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Weinberg: Mel Gibson's heart of darkness

Here we go again. Mel Gibson's 2004 surprise mega-hit ''The Passion of the Christ'' was all the more unlikely a success because the dialogue was entirely in Latin and Aramaic, a pretension intended to portray an air of exacting historical authenticity. Astute critics, however, pointed out that the film deviated sharply from both history and Scripture. And the linguistic affectation was inaccurate; Roman troops and administrators in Judea more often spoke Greek than Latin, and the dialect of Aramaic was wrong.

Now Gibson turns his obsessively sadistic cinematic eye on the fall of the Maya civilization in ''Apocalypto'' - this time with the dialogue completely in Maya, conveying a similar air of pseudo-didacticism. Yet ''Apocalypto'' deviates even further from historical truth than its predecessor. There was much public concern that ''The Passion of the Christ'' would stir up anti-Jewish sentiment. Will there be an equivalent outcry over ''Apocalypto's'' warped and jaundiced portrayal of the Maya?

An examination of how the film falsifies history could be dismissed as mere pedantry if it weren't for ''Apocalypto's'' implicit claim to accuracy. Once again, the film's most ostentatious claim to veracity is actually an embarrassing howler. For all the effort that went into coaching the cast in a Maya tongue, Mel got the language wrong.

The Maya language used in ''Apocalypto'' is Yucatecan. Yet the film is obviously set in the ''Classic Maya'' era, as both the lush rainforest setting and the architecture and costumes of the sets indicate. The language spoken in the Classic Maya city-states was Cholan, not Yucatecan. And the linguistic error is compounded by a blatant glitch in elementary chronology.

It was necessary to place the action in the Classic era in order to have the spectacle of elaborate stone city-states in the jungle. But the Classic civilization flourished from roughly 300 to 900 CE - making nonsense of the film's premise of the Spanish conquistadors arriving to deal a declining civilization a coup de grace. After the decline of the Classic city-states in what is now the Peten rainforest of Guatemala and Chiapas, there was a ''Late Maya'' renaissance in the Yucatan Peninsula to the north. The Late Maya would have spoken something akin to today's Yucatecan. But the environment in the Yucatan is savanna, not the lush jungle portrayed in the movie. And Gibson's sets are clearly modeled on the Classic sites, especially Tikal. Furthermore, the Late Maya cities also collapsed after around 400 years - that is, at least a century before the arrival of the Spanish. There were no major Maya ceremonial city-states still inhabited when Cortez appeared on the Yucatan coast in 1519.

Putting aside the chronological error, ''Apocalypto'' remains unworkable from the standpoint of Maya reality. ''Apocalypto'' engages in both of the historic stereotypes about indigenous peoples - the first merely patronizing, the second downright sinister: the noble savage and the bloodthirsty savage. It concerns a noble hunter-gatherer band deep in the jungle that is abducted by bloodthirsty warriors from a Tikal-esque city-state, to be sacrificed in blood-drenched pyramid-top ceremonies. This is implausible on many levels.

For starters, when the Peten was the seat of the Classic Maya civilization, nearly all of its inhabitants (outside the elite priestly and warrior castes) cultivated maize. There were few, if any, hunter-gatherers, and they certainly would not have been as isolated as Gibson's band of noble savages. Worse, ''Apocalypto's'' portrayal completely misconstrues the political logic of Maya human sacrifice.

War was a choreographed and symbolic affair for the Maya, more to do with establishing the hierarchy of city-states according to agreed-upon rules than with territorial conquest. War was determined by a calendric system based on the movements of the stars, so the surprise attack Gibson portrays was virtually impossible. And in contrast to Gibson's portrayal, villages were not put to the torch, lands were not ravaged. Nor were peasants (much less largely non-existent hunter-gatherers) the victims. The point was ritual degradation of the kings and high-ranking warriors of the vanquished city-state. It was not the mere arbitrary sadism of ''Apocalypto.''

Indeed, one theory on the still-mysterious demise of Classic Maya holds that the abandoning of this system of ritual warfare in favor of fight-to-the-death campaigns of territorial conquest (possibly due to the influence of central Mexican peoples who began to penetrate the Peten) upset the political balance in the rainforest. So, counterintuitively, the system of human sacrifice seems to have had a stabilizing and sustaining effect, channeling aggressive tendencies into controlled ritual form; it was the erosion of this system which may have precipitated the collapse.

By the time the Spanish landed, the center of Mesoamerican civilization had shifted to the high plateau of central Mexico, where the Aztecs (more accurately known as the Mexica) actually did engage in human sacrifice on the scale of what ''Apocalypto'' portrays. For the Mexica, the arrival of Cortez really was viewed as the fulfillment of an apocalyptic prophecy, as Gibson portrays (although they were at the peak of their power then, not in decline). For Gibson, the ''savage'' Maya (stand-ins for the Mexica in his garbled version) were about to get what was coming to them in the conquest, while for the ''noble'' Maya it would simply be a change of masters. This is a disingenuous moral equivalism.

The Mexica never committed genocide, never exterminated another people's culture, never destroyed cities or committed irreparable ecological damage. The conquistadors did all of these things. Even the Mexica's human sacrifice probably didn't come close to claiming the number of lives that Europe's endless wars did in the same period. Mexica society was more stable than that of contemporaneous Europe, and was certainly far more advanced in its understandings of mathematics and astronomy. All this was recognized by the Bishop Bartolome de las Casas, who made a lonely crusade against Spanish genocide of the Indians his life's work and called the Mexica empire ''more felicitous than Spain'' in his first-hand work, ''The Destruction of the Indies: A Brief Account.''

Gibson has made a piece of propaganda for the ravaging of indigenous lands and culture. The Maya are still around - and they have been the victims of genocide as recently as the 1980s, when the Guatemalan military's counterinsurgency campaign reached its horrific climax. The 1999 findings of the United Nations-backed Guatemala Historical Clarification Commission estimated 200,000 dead in the civil war, squarely accusing the Guatemalan state of ''genocide.'' Yet this genocide never came to the conscience of the world the way that the genocide in Bosnia just 10 years later would.

''Apocalypto'' is ultimately propaganda against not only the Maya, but indigenous peoples worldwide. And while revealing nothing about the Maya (other than the sound of one of their tongues, presented out of historical and geographic context), it reveals a great deal about Mel Gibson - and our civilization generally.

Bill Weinberg is author of ''Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico'' and editor of the Web site World War 4 Report ( He is based in New York City.