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Apocalypto, Then and Now

By Don Ediger
December 16, 2006

I’ll bet anything that 500 years from now lots of hit movies will depict life in our own time. Who knows what the format will be, but movies of the future are likely to portray our era as one of violence and gore.

I can just envision scenes in American prisons, in the slums of Baghdad, in villages of Rwanda or on the streets of big U.S. cities. Audiences may well gasp in disbelief at how our era accepted violence as part of everyday life.

That acceptance was never more apparent than it was a few days ago when I saw Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, the movie about the Mayan society 500 years in the past. I had expected that some people in the audience would shudder at the violence and gore, especially at close-ups that linger on open wounds and severed body parts.

But was I ever wrong! The audience took the violence in stride. Some, in fact, had even brought their young children to see the film, which portrays the harrowing adventure of a Mayan family that’s attacked by warriors from a neighboring city. I was prepared to dislike the movie because I thought it would warp the reputation of the Mayas, a people I’ve always associated with a highly advanced culture.

I was wrong again. Several people who had been in the audience later told me that, in their view, the movie hadn’t portrayed Mayas as being much more violent than people are in our own society. “Mel Gibson would never make a movie that people aren’t interested in,” one guy in the audience said.

So what about the Mayas, particularly those who might fear that the Gibson movie will give the world a false image of their culture? Are the Mayas going to heave a sigh of relief?

I doubt it, and here’s why: The vast majority of Mayas will never see Apocalypto. For the most part, Mayas don’t live in areas where movie theaters even exist. In the places where they do, like the Mexican city of Mérida in Yucatán, the 35-peso admission (about $3.23) will keep most of them away. Maybe some more Mayas will eventually see the film when someone in their village gets hold of a pirated DVD version.

The few Mayas who see the Apocalypto will probably recognize the film for what it is – a fast-paced story about an ancient culture, albeit a movie with a simplistic and totally predictable plot. I doubt, however, that many Mayas will recognize much of their own culture in the movie. How could they?  Though the dialog is in Mayan (with English subtitles), no actor in a major role is Mayan. Ironically, many actors in Apocalypto resemble Europeans, the very group that has inflicted violence on the Mayas for the last 500 years.

While most Mayas may not be offended by the film, many experts in Mayan culture believe the movie will undermine what little progress has been made in spreading knowledge about a people whose ancestors developed sophisticated systems of astronomy, mathematics, architecture and phonetic writing.

One of these experts, Earl Shorris, says, “The only profound meaning one can take away from the film is that there is an intimate connection between racism and violence. The message of the production is that the Maya are unacceptable people; we do not want to look at them as they are now, and we despise them for what they were then.” Shorris knows what he’s talking about. He’s a journalist, social critic, lecturer and co-editor of In Language of Kings, An Anthology of Mesoamerican Literature (W. W. Norton & Co.).

The Mayas have been victims of racism and violence ever since the arrival of Europeans. More than 50,000 Mayas died in the Caste War that pitted them against people of European descent from 1847 to 1901, though skirmishes persisted for decades later. Today, Mayas remain among the poorest residents of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador.

I asked another Mayan expert, Evan Albright, about the likely effect of Apocalypto. Albright, a writer who recently completed a book on the Mayas of Chichén Itzá, had a positive take on it. He said that, despite the film’s shortcomings, it may inspire more people to study Mayan culture. He even mentioned that Erich von Daniken’s bogus history, Chariots of the Gods?, has inspired many students to become interested in the Mayas. (The book links space aliens with Atlantis and Mesoamericans, among others.)

Frankly, I think the chances that Apocalypto will inspire Mayan studies are about as likely as Star Wars inspiring the study of laser surgery. Besides, if movies could actually help beleaguered cultures, then our own Native American population would have benefited from all those denigrating Westerns. They haven’t.

Still, I pray that Albright is right, though Mayas need more than a few additional scholars. They need relief from poverty and a restoration of their dignity and civil rights. Sadly, I doubt that Apocalypto will advance their cause. There is, however, reason for hope. Sometime in the future there are likely to be many more films about the Mayas.

Eventually – maybe 500 years from now – those movies may portray them accurately – as a culture far less violent than our own.

Don Ediger is  a journalist, former resident of Yucatán and author of The Well of Sacrifice (Doubleday), a book about one of the Mayas' major sacrificial sites. He can be reached by e-mail at

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