Apocalypto is a masterpiece of cinema – one of the most engaging and majestic movies of recent years. It’s an impressionistic sketch of the latter days of the Maya, rather than being an historically accurate account, but by focusing on a creating a visually stunning movie with an ‘action movie’ storyline it introduces something of the life of this historic civilisation which wouldn’t otherwise have made it to such a wide audience. How should we compare the historically accurate documentary that appeals only to a small audience already familiar with the material to a block buster that, while drawing from the truth, presents an ahistorical mash up of cultures and times. By appealing to a wider audience will more people be drawn in to discover more? The movie is all delivered in a local Mayan language, the buildings and art work mash-up styles from different historic periods in an attempt to portray opulence and wealth and visual spectacle, the industrial scale human sacrifice that forms one of the key scenes in the movie is linked to the Aztec rather than the Mayan civilisation, and the decline period takes place much earlier than the arrival of the Spaniards. But who’s checking this stuff.. Sit back, enjoy, and then research.
The movie is set during the decline of the Mayan civilisation. The ruling caste have apparently decided that the way to stem the decline is to build temples and perform industrial scale human sacrifices, for both of which they need captive people. Our story’s hero, a young villager called Jaguar Paw, sees his village attacked by a larger more sophisticated tribe. Many are killed, and the village is raised to the ground. The surviving men and women are captured and transported to the capital city – men for sacrifice and women for slavery. All of the children are left behind as no use for either purpose. Jaguar Paw’s wife and child escape and hide in a cave, but become trapped when Jaguar Paw gets captured. Jaguar Paw escapes sacrifice when an eclipse occurs in the middle of the sacrifice ceremony, and then escapes the target practice game that is the fate of the survivors when he kills the chief’s son. The chase is on. And on. The chase scene is full of twists and turns, and Jaguar Paw manages to escape from a number of impossible situations. Eventually back on home turf and reunited with his wife and child, the closing scenes of the movie presage even greater perils to come.
The main theme of the movie is how civilisations destroy themselves, and a parallel is drawn between the Roman empire, the Mayan civilisation and our present day great empires. The movie opens with a quote from Will Durant, about the Roman empire – ‘A great civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.’ This is clearly controversial in the case of the Maya – although it does seem that the Maya were doing a pretty good job at destroying themselves from within, particularly around 800AD – the period of the classic Maya collapse – the implication is that the Spaniards, arriving much later in the early 1500s were almost saving the Maya from themselves and that the Maya were at least partly to blame for their demise. Would a strong and cohesive Mayan empire have been able to resist the guns and diseases of the Spanish – you’d have to think that they probably wouldn’t have – although I am fascinated by the contrast with the longer period of survival of the North American indians – why did do a much more successful job of resisting the same guns and diseases? Did they resist the guns more successfully because their European adversaries were divided – British and French, with Dutch traders?
So how do civilisations destroy themselves from within? The movie suggests three main motors:
- excessive environmental exploitation
- in the capital Maya city we see hundreds of slaves being employed cutting down trees to create a white lime powder to spread on the temple buildings. This practice contributed to massive deforestation in the Mayan areas
- we also see destruction of crops. What we don’t see, but was happening in parallel, was over-population.
- political exploitation
- the ruling elite treats fellow human beings as resources to be used as slaves or to keep the gods happy as human sacrifices. Neither killing people nor forcing them into slavery is sustainable in the long term unless there is an endless supply of new victims to hand
- to an extent the ruling elite managed to retain control by the tried and tested (although of course, unfamiliar to the Mayan) Roman techniques of bread and circuses. Provide the populace with sacrifices as entertainment, and ensure that they eat, and there is likely to be little agitation from below
- excessive conspicuous consumption
- a further aspect of the projection of power – familiar to Medieval European monarchs, as well as to the Maya – is the use of excessive conspicuous consumption – to project power with magnificence of display.
The parallels with the empires of today should be apparent.
Compare this view of the reasons for a civilisation’s decline with the views of Acemoglu and Robinson in Why Nations Fail. Acemoglu and Robinson would stress the closed political and economic system that draw all wealth to the ruling elite and provided no encouragement for innovation and creative destruction. I think their book specifically addresses the Maya – I’ll have to revisit it!
The highlights for me – the jump over the edge of the waterfall was spectacular – I’ll remember that scene for some time. I also loved the makeup and jewellery of the tribes – particularly the elite – and the final scene on the beach reminded me a little of the Statue of Liberty scene at the end of the Planet of the Apes – an unexpected link to a different culture living in a different paradigm.
Our verdict: a masterpiece – 10/10. A visual feast, if somewhat gory and challenged from an historical accuracy perspective.