Rudy Youngblood as Jaguar Paw in Apocalypto


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



16 November



Pizarro captures Atahualpa at the Battle of Cajamarca, 1532

On this day in 1532, a Spanish expedition led by Francisco Pizarro, whose purpose was expressly to conquer the Inca Empire of South America, captured the Inca Emperor, Atahualpa. As Pizarro arrived in the region, Atahualpa had been waging a civil war against his brother Huáscar. Atahualpa’s generals had just defeated him, killed him and his family and seized his capital, Cuzco. Accompanied by 80,000 troops, Atahualpa was en route for Cuzco to survey the spoils of war. He was resting in the city of Cajamarca when he learned that Pizarro was nearby. Pizarro invited Atahualpa to meet. Atahualpa arrived, with 5,000 troops, ready for trouble. The Spaniards attacked and routed Atahualpa’s army, with no loss on their own side whatsoever. Atahualpa was taken prisoner, but bought time for himself by giving the Spanish vast amounts of gold and silver. Meanwhile, the rest of his troops, under general Rumiñahui, were biding their time, and over the following months appeared on several occasions to be readying a counter-attack. This forced the hand of Pizarro, who decided to kill Atahualpa. As a heathen, Atahualpa was due to die at the stake, but this appalled him as it meant his soul wouldn’t go to the afterlife. So he accepted an offer by Friar Vicente de Valverde to convert to Catholicism, becoming Juan Santos Atahualpa and thus eligible for a more Christian death. On the same day he was executed by strangulation with a garrotte. The rule of the Incas was over.



Apocalypto (2006, dir: Mel Gibson)

Apocalypto ends with a vision of the Spanish arriving in Meso-America, their ships glimpsed by the nameless Mayans who have just been through a sustained barrage of unpleasantness of every sort. It is a wry comic finish to a remarkable film by co-writer/director Mel Gibson, a “just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse” moment of black humour. Or is it? The arrival of the ships can also be read affirmatively as the arrival of the white man and civilisation – a reading made all the more possible by knowledge of Gibson’s headline-grabbing drunken philosophising on racial types. That’s the current problem with films made by or starring Mel Gibson – he’s an unloved and possibly unlovely figure. But let’s not deny him a slap on the back for Apocalypto, a film about a nice young guy called Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) who appears to be destined to end up as yet another human sacrifice in the ongoing drive by the Maya authorities to shore up their crumbling empire with ritual slaughter. And that’s pretty much the film – the inexorable journey of Jaguar Paw towards a beheading, and his efforts to prevent himself, his pregnant wife and son from decapitation. Gibson was hot off the success of 2004’s The Passion of the Christ, a film in Hebrew, Aramaic and Latin, so making a film in Yucatec, a language not widely spoken outside Central America, had a sort of precedent. As did the portrayal of intense physical degradation, death, torture and suffering which surrounds Jaguar Paw on his way to the top of the stepped pyramid where he too is to die for the greater good. Because it’s in a foreign language, some see Apocalypto as a film making lofty arthouse claims, and judge it harshly as a consequence. But it isn’t; it’s a visceral, intense, brilliantly paced action movie, with some vague nodding to the mysticism of Terrence Malick in its depiction of the lush jungle – nature, primal, ordered, beautiful, and all that. But it’s far more in thrall to the sort of movie-making that Cecil B DeMille went in for, the “cast of thousands”, the spectacle designed to inspire awe, with barely a need for dialogue at all. Proper old-fashioned Hollywood, in other words. If Yul Brynner were still alive, you can bet he’d have been gagging to be in it.



Why Watch?


  • A reminder that it was the Spanish, from Christopher Columbus onward, who conquered America
  • Watch it, then read the reviews – grudging aren’t they?
  • Dean Semler’s restless, epic cinematography
  • The underdog drama reduced to its basic killer elements


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Apocalypto – at Amazon





4 thoughts on “Apocalypto”

  1. A family drama like no other. Two hours plus that rush at the speed of light. This is cinema. I'm sorry but it is. Don't look for inner meanings. This is the work of one of the greatest artists of our time. Yes, I'm talking about Mel Gibson. And as most of the great artists, he's bound to be controversial, erratic and infuriating sometimes but, thank God he exists. He's always going to surprise us for better or worse in sickness and in health. There are no intellectual under pinnings here. This is an adventure flick that takes us to places we've never been before. It entertains and moves and startles. Masterfully shot at a breathless pace that never, ever, lets go. And then, of course, the acting – if you can call it that. The most remarkable performances by an ensemble cast of unknowns. Gloroious faces that speak louder than words. Well, as you may have guessed. I'm overwhelmed by the experience. Thank you Mel, thank you very much.

  2. Having some Mexican-Indian blood in me, I've always been interested in what I could read about the Aztecs and Mayans and others. But never did I achieve as elaborate a vision in my head, try as I might, as Mel Gibson has with the beautiful Apocalypto. Is it accurate? I've more than just strong doubts in at least one case, but like all good fiction, it probably tells more truth, despite its inaccuracies, than a dozen scholarly tomes. The movie is engrossing and, even more difficult, plausible and quite evocative. I would have bet any amount of money that this movie was impossible to make. And though some have complained that the film's ending involves an historical inaccuracy, I think there was more than enough reason to put it in.

    There's a strong story that reminded me of other Third World folklore I've read, only better. In a lot of ways these people could have been North American Indians, but somehow that's not much of a criticism. And Gibson's recent PR problems only highlighted, for me, how it took an Australian-reared actor to make an exciting film about natives before Columbus. Clearly Hollywood is incapable of even conceiving of such a movie, much less bringing it brilliantly to life. Hollywood has an agenda and very narrow perspectives. It's agenda has no room for illuminating the humanity of non-Westerners, and there's too much relying on the same old set of sensibilities and intuition. I think if Hollywood is up in arms it ought to be because Gibson is making them look inept.

    But as to this particular subject matter, there's no doubt in my mind that what fascinates most Anglos about the Aztecs and the Maya is the idea of human sacrifice. Gibson depicts the ritual as having an element of frenzy to it, and he may be right, but what is more convincing to me, at least, is his idea of what a village raid must have been like. His point by point reconstruction is pretty compelling, and I'm quite sure he could make some early American military raids on Indian villages so vivid and unforgettable that grown men would cry. I only hope he does, but as to this film, I would have depicted the human sacrifice with a nod toward a notion most Anglos find completely foreign, namely that these people understood that gain often entails pain, and they were willing to pay the price. Was it really so unreasonable that these people thought God might want them to create pain, and not just endure it, to gain His favor given that life entails so much struggle anyway? That willingness to endure pain clearly survives today, not the desire to create it in others, and that's the only point I would have added to this wonderful film.

  3. The reviewers are trying to damn this movie with an untruthful and insincere mantra about its alleged excess of violence: "brutally violent," "over-the-top violence," "unrelenting violence," "ultraviolent," "The Hills Have Eyes in the jungle," "unpleasant, pointless, gruesome, and exploitative," "pure, amoral sensationalism," "blood and gore … so extreme that they provoke titters of ridicule," "savage cruelty and sadistic barbarity," "lunatic violence," "feverish, mad violence." You'd think from the reviews that you were going to see two hours of babies being fed through a wood chipper. One went as far as to claim that it made the Saw movies seem like Little Women or some such nonsense.

    It does no such thing. The Saw films were gratuitously and sadisticly violent; they set out to make audiences squirm and blanch at their sick, nihilistic machinations.

    Apocalypto, on the other hand, is the typical, essentially optimistic Disney story of a happy Indian youth ripped savagely from his rainforest life by ruthless marauders, after which he has to escape and fight his way back to his land and people. That's it.

    The violence arises from the fact that these particular marauders are bloodthirsty Mayan warriors harvesting neighboring tribes for their human sacrifices. Even then, much of the violence is Shakespearean and takes place just off-camera. For instance, you see women being carried off in the rape-and-pillage scene and you hear their cries but you don't see them being raped and murdered. Battles are staged much as they were in Braveheart. And yes, there's a beating heart lifted from a sacrificed man's chest by a blood-streaked Mayan shaman, but moviegoers saw the same thing in Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; it got a PG rating and we read no critical hysterics about "lunatic violence." On the whole, you'll see as much blood and gore on the average CSI episode.

    It probably should have been titled Jaguar Paw's Great Adventure. The glimpses Gibson provides of Mayan civilization are jaw-dropping. You won't ever see a more convincing cinematic evocation of another time and place in such scope and meticulous detail. Every face seems to have a complete history as Jaguar Paw is marched through the Mayan city. A well-to-do Mayan woman does nothing more than look at the prisoners from her doorway but the story her face tells is voluminous.

    The last part of the movie is a rousing chase akin to The Naked Prey, and again, no more bloody and violent then the film it resembles.

    Let's be plain here. What really has the critics'–especially those of the Eastern Elite variety–panties in a twist is the director, Mel Gibson. He said some things that upset them, plus (and most unforgivably) he's an outspoken and conservative Christian, so they're going to practice any sort of mendacity that will keep people from buying tickets to his film.

    Don't buy the lies or you'll miss an amazing movie.

  4. I'll keep this review short. I'm dense as to what "message" Apocalypto may have been trying to send. I'm not convinced it's a message movie at all. The film's value lies in its limitless ability to pump adrenaline. The movie belongs in the action section when it goes to video. And in that genre, hardly another movie will be able to hold a candle to it.

    Apocalypto delivers a rush that does not let up. Once the real action starts, brilliant images unlike any showcased in cinema flash across the screen with dizzying speed. Repeatedly and without letting up, the movie features scene after scene that hits the perfect note, which is always a high-pitched one filled with tension. Apocalypto is the perfect action film, punctuating its frenzy of activity with beautiful and surprising images.

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