It is the ending of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto that unlocks its secret. Three ships rest in the bay as a boat containing missionaries and soldiers drifts towards to the shore. After nearly two and a half hours of violence, blood and savagery, civilisation arrives silently to save the poor primitives from themselves.
The final words from Jaguar Paw, the Maya hero, as he and his beautiful family (two parents, two children) return to the rainforest from which they have come, speak of ‘a new beginning’.
We have had three years to see what the arrival of ‘civilisation’ really means in the mouths of colonial conquerors. We have heard time and again how its arrival ‘saved’ peoples from barbarism and murder. And now, courtesy of Mel Gibson, we can project that saving mission back in time.
The Mayans, as they are represented in Apocalypto, are emerging from a dream time of pastoral simplicity – a kind of noble savagery. A peaceful village is attacked by ferocious rivals who take obvious pleasure in inflicting pain and suffering.
They drag the villagers through the rainforest until they arrive at a city of pyramids where some are enslaved to build new monuments. Others are painted blue and prepared for sacrifice, their hearts ripped out while their heads roll down the steep stairways towards a leaping hysterical crowd.
Now where have I seen all this before? In a thousand representations of primitive peoples, screaming with delight at blood and gore, transfixed by blood soaked priests, beating each other to pulp in an endless and pointless ritual. Just as well the Christians arrived to save them from themselves!
Here the blue painted natives do not stand together and shout, ‘You’ll never take our freedom’, as they did in Braveheart. But then again, they are native Americans who presumably wouldn’t understand such a sophisticated idea.
The film was made in southern Mexico, and many of its actors (but not all) are Mayans speaking their own language. That makes it doubly ironic that Gibson’s portrait of the Mayans is so distorted and grotesque.
Gibson says that the setting is ancient Maya Mexico – somewhere around 200BC, yet the first Spanish landings in southern Mexico were in 1511.
In between times, Maya culture had achieved incredible levels of refinement. Today’s ruins are the remnants of beautiful and sophisticated cities that reached their highest point of development in the 10th century, before internal disputes brought about their decline.
The people that Gibson shows gasping at an eclipse had extremely advanced astronomical and mathematical knowledge – the likelihood is they would have known the eclipse was coming long before.
But the most dangerous thing about Apocalypto is that it is so well made. In the mould of fast action movies that Gibson is identified with, it is wonderfully filmed in glorious landscapes.
The people are beautiful, the body painting exquisite (and completely historically inaccurate), the music deeply moving (including the singing of Ali Farkah Toure). The blood is very red, the violence incredibly graphic – and it probably makes more exciting cinema than all those cars blowing up in Gibson’s earlier films.
The driving pace of the film so easily obscures what lies beneath – a simplistic vision of all primitive peoples, fascinating in their barbarism, but ultimately in need of salvation from their own murderous instincts.
In the 16th century, the Spaniards used the same arguments to justify the barbarism of conquest. In the 20th century they are made again with all the technical support that Hollywood can bring.
It will ring hollow with the living Mayans still fighting for their lives, as they have always done, against repressive states and self-proclaimed agents of civilisation.
Mike Gonzalez will be contibuting to the docudrama, An Anarchist’s Story – about Ethel MacDonald, a Scottish woman who fought in the Spanish Civil War. It will be shown at 9pm on Wednesday 24 January on BBC2.
Mike Gonzalez is author of Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution. Phone Bookmarks on 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com
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