When I was younger, I visited the runs of the Mayan city Chichen Izta. I marveled at its magnificent stone structures, the genius of their designs, and the scope of their ambition as builders. I climbed to the top of the central pyramid and was awestruck by how much these people accomplished using only Stone Age technology. And I was mesmerized by how, when we approached the city, you could see large stretches of ruins still in the surrounding jungles, untouched. Who knew what secrets lie within? But lest I succumb to a romantic notion of this place, my Maya guide was quick to point out that there was a dark side to these ancient people, as well. He showed us the sacrificial cenote—a deep well with sheer stone walls above the water line some 20 feet high—into which young women bedecked with gold and jewelry would be thrown to appease the gods. He showed us the court where athletes played a brutal ball game that reminded me of aspects of racquetball, soccer and volleyball; and whose players could be made human sacrifices depending on the outcome. The juxtaposition between the sheer genius of the Maya mixed with an unmistakable appetite for ritual violence deepened the mystery of who these people were.
So in 2006, when Mel Gibson released Apocalypto, an epic action-adventure movie set in the waning days of the Maya era, I was definitely interested in seeing it. I knew Gibson’s penchant for playing fast and loose with history for the sake of narrative, and I also knew he had taken special pains to create a story told entirely in Mayan language, and using indigenous actors. I’m a fan of Gibson’s work in general, so into the fictional jungle of Apocalypto I went, and I was not disappointed.
The story involves a tribe of indigenous people living somewhere in modern-day Guatemala. Led by Flint Sky and his son Jaguar Paw, these are decent, hard-working, friendly people whose life in the rain forest is destroyed when they are overtaken by raiders led by the cruel Zero Wolf and his band of marauding slavers. Zero Wolf’s crew destroys the village, kills anyone who resists (including Flint Sky), and takes everyone else prisoner. Jaguar Paw’s heavily pregnant wife Seven and their son Turtles Run avoid capture by hiding in a dry well—a decision that proves fateful once the heavy rains begin. Jaguar Paw and the rest are taken to a Maya city and sold off either as slaves or as sacrificial victims. By a stroke of fate, Jaguar is not sacrificed, and escapes back into the jungle with Zero Wolf and his men in hot pursuit. Once back on familiar territory, Jaguar Paw has a fighting chance against the killers who chase him. He must prevail, so he might rescue his wife and son from drowning in that well.
Apocalypto is a lot of things. A perfect representation of history or the Maya culture are not among them. But it is a cracking good adventure story, expertly shot and replete with stunning visuals throughout. And throughout the movie, I thoroughly enjoyed its vivid imagination of postclassical Mayan civilization, even through a fictional lens. The big point of the setting is a Maya teetering on the edge of total collapse thanks to ecological devastation, rampant crop failure, widespread illness, and a ruling elite portrayed as not entirely interested in helping their subjects. And the keystone of all that is the movie’s pivotal scene, when Jaguar Paw and his fellow villagers are all led to the central pyramid as part of a mass sacrifice, to the delight of thousands of screaming Maya commoners.
The scene is this movie’s moment of truth, because it is just utterly terrifying. We see it all from Jaguar Paw’s point of view, from his bewilderment at the city itself when he first enters, to the strange things he hears its people telling them and each other, to the pre-sacrifice rituals rendering Jaguar Paw into a kind of human cattle, to the procession through the crowds of cheering spectators, up the pyramid, and to the sacrificial altar itself. The entire thing is done with the heavy dread of knowing how this must all turn out, and the movie does not spare us the details of speeding things along. When the first prisoner is sacrificed, we see it through the victim’s eyes, and it is a sequence incredible to behold, difficult to endure, and impossible to forget.
The latter third of the movie takes us farther and farther away from that diseased city, and as the violent struggle between Jaguar Paw and Zero Wolf goes deeper into primordial territory, the more we are reminded that life out here was no paradise, either. There are wretched people of the jungle, too. Jaguar Paw’s village, however, was good and strong and sustainable because of who they were as people and the choices they made. Their destruction is a tragedy. As for the eventual destruction of the people Zero Wolf serves, we are reminded by a note in the movie’s opening moments that any great civilization is defeated first from within before it can be destroyed from without. Indeed. One imagines Gibson wasn’t talking just about the Maya.