It is about people and a culture dead for over 500 years. It reflects on the modern Maya no more than the Assyrians' deportation of the lost tribes of ancient Israel reflects on modern Iraqis and Syrians.

    Finally, if Gibson dwelt on the ancient Mayas' violent and unsympathetic elements, we should at least be glad that he didn't do yet another tiresome 'Dances with Wolves'-style whitewash. The ancient Maya deserve a clear, accurate presentation, free from taint of either eurocentric prejudice or modern considerations of political correctness.

  • Richard Pozzuto 16 years ago

    I loved Apocalypto. I found the sets, costumes and depictions of the Maya captivating. How the author of this article believes there was anything shameworthy taking place only reveals the author's own shame pictures about pre industrial cultures. Catholics eat body and drink blood every Sunday. So there were variations with the Mayan gods. Nothing we are today or in the past ever warrants shame.

  • Scotty 16 years ago

    Haven't seen the movie, but I read the UT prof's statements and man, talk about nitpicking meaningless stuff. I think Gibson ought to be commended for the things he got right about the Maya, even if his chronology was off.

    After all, how many times has Hollywood attempted to depict Mesoamerica on the big screen?

    I credit him for using the Maya language. As for the violence, the fact is mesoamerica was an extraordinarily violent place, of that there can be no doubt. I'll put it this way -- the violence was so bad it appalled the Spaniards, a bloodthirsty crew in its own right.

    Agreed, too, however, that it sounds like the film left out all the amazing accomplishments of the Maya, but let's remember, this is a Hollywood thriller.

    BTW, love this site!

  • Nilsa Delgado 16 years ago

    I understand why people would get offended by this film. If I were to look at it from a depiction of a culture's historical background, yes I would be offended. Film is art. Not everyone that attempts to make a film based on historical truth is going to make it 100% accurate. Not even our history books are 100% accurate, not even the bible. You cannot critisize this man so harshly for trying. It was a movie. I was entertained by it and thought that it was well made regardless of its inaccurate portrayal. People aren't going to go by this film to study Mayan history. Relax, folks.

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