Following the controversy and success of his 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ,” Mel Gibson came out with another “passion” project in 2006 called “Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.” I call it a passion project because, like “The Passion of the Christ,” “Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto” was largely financed by Gibson’s own production company, Icon Pictures. The movie isn’t just called “Apocalypto,” it is called “Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.”
When I watched “Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto” in theaters in 2004, I was impressed by the cinematography and the valiant attempt to present Mayan culture realistically. The characters spoke the Mayan language. I’m no Mayan scholar, but Gibson’s Mayans seemed pretty legit.
The movie is exciting in a “Rambo: First Blood” kind of way. It’s largely a story about one guy, Jaguar Paw, escaping the clutches of human-sacrificing Mayans, and beating his pursuers with his own resourcefulness and knowledge of the jungle.
Aside from its realism and exciting action, what is “Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto” about? Following “The Passion of the Christ” it’s hard to imagine Mel Gibson going back to simple action movies like “Lethal Weapon.” “Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto” must be about something, right?
Indeed it is, and here is where I take issue with the film. “Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto” begins with a quote from historian Will Durant: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.” The movie attempts to show how the Mayan civilization was destroying itself from within, with all that human sacrificing and superstition and rigid class structure. The movie ends with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, as if to neatly prove Durant’s point: Mayan civilization had destroyed itself from within before the Europeans conquered it from without.
This seems like an incredibly Euro-centric view of history. Maybe Durant’s point was true for the Mayans, but what about North American Indians? They were living full and imaginative lives before the Europeans wiped them out.
The tag line for the movie was "No one can outrun their destiny." If “Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto” is meant to somehow justify the colonization of the Americas as an inevitable, “destined” occurrence, then the movie is not just bad history, it is frighteningly racist. I suppose it makes sense that Mel Gibson got caught making drunken rants against “the blacks” and “the Jews.”
Some may defend “Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto,” citing its beautiful cinematography. People said the same thing about D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film “Birth of a Nation,” which presented the Ku Klux Klan as the heroes. Maybe the movie had lovely cinematography, but it still glorified the KKK, and that is just not cool.