The following is a film review and analysis I composed for The Last Ditch in 2007. I am reposting it here to set the stage for my upcoming reconsideration of Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, to be published during Holy Week.
|Rudy Youngblood as Jaguar Paw in Gibson's "Apocalypto"|
by Andy Nowicki
Mel Gibson's latest movie, Apocalypto, is at the end of its run in theaters. Opening in early December, the film achieved a modest success, raking in nothing close to what The Passion of the Christ made, but still earning somewhere close to Braveheart's overall gross.
What makes that modest success extraordinary is the fact that Gibson has essentially become a persona non grata in the film industry since his run-in with a Jewish policeman who arrested him for drunken driving in August 2006. If Passion didn't alienate Gibson from Hollywood's largely Jewish movers and shakers, including the distributors — the men who made Gibson rich and famous, and are now eager to unmake him — then his drunken anti-Semitic tirade on the occasion of his arrest, widely broadcast across the nation afterwards, surely did.
Yet for all that, and much to the consternation of his detractors, Gibson is still clearly hot stuff at the box office. That is proven by the fact that he can write, direct, and produce a film such as Apocalypto, and can turn it into a moneymaker, even though it features no known movie stars and is an odd, eccentric, exceedingly grim meditation on the demise of the Mayan Empire just before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth century, done entirely in an ancient Indian dialect with subtitles.
Film critics, nearly all of whom are cultural liberals, have turned sharply against Gibson since 2004's The Passion Of The Christ; in fact, they have been leery of him since 2000, when he came out with The Patriot, a Revolutionary War epic with an unmistakable pro-gun ownership message. Yet the majority somewhat grudgingly gave high marks to Apocalypto, noting its aesthetic boldness and visual flair.
Of course they added the caveat that the film is a luridly, gratuitously, fetishistically gory and violent affair. (Sound familiar, Passion fans?) And a few have opined that Gibson's portrayal of the Mayans as bloodthirsty savages is "culturally insensitive" and all that. (After all, showing a non-white society in a manner that's not unambiguously positive is a very chancy thing, especially when you're already under suspicion for harboring hatecriminalist thoughts.) But most have elected not to take the underlying ideas of the film seriously at all, instead deciding to see it as a brainless action-adventure thrill-ride with interesting cinematography — a sort of Lethal Weapon 5 set in pre-Columbian Central America.
In fact, "Apocalypto" is clearly meant to be an allegory of our own society in its current state and under contemporary circumstances, as I shall attempt to demonstrate here.
The film, after all, begins by flashing, somewhat portentously, the well-known quote by Will Durant: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." We are then introduced to Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a young Indian brave living happily in the jungle with a nomadic tribe of hunter-gatherers. For better or for worse, Gibson idealizes this way of life, in much the same way Dances With Wolves glamorized (and whitewashed the faults of) the Plains Indians of North America. As in Dances with Wolves (1990), the so-called civilized people are the true savages, drunk with greed and imperialist dreams.
However, while "Dances" ran with the more typical theme of the white man as the source of wickedness and cruelty in the world, Apocalypto goes in a more unusual direction; here, red men are both the good guys and the bad guys.
Jaguar Paw and his people are invaded by other Indians, specifically sophisticated and militaristic Mayans from an urban setting, who rape, pillage, and engage in widespread slaughter before taking several men and women hostage, forcing them to trek the long distance back to the hub of Mayan civilization. The captives walk in chains, shouldering a long, heavy piece of wood, thus mirroring the scene in "The Passion" of Christ bearing his cross, whilst being harassed and whipped.
|Cruel to be cruel, in the wrong measure: the perverse and bloodthirsty Mayans|
This isn't exactly lighthearted fare, but through it all Gibson hasn't totally lost his goofy wit. When a tree almost falls on the taskmaster in charge of herding the natives along, the man screams, "I am walking here!" — a droll reference to Dustin Hoffman's famous angry declaration to the cabbie in Midnight Cowboy. I'm not sure what the idea was behind this homage, if there was an idea, but it's funny just the same.
As they march along on their trail of tears, the group passes a little girl with leprosy, who begs for food and is rebuffed by the soldiers who have engaged in the looting, pillaging, and enslaving up to this point. Then in an extraordinary cinematic moment, the girl's body is seemingly invaded by a spirit who pronounces the end of the wicked Mayan society in a deep, guttural voice. Another people will come, she says to the soldiers, and that will mean the end of the empire they serve. The proud military men are unnerved by this impromptu prophecy, and hurry their prisoners onward.
|The little leper prophet|
When they finally arrive at their destination after the arduous journey, the group is marched to the top of a huge pyramid-shaped temple, where it is clear what is to be the fate of the prisoners: human sacrifice. The high priest delivers a speech, defiantly refuting the notion that the Mayan empire is in decline. The gods will be appeased by the orgy of bloodletting that will take place, and that in turn will set things straight, he says. The people in attendance cheer, and they are enthralled, as the priest plunges his dagger into each prisoner, one by one, before cutting out his heart, then tossing the heart and the lifeless corpse to the bottom of the pyramid. Children under the pyramid battle for body-part souvenirs like modern-day baseball fans chasing foul balls. It is clear that hundreds, if not thousands, of people have already been slaughtered in this manner.
Just as it appears that Jaguar Paw is about to meet this awful fate, a miracle of sorts intervenes. I won't reveal much beyond that, except to say that the final hour of the movie is basically one long chase scene, and that Jaguar Paw manages, against impossible odds, to return to find his pregnant wife and young son, who have been hidden away in a precarious spot since Jaguar Paw was taken captive.
Near the end of the movie, we witness the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. It is clear that — in
accordance with the earlier-delivered prophecy — they are the force that will finish off the corrupt Mayan empire, stained as it has become with the blood of the innocent. At this point, however, Gibson hedges his bets. When Jaguar Paw's wife asks him whether he thinks they should greet the conquerors, he replies that they should instead return to the jungle, "to seek a new beginning."
Thus, where he could go to the extreme of political incorrectness, by unambiguously positioning the white men as the good guys, Gibson chooses instead to present things in a manner more equivocal but perhaps ponderable, too. The viewer gets the impression that while the old culture, that of the demon-worshipping Mayan pagans, was evil through and through, the coming ascendant one (i.e., the culture of the Spanish Catholics) might not be much better. And that the best thing to do is to escape from all would-be empires, with their arrogant claims upon us, and to dwell separately, live simply, and cultivate our own garden.
Since the movie is making a clear attempt at allegory (recall the Durant quote), it isn't hard to draw parallels to our own age and tease out Gibson's judgment upon the current clash of civilizations. The Mayans are the equivalent of the post-Christian, post-modern West, where we engage in our own form of ritual mass human sacrifice, namely abortion, out of deference to our own superstitions, namely hedonism and sexual license.
Our civilization is now under attack from the ascendant culture of militant Islam, and it is likely soon to fall. But we would be foolish to greet our conquerors on bended knee. Instead, we few who still cleave to the moral, spiritual, and aesthetic notions that made the West great, before the onslaught of modern decadence, ought to escape into our own proverbial jungle, in order to seek our own new beginning.
These parallels are at least somewhat problematical. Bad as we are in the West, we aren't exactly as cruel or as barbarous as the Mayans. In fact, one could argue that our problem isn't so much that we've grown too hard (the obvious hard-heartedness of abortion aside) but that we've grown too soft, flabby, effete, and degenerate. And the Muslims are still a ways away from dominating us and imposing sharia across the Western world.
Still, confronted with today's relentless "us vs. them" paradigm — "You are with us or you are with the terrorists!" as our own fearless leader proclaims; "We must slaughter the infidel wherever we find him!" as the Muslim fanatics retort — we may find it worthwhile to give some thought to a third way, of neither embracing our own debased culture nor surrendering to opportunistic invaders, but instead doing our best to restore what was lost... and start over.