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Jungle dumb: Mel Gibson's Apocalypto

About the author
Kanishk Tharoor is associate editor at openDemocracy.

In a rare pause in Mel Gibson's breakneck Apocalypto, the film's protagonist decides to give a speech. Jaguar Paw - a name over-literalised in later action - puffs out his chest and turns to face his pursuers. Having just leaped over a roaring waterfall, he is allowed more than a touch of hubris. "My name's Jaguar Paw, I'm a hunter and this is my forest," he shouts gesturing to the dark expanses about him. "My father hunted here and so will my sons."

His awed pursuers gape at the man who until recently had been their captive. For a moment, they - and the audience - can glimpse a hero as large as those in epics far worthier of the genre than Mad Mel's blockbusters. One recalls Odysseus, having just eluded Polyphemos the Cyclops, brazenly turn and identify himself: I'm Odysseus, I sack cities, my dad Laertes was pretty good at that himself, but now lives at home in Ithaka, where I'm going.

The inevitable follows all such heroic pronouncements. Poseidon curses Odysseus to storm-tossed years of wandering. Jaguar Paw's pursuers themselves jump the waterfall and chase him bloodily back to his home. Yet, at the end of the day, blunt heroic hubris perseveres; a wizened, but still capable Odysseus returns to Ithaka, while Jaguar Paw turns the tables on his foes and is safely - if predictably - reunited with his family.

But quoting Homer only gets Gibson so far down the road of epic artifice. The Mayan world of the film is at once lush and entirely two-dimensional. Despite its lunges towards grandeur and allegory, Apocalypto remains stuck in the mud of aged clichés. The film is further evidence of the sinister vacuity of Gibson's craft. His imagination is not simply moronic. A sliver of substance lies beneath the slick gloss of style, but it is more poisonous than insipid, more disingenuous than air-headed.

hero montage
I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille – or is it Mr. Spielberg, or maybe even Mr. P Jackson? Mel Gibson’s Mayan action-hero-quest is all Hollywood

Savagery, salvation and stereotypes

At the heart of Gibson's darkness is the eternal forest invoked by Jaguar Paw. The film opens in this jungle. In its green glow, Jaguar Paw and his friends live happily. They play jokes on each other, hunt boars, exchange amorous glances with their women and sit around camp fires listening to an ancient storyteller rumble his folktales.

It's an uncomfortably serene scene. None of the villagers harbour larger ambitions; they are content, simplistic, and if left to their own devices, one feels they would go on as they are till the end of time.

This is how Gibson conjures the first of two pedigreed, but insidious stereotypes: the romantic savage - proud, primitive, for most intents and purposes manly, and above all timeless and unchanging.

Kanishk Tharoor is the managing editor of

Also by Kanishk Tharoor on openDemocracy:

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Such idyll, however, can never last long in a Gibson film where the status quo is gore and brutality, not sylvan conviviality. Sure enough, paradise is broken by a pack of nasty raiders, who, after a sufficient spate of bloodletting, cart Jaguar Paw and his once merry men off to the city.

The city: monumental, industrious, rapacious. Apocalypto pits the jungle against this looming urban sprawl. Where the jungle is private and internal, the city is all externality, its squares packed with the heaving masses, its ziggurats reaching to the sky. Where the jungle espouses "live and let live", the city thirsts for blood and the sacrifice of the weak. And while the jungle seems to exist outside the march of history, the city is yoked to time's unforgiving trajectories.

There is nothing redeemable in this nameless city. Its carnal decadence is not only its greatest sin, but its entire being. Its insistence on gaudy ritual in the face of drought and plague recalls biblical Egypt. Like Moses, Jaguar Paw manages to escape this urban civilisation for the sanctity of the wild (though he endures a harrowing chase that takes up the bulk of the film). Yet, the city itself is not so lucky: rotten through and through, it has consigned itself to the rubbish bin of time.

Spot the difference?

The arrival of the conquistadores and Christian missionaries at the film's climax completes this vision of Mayan demise. Though Gibson has spoken of Apocalypto as an allegory for the Iraq war, this is an entirely unreasonable and unlikely proposition.

His tableau owes more to the 18th and 19th centuries than the era of 24-hour news. Gibson applies a stereotype once reserved for plump, bejewelled sultans - the notion of "Oriental decadence and decline" that paved the way for European imperialism - to the totally undeserving Maya.

Instead of empire, however, it is Christianity that Gibson welcomes with open arms into the world of the Maya. The film ends as Jaguar Paw and his rescued family move onto a self-described "new beginning", eventually nurtured, one imagines, by the humane balm of Christ.

Gibson's supposedly anti-imperial critique of American involvement in the middle east is nothing of the sort, but a thoroughly imperial vision of Christianity. Faith will protect the romantic savage and faith will purge the sickness of the Mayan polity. Victorian Anglicists could not have written a better script.

Mayan myth-making

And yet Gibson is still getting away with it. Criticism of Apocalypto has focused on its violence - which is unrelenting - and its historically flawed representation of the Maya. While the film is gory, it remains quite easy on the eye - a testament to Gibson's genuine prowess with the camera. Gibson himself has suggested that the world is a violent place and ought to be dealt with as such. In fairness to his critics, however, there is a boyish relish in the bloodiness of the film that goes well beyond the demands of verisimilitude.

Historical errors, as one would expect in any Hollywood film, are legion: Mayan cities had been abandoned for over five hundred years before the Spanish arrived in Mesoamerica; the Maya possessed tremendous astronomical knowledge and would not have been spooked by an eclipse (that scene, in fact, comes straight off the pages of Tintin); large-scale human sacrifice was conducted by the Mexica, not the Maya who sacrificed mostly members of the elite and would not have scoured the forests for lowly victims like Jaguar Paw.

mel in the forest

Anthropologists and specialists of central America have noted that the Maya - a living, not extinct people - continue to face discrimination in Guatemala and Mexico on the grounds of their supposed "barbarity". Gibson's film doesn't help matters with its brutal portrayal of Maya traditions and history.

More tragic than this disservice to the living Maya, however, is the praise Apocalypto has won from Native Americans themselves. The head of the Chickasaw nation in the United States hailed Gibson for his use of an entirely Native American cast, with actors plucked from Canada, the US and Mexico. Such indigenous casting helped "make the film more realistic" and served "as an inspiration to Native American actors who aspire to perform relevant roles in the film industry."

With such statements in mind, one almost longs for the days of grainy westerns, where "Injuns" were whooping cannon fodder for intrepid Yankees, and aspired to be little more than cannon fodder. Such a vocation is less reprehensible, perhaps, than having one's "authenticity" turned into a vehicle for foaming Christian reverie. Through Gibson's vivid realism, little (except willing disbelief) protects the natives from the impression that "this is how they actually were".

The seeming authenticity allows Gibson to conjure the romantic world of the jungle and the corrupt world of the city with ease. In this false binary lay the demise of most colonised societies. With its Christian soft power, European empire expunged the rotten political class while shepherding the noble but simplistic natives towards "modernity".

It is depressing - hardly ironic - that when marginalised peoples finally make it to the big screen, it is to violate the complexity of their culture, to reinforce the historical narrative of their current marginalisation, and then, only afterwards, to do violence upon their bodies for our entertainment.

Rumble in the jungle: Jaguar Paw asserts himself

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