There’s a common theme that re-occurs in a lot of movies about native tribes and indigenous peoples; typically their way of life is seen as simple but pure. We never see them worrying about paying their VISA bill or figuring out what to watch of Netflix, but then again nor do we ever see what they use to wipe their asses with. However, it’s typically the arrival of the dreaded White Man who spoils everything. His greed and cunning subvert and trick the poor natives until they’ve been swindled from their land or left to rot in shallow graves. Mel Gibson’s (Expendables 3) 2006 effort, Apocalypto, seeks to subvert this theory.
I’m not going to lie, Apocalypto is a pretty basic setup. The peaceful lives of a native tribe of Central American Mayans is destroyed when a ravaging band of slavers (also Mayan) comes to town looking for flesh. Yet it’s in that simplistic description that a fully realized world is created, destroyed and re-created for us all on screen. It’s a solid idea with, as screenwriter Blake Snyder would call, primal motivations.
It’s the deep jungle. We can’t see shit the vegetation is so thick. But some wild boar is fleeing for it’s life from a bunch of tribesmen. They expertly herd it towards some kind of homebrew spike trap that we haven’t seen since Conan the Barbarian in ’82. With the pig dead the tribesmen gather around for the harvest. We immediately recognize that this lifestyle is so totally removed from our own. These dudes are all wiry and strong, barely carrying anything but loin cloths, their weapons and a bunch of cool body modifications like war paint, tatts, scars and piercings. Your first instinct would be to call them savages.
But it’s when Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood – Beatdown) begins butchering the kill and handing out portions do we start to realize that these guys are just a bunch of regular Joe’s. They’re all cracking up as they convince large-but-dim Blunted that by eating the balls of the boar he’s more likely to father a child. It’s grotesque, but relatable, and it immediately humanizes these people. Sadly the brief reverie is interrupted when Jaguar Paw detects others in the jungle. From nowhere a whole tribe of people emerge from the jungle, like the Predator.
They all seem beaten and broken with a notable absence of strong men and a large amount of crying women and children. The tense standoff is dispelled by Jaguar Paw’s father, Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead – Into The West) when he offers to trade for food. The intruding tribe agree and advise that they are merely passing through, looking for a new beginning. They leave in peace.
Back at their own village, Flint Sky implores Jaguar Paw to forget those people, for they were choked with fear. He did not raise his number one son to be infected by such a disease. Jaguar Paw’s doubts seem to disperse when he’s reunited with heavily pregnant wife Seven and young son Turtles Run. They and the whole tribe have another good laugh at Blunted, as he’s pranked once again, but it’s all okay, because he’s laughing along as well (or is he crying), and everyone settles down for a chill around the fire. It’s kind of a bummer (SPOILER) that Blunted never gets his revenge. And he does sort of prove useful before the end, but I mean we never learn if he successfully inseminates his wife as a giant “FUCK YOU” to the rest of the village, and most of all, his nagging mother-in-law.
The next day and it’s only a bad dream about the leader of that weird tribe that rudely awakens Jaguar Paw. It was pretty disturbing shit – the guy holding his own heart in his hands and telling Jaguar Paw to run. It’s this sort of prophesying that I don’t like in Apocalypto. There’s another scene, a bit later on, where they encounter a young child infected with the plague. When the solider dudes shoo her away with sticks, she goes all serious-looking and starts spoiling the rest of the movie! Stuff like “the day will become black” etc etc. I get that sort of witchdoctory shit was major news back then, but making the events of the film so obviously foreshadowed is a bit too on the nose for me. Jaguar Paw survives (SPOILER) not because he’s a badass, but because there’s some vague masterplan? No thanks.
The peaceful morning at the village is totally spoiled by the arrival of Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo – Riddick) and his boys – a raiding party from parts unknown. Zero Wolf is a total gangster native. He wears really cool armor with a helmet that has a tiger-jaw motif and an arm guard that has not one, not two, but three human jaw bones attached, like it’s some kind of primitive sergeant stripes or something. Throughout the film, as Zero Wolf dominates pretty much every scene he’s in, I’d wonder more and more about those jaws. Were they dudes who’d got close enough to nearly kill him? Or were they family members? Famous Mayans? Was one the Mayan Michael Jackson? Or was it just people’s he’d killed? It’s unlikely to be the latter as he’s pretty ruthless and kills everyone he encounters. There’s nothing special about those poor bastards. He has a practiced, efficient ferocity about him that makes you know he’s seen every trick in the book. He doesn’t need to get wild and crazy to do the deed; he can do it terminator style, with the least possible fuss.
Along for the ride in his party is the down-right nasty Middle Eye (who happens to the be the native on the DVD cover, NOT Rudy Youngblood’s character – go take a look if you don’t believe me), Zero Wolf’s son Cut Rock, and a load of other bad types. They rampage through the village subduing the men, killing Flint Sky, and rounding up the women. Before he himself can be taken, Jaguar Paw sneakily hides Seven and Turtles Run in a deep hole out of sight. He and the other surviving members of his tribe are then carted off back to parts unknown, and it becomes clear that Jaguar Paw has to somehow escape and get back to rescue his trapped wife and son. The rainy season is on the horizon. “Don’t rain”, he begs the thunder gods.
As captives they are lead back through the jungle to a land that becomes more barren and desolate. It’s as if they’re stepping into the future, where trees are getting stripped down, chalk is being mined en masse etc, with down trodden workers everywhere. This is the man machine in its infancy – the earth bleeding, food being harvested for the masses, stone for the pyramids, shit and pestilence everywhere. Class structures, slaves, workers, the elite. The formation of culture with no expense spared. Like I said in the opener, Apocalypto suggests that the native tribes were well on their way to fucking up the world, well before the Europeans set foot on the land. This could be Mel Gibson defending the spread of Christianity – the movie ends with the arrival of the first Spanish explorers, bringing with them the teachings of Christ etc – or it could be him speaking out on the horrors of corrupt capitalism. Either way you butter your Apocalypto bread, there’s a message here somewhere.
The captured tribe dudes are dragged through this to a Mayan city – a place of stone pyramids and people, endless people. It’s here in the bazaar (that is as filled with weird and crazy looking horror shit like it does in Mad Max 3: Beyond the Thunderdome) that the women get sold off. The men are lead through this all to the backstage area of the Mega Pyramid. It’s here they’re to be used as sacrifices to the great God in the sky. He’s so angry at all the little ants on his planet for some reason, so much so that he’s given them endless pestilence, hunger and misery. The dumbasses can’t see that it’s they themselves and their exploitation of their land that has caused such pain. But hey, that’s religious zealotry for you. That’s human nature for you.
Jaguar Paw is saved at the last moment when as a lunar eclipse occurs seconds before his heart is cut from his chest. The chief sacrificial nazi declares that the Gods are appeased. For today. As for the surviving captives? Zero Wolf and his men can have fun with them. It’s here that Blunted springs back to life, and together both he and Jaguar Paw kill Cut Rock. Blunted dies like a hero, and Jaguar Paw escapes, though wounded. Zero Wolf naturally has to pursue to avenge his son.
Can Jaguar Paw get back to his village in time before the rain or some blood crazed chimps murder his family? Or will Zero Wolf and his bad bastards catch him before he can make it?
You know, for such a legendary cinematic badass, Mel Gibson’s own directorial output has primarily always been historically based. In fact, discounting his debut The Man Without A Face (sadly not a schlock horror piece, but a touching coming-of-age yarn), all of his major works have been based on specific people or time periods. Only the Passion of the Christ could be argued as a film about a fictitious dude called Jesus. Regardless, that movie – about how Christ was crucified – was made with as much attention to realism that was humanly possible. Gibson even went to the length of filming in the periods native languages; Aramaic, Hebrew and Latin. I don’t even want to know how he got the crucifixion so realistic. Fast forward two years our time and 1500 in a historical sense, and he’d be back behind the camera shooting another period piece, this time focusing on the native Central American people, the Mayan.
The Mayan were a pretty slick operation. Occupying the land from southern Mexico to El Salvador, it’s civilization began about 2000 BC before eventually falling into complete ruin in the late 1600s. To put that into context, England as a kingdom only dates back to around 900 AD. Before then we were just random tribes of people getting raped and pillaged by Romans, Vikings, and the Normans. So it’s a culture far more ancient than our own, which had it’s own fully developed language and scripture, art, architecture, mathematics and astronomy.
As a kid I remember reading an X-Files book by Kevin J Anderson called Ruins where Mulder and Scully go to an ancient Mayan temple where an archaeological dig have gone missing. If you’ve ever seen any episodes of Ancient Aliens you’re probably familiar with many of the crackpot theories that the Mayan’s were actually assisted by visitors from the stars. Ruins pretty much uses that as a framework, with Mulder believing that this temple was the tomb of one such alien, and Scully refuting that. It was a great book. I even read that sucker twice. However, what stuck with me was the idea of how advanced the Mayan were. One specific fact I recall to this day were that they “invented” the concept of zero and were the first people to accurately chart the days into a working and correct calendar. Pretty wild, huh?
History lessons aside, I find myself drawing more and more parallels with Mad Max: Fury Road. I’m even starting to think of them as almost brothers. Straight up there is of course the obvious fact that Mel Gibson was the original road warrior, but it runs deeper then that. At their most basic DNA they are chase movies where both protagonists are pursued by bad bastards through a dystopian and surreal nightmarescape they were otherwise unfamiliar with.
The primordial ooze from which most chase movies emerge is usually similar. Both films end where they begin – Fury Road in Joe’s Citadel and Apocalypto in Jaguar Paw’s village. Both characters are taken from these environments deep into the unknown (the desert/the Mayan city) only for them to return at the climax.
Also, look at the reasons for their capture – they’re to be used as a resource. Max as a universal blood donor or “blood bag”, to refuel the cancerous Nox and other War Boys. Jaguar Paw and his people’s fate are for even less altruistic reasons – the women are to be sold as slaves and the men used as sacrificial vestiges to appease a seemingly displeased god. Like humanity in The Matrix, both films have turned the body into the ultimate renewable energy source. Yet while the machines leach electricity from us in one future and blood from us in another, the very essence for the pursuit and capture of the tribesmen is steeped in stupidity and pointlessness – to supply fresh meat for an insane religious ritual.
Mel Gibson is a well known (controversially in some circles) for making films that involve religion. I can’t help but feel that he’s poking fun of it here, despite his own well known religious affiliations. But let’s continue – When some uncontrollable event or act of God (wink wink) occurs – namely the defection of Imperator Furiosa and the lunar eclipse – both Jaguar Paw and Max use the confusion as an opportunity to escape. The hubris of their captors never anticipated the resourcefulness or willingness to survive of their quarries. And they suffer for it.
Now their motivations are slightly different. Max chooses to live out of pure bull headed stubborness, whereas Jaguar Paw must survive to save his family. But both are chased into the very element where they thrive. And they are pursued namely by a single individual – a great and powerful foe who wields control over their weaker underlings mostly through fear and awe. Zero Wolf is a mighty warrior, efficient and ferocious – a perfect killing machine. Immortan Joe, while not as physically gifted, has created a pseudo religion around him, and he is considered a God by his minions. And both are driven by an insatiable thirst for revenge. Their men are too weak to refuse the call to arms, and they will all die for it.
It’s a chase that will not, cannot end without the elimination of one party or other. Joe and Zero Wolf fail to see the irony of their situation. Believing that it was somehow their right to offhandedly treat human life like livestock, it’s only when a similar disregard is shown to their own property that they react in such fashions. The death of Zero Wolf’s son and the stealing of Joe’s brides seem unfathomable to them. Yet how many son’s have they slain? How many wives have their snatched from husbands?
Finally, if I’ve not convinced you, look at the final shots of both films. While both characters return to where they began, the balance of power has changed forever. A new history is about to begin, and as relics of the old world both characters choose to leave in similar fashions: Max disappearing into the crowd and Jaguar Paw and his family into the jungle.
Apocalypto is pretty stripped back in terms of plot. But it’s rich in motivation and character. You don’t need pages and page of dialogue to make you like someone or hate someone else. Gibson humanizes Jaguar Paw and his fellow hunters within a few moments. You’re smiling along with them as they slap each others shoulders and take the piss out of Blunted. You forget that they’re naked save for a tiny piece of cloth hiding their junk and that they’re eating raw pig’s guts.
So what that Mayan historians might argue that it’s all a bit unlikely and inaccurate. But I don’t see them making any crazy Mayan chase movie with the balls to have an unknown cast use the actual ancient language instead of English. And that’s not the only wicked attention to detail. It’s the little things like the body decorations; the tatts, jewelry, the hair cuts. Shit, even the teeth look like they’re genuine never-seen-a-dentist teeth. Not only do these things differentiate each character, it makes the film feel like a real, lived in world. For as cool as it was, Mohawk tried it’s best to make each character an individual, but it lacked the budget to go this deep. Few films even try to make this sort of effort, so kudos to Gibson for insisting. The same goes with the music – lots of natural sounds on both the soundtrack and in the sound design. Pipes, drums, and breathing/chanting, which really reminded me of the great Akira soundtrack in the ’80s. Composed by James Horner (Magnificent Seven), it’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard from the great man.
Couple that with some really creative film-making such as lots of hand-held stuff and GoPro moments before GoPro was a thing, and you get a lightning fast paced action movie. The sucker literally doesn’t stop moving when it eventually gets going, and is much more successful than the aforementioned Mohawk for maintaining that sort of momentum. Yeah you probably can figure out how it’s going to go. You don’t even need that annoying little girl to spoil it. But it’s how it all goes down that keeps us glued to the screen. During the initial pursuit some of the bad guys die to natural things, like an actual jaguar or a snake that Jaguar Paw herds them into (like in Hard Target). But once he’s past the waterfall, he’s back on his own turf. “This is the land my Father hunted before me. And this is the land my son’s will hunt after I am gone”, he cries up to Zero Wolf. Foolishly they pursue him and it goes all Crocodile Dundee 2.
You can get all high and mighty about this being a bit historically inaccurate, or that Mel Gibson may or may not be some Jew hating dick. Both things might be true. But neither claim detracts from Apocalypto being a great adventure tale. Even as an R rated movie, it kicked ass at the box office, and while it didn’t exactly catapult ancient Mayan civilization into a cinematic revival, it at least shed some light on a fascinating and often neglected time period. It’s violent, gory, even sickening in some moments, but also triumphant and staggeringly paced. It also offers perhaps the most authentic take on native life. And there’s not a white face to be seen anywhere. Well except the end. Get it watched.