Old-School Movie Review: ‘Apocalypto’ (2006)

Old-School Movie Reviews are reviews written for films 10 years or older.

Apocalypto is a film which serves as a modern hollywood depiction of ancient Mesoamerican civilization. This film is well produced; providing colorful scenery, wardrobe unique to the Mayan time period, and action scenes designed to keep the audience locked to the screen. The Hollywood production of the film is top of the line, but the historical representation of what the life in ancient Mesoamerica is like can and has been called into question. There few similarities that this movie shares with the historical representation of ancient Mayan life. The clothing and body modification of  the actors and actresses, as well as their cultural hierarchy are two similarities that can be drawn between fact and fiction. However, the strong emphasis on violence and sadism, depiction of ancient Maya as slave culture, and general perception of the Maya as uncivilized are historically inaccurate. These inaccuracies do a disservice to anybody who intended to watch the film with the purpose of understanding this ancient culture.
The clothing worn by the actors and actresses in this film are accurate. The clothing of the ancient Maya are often historically described as loose and sparse. Men and women both wore simple loincloths were used to cover their lower extremities. Not much was used to cover the upper body either; both men and women were content to walk around bare-chested. These clothing habits were almost necessary to help regulate body temperature while living in the dense jungle.

The materials used for clothing in the movie is also an accurate depiction of historical evidence. Maya clothing is recorded to have been made using fibrous material such as tree bark and hemp. These materials would be harvested then made into clothes using knotting techniques. Another alternative form of clothing is animal hide and bones. The fur of hunter animals could be cleaned and used for basic clothing, or to be used as a status symbol. For example, jaguar hides could be worn by ranked individuals or warriors. The commander of the group who raided Jaguar Paw’s village in Apocalypto dawned human and animal bones and claws to show his distinction as an officer.

Maya jewelry and headwear could be fashioned in a multitude of ways. Often, jewels like rubies could be fastened to rope and worn as a necklace. Neck jewelry could also include shells and jade, as well as other material that shines or has significant meaning. Body modification is a common part of Mayan jewelry. Piercings of the nose, mouth, ears and almost all other facial areas are present in this movie and accurately show how the Maya could have decorated themselves. Other body modification techniques like tattooing and  artistic scarring of the face and body are also historically accurate. Headwear was a good indicator of the social status that an individual holds in Maya society. During the Mayan city scenes of Apocalypto, those living in squalor possessed no headwear while those who acted as priests, executioner, and soldiers wore headgear that seemed specific to their duties. Headwear was fashioned from a number of different materials, including wood, feathers, stone, and animal hides.

Though the look of the film (as far as the presentation of wardrobe) can be historically accurate, the story of the film seems to be doctored to fit a narrative which probably would have rarely happened, if ever. The film is heavily reliant on violence and gore to satisfy the visceral appeal hollywood movie-goers expect. These inaccuracies appeal to a Hollywood crowd, but have been harshly criticized by those who appreciate the true culture of the Maya people.

The film Apocalypto presented the Maya people as one bent on destruction and violence. The opening scene shows Mayan hunters tracking and killing a tapir in one of the more gruesome ways imaginable. Though the impalement of this animal might have been plausible, the movie continually upped the ante by directing the violence towards human beings. A village raid showed innocents being slaughtered, followed by the evisceration and beheading of captives, which was then followed by the killing of captives for sport. This series of events was provided a constant theme of senseless violence. This portrayal of Mayans as having an insatiable blood lust is far from the truth. Mayans had sophisticated city structures and were able to develop architectural wonders using their engineering skills. Eventually, the Mayans developed a written language and even told stories on relief stones using pictographs. This side of Maya culture was completely marginalized in the film Apocalypto. The only meaningful screen time given to the pyramids was overshadowed by decapitated bodies.

Apocalypto is an action film at heart with an ancient Maya skin. The timeline of the film follows the classic Hollywood flowchart; peaceful tranquility leading to conflict, which leads to the underdog antagonist overcoming all odds to eventually become triumphant. The inaccuracies in this film are not obvious to those who have no historical background about ancient Mesoamerica. These inaccuracies make the movie’s timeline move fluid and provide an element of action that an ordinary story wouldn’t. One can argue that the addition of senseless violence appeals to the viewing audience more than a historical recount of a Mayan man’s life would. A film that focused on historical accuracy, rather than entertainment, would almost have to  be presented as a documentary.

If I were given the role as director of this movie, I would not have focused on violence as much as Mel Gibson did. Gibson was convinced that the style of directing he decided to implement in this movie accurately highlighted the story of Jaguar Paw (the antagonist) through cinematic brutality. However, the visceral appeal of a film does not fully due justice to the true culture, life, and architectural brilliance of the Mayans. Gibson justified the amount of violence in this film by stating that the Mayan people existed during a brutal time in history, but the historical records show nothing of perpetual warring and slavery (a notion Gibson’s film alludes to).

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