Revisiting Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” and Exploitation of Mayan Civilization


I admit that when I first saw Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” in theaters, I thought it was visually stunning (see screen shot above) and incredibly entertaining.  A few days later, I remember pondering about why Mel Gibson wanted to tell a story about Mayan civilization, especially after making a deeply religious film, “The Passion of the Christ.”  Was Gibson simply looking for a fast-paced action/adventure story to tell (with typical Mel Gibson-style gore) or was he embedding a strong colonial and Eurocentric message (also with typical Mel Gibson-style gore)?

Perhaps he was looking to do both.

It would be wrong to accuse a devoutly religious person of any faith that their work will always contain either an implicit or explicit message that promotes the superiority of one group of people over another.  It would also be wrong to assume that just because Gibson is a traditionalist Catholic, he must then fit the stereotype of pro-war neoconservatives.  On the contrary, Gibson revealed in Time Magazine that the “fear-mongering we depict in this film reminds me a little of President Bush and his guys.”  However, given Gibson’s drunken anti-Semetic rant in 2006 and his inconsistent remarks about whether or not non-Catholics and non-Christians are worthy of salvation, I argue that there is more to “Apocalypto” than an edge-of-your-seat thriller.

The film opens with a quote by American historian Will Durant:  “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”  By the end of the film, if you keep this quote in mind, the implication seems to be that the Mayas were a brutal civilization that destroyed itself before the Spanish conquistadors invaded and “saved” the people.   These sentiments are echoed by anthropologist Traci Ardren, who writes that the Spanish invaders were Christian missionaries and that the film contains a “blatantly colonial message that the Mayas needed saving because they were ‘rotten at the core.'”  She adds:

[The film] replays, in glorious big-budget technicolor, an offensive and racist notion that Maya people were brutal to one another long before the arrival of Europeans and thus they deserved, in fact they needed, rescue. This same idea was used for 500 years to justify the subjugation of Maya people.

Since the subject of human sacrifice is sensationalized incredibly in high school (and even college) discourse about Mayan and Aztec cultures, it shouldn’t surprise viewers that the film highlights upon the brutal ritual.  Indeed, human sacrifice was practiced, but many scholars argue against the notion that 250,000 people would be sacrificed annually.  Scholars and historians alike argue that the Aztecs would inflate the number for propaganda purposes and to intimidate their enemies.  Julia Guernsey, an assistant professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas, writes:

We have accounts from the Aztecs of such things; it shows up in their mythology. And we have some images from the Maya that suggest that that kind of sacrifice did take place and that they probably did roll the bodies down (the pyramid). Now, the guys in the movie at the bottom catching the bodies with nets? That is crazy. We have no evidence for that. Another thing that was so funny was all that crazy, wild dancing with women’s breasts flapping. I was just reading hours before I saw the movie with you a 400-page textbook dedicated to Maya dance, and it talked about how women played no major public role in these ceremonies but much more subtle roles.

It’s no doubt that the world in which the Mayan characters inhabit looks like a very scary place.  Mel Gibson intended it to be that way and he is very good at disturbing the audience with demonic representations of the Maya.  We don’t see anything appreciative about Mayan civilization, but rather see a very primitive and barbaric society that simply enjoys hunting, beating, and killing other human beings.  In actuality, aside from technology, the Mayan civilization was more advanced than their European counterparts.  They excelled in mathematics, astronomy, art, architecture, and science.  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Brilliant Mayan artistic and scientific achievements in ceramics, sculpture, weaving, and painting, some of which were more advanced than European accomplishments of the same era, all showed remarkable artistic sensitivity. They developed an accurate calendar and complex systems of agricultural and water management.

Rather than enlightening us about these aspects of Mayan civilization, Gibson seems quite persistent in capturing the cruelty, horror, and “backwardness” in ancient civilization.  In fact, Gerardo Aldana argues in his brilliant piece, “Where Was the Maya Civilization in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto?” that much of the brutality depicted in the film was actually “borrowed” from the West.  He elaborates:

[T]he slave market depicted in the city constitutes a mirror image of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in the pre-Civil War United States. In that case, the “sellers” of African slaves were Europeans or European-Americans, dehumanizing other peoples by treating them as commodities. While slavery is documented for Maya cultures (and Greek and Roman, etc.), there is nothing that attests to their having been bought and/or sold in public market contexts.

Furthermore, Aldana adds that the raiding of villages for human sacrifice, as depicted in the film, is undocumented in Maya cultures and that the practice of placing decapitated heads on stakes came from “Cortes’s entra in Central Mexico, committed by Spanish conquistadors against their indigenous ‘enemies.'”

Hernan Cortes, as Aldana references, was a Spanish conquistador who brought an end to the Aztec Empire.  It’s interesting to note that the Aztec Emperor, Moctezuma II, feared that Cortes and his conquistadors were sent by the awaited feathered-serpent god, Quetzalcotal (who is thought to be Jesus, peace be upon him, by some Mormon scholars).  It’s disputed among historians whether or not Cortes learned about this prophecy and then claimed himself to be Quetzalcotal in order to take advantage of the Aztecs, but what’s not disputed is that Quetzalcotal was prophesied to be fair-skinned and bearded.  The European invaders were, in fact, lighter-skinned and many of them were bearded, and with their advanced technology, such as large ships and cannons, it worked in the imagination of many that the conquistadors were otherworldly, if not sent by Quetzalcotal himself.

As I keep this in mind, I reflect on the ending of “Apocalypto” when fair-skinned and bearded Spaniards arrive with ships and a wooden cross.  They are portrayed in an innocent and unapologetic light, as if they are, indeed, arriving to save the Mayans.  This bothers and disturbs me for a number of reasons; the main reason being that those who may not be familiar with ancient history of what is now Latin America may watch this film and conclude that the Spaniards simply came and everything was happy and wonderful.  In other words, it perpetuates the romanticization of Christopher Columbus, the “discovery” of the “new world,” and how the Europeans “coexisted peacefully” with the indigenous population.

Audiences aren’t concerned about the achievements and contributions of Mayan civilization when they watch “Apocalypto.”  There is nothing in the film that draws our attention to anything remotely appreciative about their culture or civilization.  Instead, the audience gets a fast-paced action/adventure movie that is set in a “scary” ancient world and we should be thankful for the European invasion.

To put it bluntly:  Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” is an exploitation of Mayan civilization and it offers no apology for the Spanish conquest, which, in reality, imposed Catholicism, colonized Mexico for three centuries, and nearly wiped out the entire indigenous population.  Gibson’s film, with all of its sensationalism, suspense, and violence, ignored the opportunity to enlighten the world about an ancient civilization and, instead, opted to entertain and rake in money at the box office with a cheap colonialist message.