Everything Wrong With Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto : An Archaeological Standpoint

In 2006, actor turned filmmaker Mel Gibson revealed to the world his latest film project, Apocalypto.  As Gibson describes it in the film’s extra features, it is a story “set in the last days of the Mayan Empire of one man’s heroic struggle to save his family” (Apocalypto Film Promo 2007).  While the film received widespread success from critics and audiences alike, many historians, archaeologists and Mayanists have found themselves unhappy, and in some instances appalled by Gibson and his crew’s projection of prehistoric Maya culture.  David Friedel, an archaeologist with expansive knowledge of the Maya civilization describes the film as “violently grotesque work, crafted with devotion to detail but with disdain for historical coherence or substance” (Friedel 2007: 36).  In this post, I wish to address several of the elements of the film found to be objectionable and/or inaccurate.  This will be followed by an assessment as to why these inaccuracies are so concerning. Lastly the paper will raise ideas of how the film could be fixed to address concerns of archaeologists and other scholars if a remake was filmed, while still appealing to a general public.  Overall, I aim to make the argument that Apocalypto embodies the problems of modernity and particularly ethnocentrism that historians and archaeological interpreters face in re-constructing the past.

            It seems right to begin by acknowledging some of the film’s elements that scholars found so objectionable.  Arguably the two biggest problems, which are to be addressed, are the ideas that the film mashes various periods of Mayan history together into one moment of time, as well as the issue of wild exaggeration of cultural elements.  Perhaps to try and show the audience as much about the Mayans as possible, the film strangely mashes together the “Classic Maya” period with a time period just days before the arrival of the Spaniards, that as Friedel puts it, are “as distinct as the periods of the Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution” (Friedel 2007: 39).  The movie details a period of agricultural failure and extreme food scarcity created thanks to a decreasing amount of rainfall, extremely descriptive of the Classic Mayan civilization of 250-950 C.E. (Lucero 2002: 814, 820).  And yet, as Gibson himself described in the passage above, as well as what the film’s final few minutes reveal (which will be discussed in more depth later), the film is intended to take place in the 15th century at the dawn of Christopher Columbus’ arrival.  The mashing together of cultural elements does not end at time periods however, and extends into the architecture seen in the film.  The central Mayan city shown in the film at about the half way point seems to copy and paste from multiple periods  and areas to create a computer generated image of what a ‘definitive Mayan city’ should have looked like (Freidel 2007: 39).

            The second of the large objections scholars have towards the film comes from the wild exaggerations it depicts in cases of social inequality and violence.  During the main character Jaguar Paw and his fellow captive village members’ journey across the state, they pass by multitudes of vastly different structured villages and settlements, spanning from their own peaceful area in a dense forest containing humble wooden huts for shelter, to the hulking city at the end of their journey with massive architecture, entirely different dressing styles (large gaping earrings, skull helmets, nose rings, etc.) from anything like the initial village, and a fixation on murder and bloodlust.  This has lead many to question how one Maya settlement could live in total peace as egalitarians while another portion of the population is in a murderous, bloody hierarchy (Walsh 2006). While differing tiers of social life were certainly true, archaeological revelations have shown no evidence of inequality of this scale.  Further, sufficient evidence has been excavated to show a “prosperous middle class” that existed, not just savages and kings as the movie might suggest (Friedel 2007: 38).

            Another, perhaps even more objectionable exaggeration the movie illustrates is that of violence.  The film often portrays almost all of the Mayans excluding Jaguar Paw’s village as sadistic blood thirsty killers, from the moment Jaguar Paw’s village is raided, to the scene where the Maya King’s executioner decapitates a man before throwing his head down a flight of stairs while being cheered on vigorously by a crowd of villagers (in this scene we also see a pile at least two metres high of decapitated bodies).  Many scholars insist that the type of savage killing shown in Apocalypto were completely foreign to the Mayans living in the 15th century, and that mass sacrifice could only be interpreted as perhaps occurring in certain rare instances throughout the entire Maya history (Friedel 2007: 40), with the notion of Mayans as sacrificial killers mostly deriving from post-15th century questionable ethnographic research (Montijo 1993:14).   Yet humorously, upon being asked about the true level of Mayan violence during this period, Gibson insists the culture was even more violent than he had chose to depict (Loder 2006).  In these examples, it is clear why the fairly large exaggeration of violence and inequality as well as the mixing together of various time periods and areas to create a sort of “hodge-podge of Maya-ness” are two, among many, of the large objections scholars had to this film’s portrayal of the past.

            With these objectionable elements of Apocalypto in mind, one can start to assess why it is that archaeologists and historians feel these problems are such an issue.  After all, critics and audiences seemed to enjoy their viewing experience without concerning themselves with this issue, and many individuals might insist that Friedel and other scholars enraged by the film need to acknowledge this sort of movie is created for entertainment alone (Gatliff 2007: 8).  But many might argue the problem is the fact that the film doesn’t truly aim to be “entertainment alone”, especially given the fact Mayanist historian Richard Hansen was brought on to the film’s crew as a historical consultant, and even stated in an interview the film is “a wonderful opportunity to focus world attention on the ancient Maya” (Hansen 2007: 16).  This clearly defeats the argument that the film is meant as thoughtless entertainment when a historical/ archaeological consultant is hired, and even worse, when he essentially insists in an interview that this movie can be used as a teaching method.

            Indeed, it seems that the film’s creators are unsure at times if Apocalypto is meant to be historically accurate, seeming as though Gibson and his crew only needed the Maya history as a back drop to fulfil their creative vision/ allegory.  As Gibson has explained in several appearances, the idea for the film came from a “desire to create an exciting and sensational chase scene” (Walsh 2006).  But as Friedel so perfectly states in his article Betraying the Maya, “Allegory and artistic freedom are all well and good, except when they slanderously misrepresent an entire civilization” (Friedel 2007: 36).  Perhaps if the film’s true goal was to simply create a fast paced chase scene they could have invented a fictional civilization, or if Gibson wanted to express his profound realizations of human violence, he could have perchance used a civilization that actually had a true bloody history as his backdrop.  In a single statement, the reason why it is just to concern oneself with the inaccuracies of the film and not simply play it off as either mindless entertainment or even worse; the truth of prehistoric Mayan culture, is because whether it intends to or not, it teaches the audience something that is simply not true.

            Finally, with all the evidence gathered, one might conceive a few ideas of how to address the concerns of scholars if a hypothetical remake of Apocalypto were to be made.  One element of the film that needs to be addressed in the film to appease scholars is to rely less on modern storytelling ideals and cliches. For instance, early in the film, the archetypal “goofball” villager is victim to a prank by his friends, before being heckled by his mother in law who thinks his wife is too good for him since they have problems conceiving a child.  These characters are not indicative of 15th century Maya relations, but rather indicative of Hollywood and modern storytelling.  During the captive villagers’ travel across the land, they find a spooky little girl who frightens them by predicting end times for them and their own civilization.  This as well, a scary little girl, isn’t something that derives from Maya folk lore or any archaeological evidence I know of, but rather from Hollywood horror movie traditions.  While this of course might risk losing the broad appeal of general audiences looking for a fun film, removing these elements is a large step towards appeasing scholars, as any one looking into the past must understand that past cultures don’t always share the same values, traditions, and social structure that we do in the modern age.

            I believe this issue of modernity goes beyond the two character “Hollywood cliches” mentioned above and can be interpreted as a much larger threat to understanding the past.  On the special feature look on the home video edition of Apocalypto, within a thirty second time frame, Gibson goes from addressing the Mayans as one of the most advanced civilization to ever exist, to then describing their culture in his film by saying “It’s really primitive…it’s primal” (Apocalypto Film Promo 2007).  Here the filmmaker is displaying a way in which we can misinterpret a past culture through comparing it to our own culture, seeing it as nothing more than primitive in comparison to our own modern society.  Further, when Gibson was asked about how he directed the  Mayan executioner on the pyramid top about half way through the film, the filmmaker said he told the actor to act like Mussolini, Hitler, or Stalin would have, to draw up an image of an evil speaker (Loder 2006).  Here again I believe Gibson runs the risk of distorting historical accuracy by drawing imagery from events and individuals that would not have existed for another 500 years.  While it most likely was done unintentionally, insisting the depiction of a character be more like the type of characters that didn’t yet exist is a step in the wrong direction for creating an accurate film.  Perhaps in a hypothetical remake the filmmakers could rely more heavily on archaeological remains depicting hierarchy to give actors their motivation.
Lastly, on the subject of what the filmmakers could do differently in a remake to be more accurate (and yet still retain an audience), I will refer to the final scenes of the film, which I have chosen to save for last for this topic.  In the final scenes, after escaping death from the sadistic city Mayans, Jaguar Paw is being chased by three of them through the forest when he ends up on a beach with nowhere left to run and collapses on shore.  In an outcome suspiciously similar to William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies, the savages pause right before killing Jaguar Paw and look up to see men on ships riding towards the shore.  In this moment the viewer sees that the men on ships ride towards Jaguar Paw in heroic and straight postures, carrying large staffs with crosses on them,  saving Jaguar Paw’s life in what can only be described as one of film history’s largest moments of Christian propaganda.  This to me is the largest instance that needs to be changed if a remake ever existed, as even in ignoring all the historical inaccuracies depicted in the previous scenes, a film that at its core is about a prehistoric culture quickly became one about how Europeans and Christianity saved the Mayans from themselves.  The idea of modernity spoken of above unfortunately but imminently comes along with ideas of ethnocentrism that plague modern society’s understanding of the past. Returning to the notion that this ending parallels that of Lord of the Flies, where cannibalistic children are about to kill one of their friends on the shore of a beach are stopped upon the arrival of adults on a boat (Golding 1954: 248), one can make the argument that the film is inferring the Mayans to be like the children who are savages without the Christian, European “adults”.  It is clear through this act that the filmmakers were crafting their story with a modern and ethnocentric eye as it certainly implies that the more modern religion and cultures, portrayed as the Jaguar Paw’s saviours, are above this civilization (this idea isn’t especially difficult to believe given director Mel Gibson’s stance as a devout Christian).  This is something that can easily (and desperately) needs to be taken out of the hypothetical remake which would no doubt appease scholars without taking away the viewing experience for general audiences, as I doubt that the average moviegoer would be outraged that Jaguar Paw survived his ordeal without the help of Spaniards.

            To conclude then, I reaffirm that Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto embodies those elements that archaeologists must be wary of when trying to interpret the past: modernity and ethnocentrism, which in some cases such as this they might intertwine.  What is striking is that such a large premise of ethics in archaeology (as well as in many political and philosophical doctrines) is acknowledging that no civilization or individual is fundamentally greater than another, and yet the ending of the film seems to be painting Christianity and Europeans in a higher light as the main protagonist absolutely would have failed to save himself and his family had the Conquistadors not arrived and scared the hunters away.  Of course, by no means does this paper aim to state Mel Gibson’s film is alone in misinterpreting the past, as misinterpretations of cultures based on the examiners’ ethnocentricity have been plaguing interpretation of prehistory for hundreds of years. As early as 1567, the Mayans of Yukatan sent a letter of protest to their Spanish authorities, declaring things such as insisting any acts of sacrificing were never committed during their history before Spanish arrival, and more disturbingly, that the Yukatan people believe any insistence that they have sacrificed humans was a lie the Spanish created to justify and fuel their cruelty towards them(Montijo 1991: 14).  If there are to be any hopes of achieving a new level of historical accuracy in archaeological interpretation, those who excavate must let go of notions of modernity and ethnocentrism to avoid outcomes similar to those produced in Gibson’s 2006 critically acclaimed action-drama.


Apocalypto Film Promo
2007       Apocalypto Film Promo (Blu Ray Extra’s Cut). Touchstone Home                                        Entertainment.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pot9f4EGHhw

Friedel, David
2007       Betraying the Maya. Archaeology, Vol. 60, No. 2, Published by                                             Archaeological Institute of America

Gatliff, George
2007       Defending Hollywood. Archaeology, Vol. 60 No. 3, Published by
Archaeological Institute of America

Golding, William
1954      Lord of the Flies.  London, Published by Faber and Faber.

Hansen, Richard
2007    Mel Gibson’s Maya. Archaeology, Vol. 60, No 1, Published by
Archaeological Institute of America

Loder, Kurt
2006   Mel Gibson Tells Some Brutal Truths About The Amazing                                         ‘Apocalypto’.  MTV.com, Viacom International Inc.                                                    http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1548104/mel-gibson-tells-kurt-loder-brutal-   truth.jhtml

Lucero, Lisa
2002     The Collapse of the Classic Maya: A Case for the Role of Water
American Anthropologist Vol. 104, No.3, Published by Wiley on behalf
of American Anthropological Association

Middleton, Guy

            2012     Nothing Lasts Forever: Environmental Discourses on the Collapse of                                 Past Societies. Journal of Archaeological Research Vol 20. No. 3,                                        Published by  Springer Science Business Media LLC.

Montijo, Victor
1991    In the Name of the Pot, the Sun, the Broken Spear, the Rock, the Stick, the                                    Idol, Ad Infinitum & Ad Nauseum: An Expose of Anglo Anthropologists                          Obsessions with and Invention of Mayan Gods. Wicazo Sa Review, Vol 9,                     No.1. Published by University of Minnesota Press

Walsh, David
2006   Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto: A Painful Experience. World Socialist Web Site,             Published by the International Committee of the Fourth International.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s