I never saw Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto when it was released in 2006. I remember being vaguely interested, appreciating that it seemed ambitious in scope and subject, and filing it away as a movie I’d maybe get around to. For whatever reason, that didn’t happen—not for years anyway. It wasn’t until a weekend, in the middle of doing a few loads of laundry, that I caught an afternoon cable showing. I sat down to watch just the opening scene to see what it was all about before getting back to the laundry. I didn’t move until the closing credits.
So admittedly it wouldn’t take much to pull me away from laundry, but this afternoon must have been in 2012 or 2013. By mentioning that marker of time I mean to say I knew. I’d heard the tapes. I’d read the police reports. I’d seen the internet speculation about Gibson’s disturbing feelings with regard to Jews, homosexuals, even other Christians. In my mind, he had a lot to answer for. And whether you saw Apocalypto ten years ago and want to revisit it, or whether you’re coming to it late, the context of What We Know Now about Gibson seems impossible to divorce (at least wholly) from the way we respond to the film as viewers.
But then, like a lot of the most immersive and complicated art, shit gets weirder.
The film opens with a quote from Will Durant: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.” Durant was a philosopher and historian, author of the sprawling, 11-volume The Story of Civilization. When he issues what’s tantamount to a warning, common sense would suggest you at least entertain the idea. And that’s exactly what Gibson does over the next several hours.
We meet Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), the film’s protagonist, in the rain forest of what we come to learn is Mesoamerica, in the early 16th century. The film opens with a hunt scene, as a group of men from Jaguar Paw’s tribe are in pursuit of a wild boar. The opening is a rush, with a propulsive score, dizzying cinematography and one very fast boar. It’s hard not to feel compassion for the determined boar as he evades trap after trap before succumbing to a particularly grisly death. While the symbolism might feel a little heavy-handed after the first viewing, it’s worth noting that this scene was the first time I found myself asking what, exactly, Gibson was trying to tell us.
We maybe get our answer a few minutes later as Jaguar Paw’s tribe encounters another group on their land. A tense exchange between the two reveals this group are essentially refugees, having lost their home to violence. They’re allowed safe passage but there’s no getting around the ominous tone this action movie strikes from its first few minutes.
In fact, one of the reasons Apocalypto has remained so compelling is that it stretched some of our traditional notions of what the action movie could look like. Its most-discussed feature on its release was that the film was entirely subtitled. Every piece of dialogue is spoken in the Maya Yucatec language. Gibson was so particular about this marker of authenticity that many of the film’s leads had to go beyond simple line memorization to actually learn the language. That there are long stretches of the film with no dialogue at all speaks to Gibson’s pacing skills as a director, and the ability of Cinematographer (and fellow Aussie) Dean Semmler’s (Dances with Wolves) to capture the primal intimacy of the forest without once making us feel claustrophobic.
And Jaguar Paw, too, expands our thinking of what an action movie hero can be. He’s a family man, with a young son and pregnant wife. In contrast to many leading men who drive big screen blockbusters, there’s none of Eric Bana’s preening, Gibson’s Lethal Weapon-era mugging, or Clooney’s calculating seduction. Instead, Youngblood gives us a portrayal of a vulnerable lead, more often running from danger than pursuing it.
But none of these deviations from the successful action formula mean the film is anything other than relentless in its execution of the form. Early on, Jaguar Paw’s village is attacked by a rival tribe (likely the one the first group of refugees in the forest was fleeing). Homes are burnt and the tribe’s surviving members (including Jaguar Paw and his young family) are taken hostage. Though the group is initially spared ritual sacrifice courtesy of a well-timed eclipse, it’s clear their safety will be short-lived. Later, when Jaguar Paw sees his chance of escape, he’s pursued by a jaguar in a chase scene that somehow manages to pack Bullitt-level intensity into a foot pursuit. The film speed alternately slows to a crawl and speeds up, mirroring the disorienting pace of the first scene with the wild boar. Though Jaguar Paw again makes a daring escape, we’re clearly meant to consider the ways in which the stakes of the hunt are now very different.
A pervasive sense of foreboding is present in nearly every scene of this film. Of course we know the history and we know that ultimately, none of this will end well for Mayan-era tribes (even though Gibson plays it a bit fast and loose with historical timing here). But I’d argue that even if we were unaware of this history, this through line of imminent danger would still be seen (and felt) by the viewer—especially now.
Gibson summoned some magic with Apocalypto, a film that ten years on, has only grown more relevant. And if you missed it, I’d encourage you to find it now. As a filmmaker and artist, he nailed it. What I can’t tell you is how to respond to Gibson a person, someone who (at best) espouses some pretty reprehensible opinions. I don’t need to tell you he’s not alone—on film or in the real world. How we emotionally respond to Gibson isn’t a fair litmus test for his movie. But how we respond to the now near-daily instances of prejudice, disinformation and hatred we see around us, is a pretty decent one for ourselves.
There’s much more to the plight of Jaguar Paw and his family I won’t spoil here, but even those only casually acquainted with the film have likely seen footage of its final scenes, as the Spanish wait just offshore and the family we’ve followed is again forced to flee. The New World is coming and soon the Native people of Mesoamerica will face far more dangerous enemies than one another.
Durant warned us that when the vulnerable fight one another, it makes it that much easier for stronger, opportunistic forces—for evil and violence—to work their way in. So now we can see the ships in the distance for ourselves. Where do we go from here?
Featured Image: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution